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In DECCAN HERALD: http://www.deccanherald.com/content/517938/will-help-students.html

Rohit Dhankar

Skills based curriculum seems to be the current silver bullet for curing educational ills of the country. The Ministry of Human Resource Development discussion note on new education policy wants to “revamp … our education system to make skill development an integral part of the curriculum at all stages.”

Indian education is too often criticised for its ‘theoretical’ orientation and ignoring usable skills. This is supposed to be the main reason why it churns out supposed to be ‘unemployable’ school and college graduates. These claims as usually understood in their simplistic term may not be true; still, emphasis on ‘usable skills’ in education without compromising academic development should be welcome.

However, when one looks at the use of this term ‘skill’ in the current educational discussions several questions arise. What kind of skills are really usable in real life? How can they be taught? And more importantly: what does the term “skill” really mean? Some examples of the use of term skill (in current discussions) will be in order here: Life skills; basic language and numeracy skills; cognitive skills; self-employment skills; problem solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills; functional skills.

What does the term skill mean in all these cases? Is there really a common meaning of the term here? Can they be taught in the same manner across these domains? These questions become crucial when one starts developing a curriculum, teaching material, pedagogy and assessment. Just a rough skill-talk may sound very appealing in a vague debate, but will not help us develop any good educational programme.

Traditionally, the term skill was used for dexterities that could be taught directly through practice, involved but not much of knowledge and understanding, and which were of limited generalisability. For example, swimming. It could be taught directly by practice; does not necessarily need understanding of fluid dynamics. Its applicability remains very close to the situations in which it is learnt. Today, this is considered a ‘narrow’ use of the term skill; and a wider use encompasses all the things that are listed above. And therein lie a host of curricular and pedagogical problems. Just to hint at one of these problems let’s take three examples of skills: driving (it could be one of the self-employment skills), critical thinking and empathy.

Driving is a paradigmatic example of skill. It is directly teachable, little knowledge (of how the engine functions) is necessary and is not transferable; a car driver does not become a pilot automatically. Therefore, a short course could easily be designed and successfully implemented for driving. All you have to do is give sufficient practice and tell the traffic rules. And you have a thriving school of driving.

Now, think of critical thinking. A person to be a critical thinker, say in mathematics, necessarily needs a substantial amount of mathematical knowledge base. S/he needs an understanding of how mathematical reasoning works: deductive logic based on axioms and definitions, mainly. S/he needs to do a lot of mathematics, understand the principles of logic, for example inference; and has to internalise the logical relationships between abstract concepts. But it cannot be taught just by solving mathematical problems.

It requires much imagination, an attitude to stick with the logic and demanding proofs. It is highly generalizable but only on mathematical models. A critical thinker in mathematics is not necessarily a critical thinker in, say history. In history, one needs a lot of insight into interpretation of the available facts; and deductive logic works but only as a limited basis. One cannot have a short course in critical thinking (either in mathematics or in history) then; it develops in the process of acquiring a vast amount of human knowledge.

How to teach empathy

Third, let’s take empathy. It’s not even a skill. It is a feeling towards another sensitive being (humans and animals). It is a capability to feel the others’ pain. We do not know how to teach it. Though we do have some idea that a person himself treated with sensitivity and in close emotional relationships with other human beings is likely to be more empathetic to others compared to one who has not experienced such emotional bonding. We also know that a developed moral sense is likely to enhance one’s empathy with others. But there is no guarantee. And a course to teach empathy is impossible. Calling it a skill is ridiculous.

Now, when one talks of emphasising ‘capability for action’ in a curriculum; that may be a sensible thing to do. But when one treats all those capabilities as ‘skills’ education is likely to slide on the wrong path. Once you call something a skill, you get into the mode of thinking that it could be taught like driving. Which is not the case. Therefore, by over emphasising skills in school education you can make students into plumbers, drivers, computer jobbers, and hospitality workers; but not into good engineers, doctors, historians, mathematicians and scientists. And a country requires both to function well.

The skill talk in school curriculum, then, may be useful up to a certain extent, but may mislead our education if disproportionately emphasised.

A simple statistical indicator of this over emphasis on skills is that the word “skill” occurs in the MHRD discussion note for school education 25 times, “knowledge” seven times and “understanding” zero times! A close analysis of the themes and questions leaves no doubt that the overwhelming emphasis is on narrow skills; and where values and knowledge are mentioned they are more in a supportive role; while for good education you need to have it the other way round. Now, we can attempt at the least one of the questions asked in the themes document: Would skill based education help students to be employable? May be, at the lower end of the social and economic spectrum; but at a huge future cost to the student and to the nation.