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Rohit Dhankar

If your schools have classes they will necessarily have pass-fail

The government has introduced in the Lok Shabha an amendment bill to modify some provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act 2009 (RTE Act, for short). This bill seeks to empower the appropriate Government to take a decision as to whether to hold back a child in the fifth class or in the eighth class or in both classes, or not to hold back a child in any class, till the completion of elementary education.”

As is well known there is a continuing debate in the country on examination reform and particularly on the issue of no-detention policy. When one goes through the loudest screamed arguments for and against no-detention policy one wonders whether it is an informed debate or simple emotional outburst; or worse still, vehement repetition of pretended positions adopted in order to look progressive.

The Education Minister states in the objectives of the bill that “In recent years, States and Union territories have been raising the issue of adverse effect on the learning levels of children as section 16 does not allow holding back of children in any class till the completion of elementary education.” This singles out “not holding back” as a reason for unsatisfactory learning achievements. Thereby giving good ground to supposed to be progressive educationists to shout “failing children does not produce better learning”. Both miss the point and neither position helps in clearing the mess made in school education, with substantial contribution from confusions in the RTE Act itself.

The supposed to be amended section 16 of the RTE Act states “No child admitted in a school shall be held back in any class or expelled from school till the completion of elementary education.” The most popular reasons given in support of this command of dubious merit is that failing children demotivates them, discourages them, often encourages dropout. This is only a politically correct child centrist argument of no pedagogical value. Yes, children should be encouraged to learn and not discouraged. Yes, keeping motivation high for learning and building their confidence is very important in any worthwhile pedagogy. Yes, repeated failure to be promoted to the next class encourages dropout. And still both the diagnosis and the remedy for these problems is completely wrong. On the other hand, dubbing no-detention policy as the major cause of falling standards of learning is equally wrong. Both are examples of superficial thinking of the worst kind.

Learning requires coordinated and sensitive efforts on the part of the teacher as well as the learner. If the school or the system or the teacher starts thinking that learning of children is a result of their own motivation, intelligence and family background; and the quality of teaching has little or nothing to do with it, they are shifting their responsibility onto the children. The school/teachers have to device ways of engaging children cheerfully and teach them to make efforts to the utmost level of their capabilities, which are dynamic in nature and not static as assumed by the notion of IQ. On the other hand, not telling the children that they have failed; yes, failed, to achieve the expected standards and always communicating that whatever silly notions they have developed are correct, beautiful and epitome of creativity shows complete lack of human achievements as well as of human mind. Pedagogy is an art which requires calibrated feedback without shunning the truth. If a child fails to achieve expected learning the teacher has to find a way of communicating the failure to achieve in a manner that encourages better concentration and efforts; not mindless goody-goody talk of ‘everything is great’. Children have to learn that human ways of thinking, doing and feeling have norms and they are expected to meet those norms appropriate to their age. Also, the teachers have to communicate that the children are perfectly capable of achieving those norms. And that sometimes failing to achieve a normal is nothing more than a necessary part of the mastering anything new; and some other times, in the Indian situations it is also because of inadequate help and guidance available to the child. But expecting that simply failing and communication of inadequate achievements will make children solve their own problems and learn better is an equally stupid idea. Without improving the system and preparing teachers to use appropriate pedagogy with sincere efforts learning achievements will not improve. Therefore, both parties in this case are mindlessly barking up the wrong tree.

The real problems with the RTE Act

The RTE Act is badly thought through. It does not touch the heart of education. It is an example of superficial educational thinking. And I believe, (do not have adequate evidence for this, through) that this superficiality is not because of the politics and politicians but because of inadequate and confused understanding of educationists in the country as it seems to be on the basis of their advice. RTE is about elementary education. But is has a very inadequate definition of completion of elementary education. The elementary education itself is defined as “the education from first class to eighth Class.” There are many stipulations regarding “completion of elementary education” regarding provision of schools, ensuring completion, not having board examination, not holding back, and so on. But the only possibility it provides for defining “completion” is in laying down a curriculum, assessment and implied learning in that which is to be specified by appropriate authority. Even if an appropriate authority defines any kind of learning levels that may be deemed necessary for completion of elementary education the Act takes away from them the power to implement them. It demands from them that the curriculum be completed but also demands that no child can be held back till completion of elementary education. Which simply put means being in the school till the age of 14 years is itself the mark of completion of elementary education. This is a poor understanding of the very concept of education. Education necessarily has an achievement aspect; that is, one can be considered educated only if s/he has achieved specified standards in knowledge, values and skills. Those knowledge, values and skills need assessment if one wants to claim that appropriate standards are achieved. And that assessment has to be respected if some certificate is to be awarded that has some respectability in the society. The RTE Act disassociated certification from any kind of learning achievements; and thus, empties education of its achievement aspect. What remains in education is time spent in school. One can hardly imagine a greater disservice to the concept of education.

Another serious confusion in the Act is use of the term “class” in defining elementary education, its completion, infrastructure norms and stipulations regarding admission. But the term “class” itself remains undefined, and that is one reason the pass-fail is being brought back. The notion of class makes no sense without it.

The requirement of bringing back the possibility of holding children back (failing) is a requirement of certification, not that it will make them learn better. All it will do is deny certificate to those who do not meet the required learning. This is a requirement of putting achievement aspect of education back in the concept as it is implemented. But the government is doing it in a completely wrong way.

The roots of the problem

[This section I am writing on the pain of repletion, therefore, those who have been familiar with my views need not read it. IT needs to be repeated for those who are not familiar. Those who want details can read http://www.epw.in/journal/2017/12/perspectives/beyond-oxymoronic-idea-no-detention-policy.html ]

The roots of the problem lie in our confused thinking. Our imagination of structure of school and that of curriculum is rigidly stratified like our society. We cannot think of a school that does not divide children into hierarchical classes or grades, each one to be achieved successively through aggregated annual assessment. Our curriculum, textbooks, timetable, annual calendar, everything is governed by that imagination of a school. Undoubtedly this is administration friendly structure, but it can work. One can even run very good schools in this structure. They need not always be harsh on children either.

But the pedagogical thought the world over has moved on. There have been serious problems in this imagination of schools, it is challenged and has changed in most countries which do well in education. Particularly child centric ideas made this school structure look evil. Some of us then picked up some of the attractive ideas like CCE, no pass-fail, activity based learning and so on; and tried to implant them in our rigid authoritarian school structure and system. But the whole imagination of school and progression in school education logically demands pass-fail kind of annual assessment, if not one-shot exam at the least aggregation. Therefore, doing away with the pass-fail system actually renders the school a meaningless and aimless institution, in its present structure and imagination. It is natural that everyone practically connected with the school wants to bring back the pass-fail. The RTE and the educational discourse in the country has so far failed to develop an alternative imagination of school and curriculum where one can make pass-fail a redundant idea by organising the school and curriculum as an ungraded learning continuum.

The opportunity

There is an opportunity in the currently proposed amendment. Rather than spending our energies on opposing the idea of holding children back on account of not meeting the learning standard at 5th and 8th standards, we should ask different kind of questions and put forward different kind of demands.

For example, we can demand that rather than “holding back” at “5th and 8th” standard the amendment should mention “giving more time to complete primary” or “elementary” education, and that time need not be one year. Also, completion of primary and elementary level be defined in terms of learning achievements rather than in terms of class or grades. It could be stipulated that primary education is expected to be complete in 5 years normally, but it may be slightly less or more than that, depending on the achievements of the child.

We can also ask if the schools are completely free to disband the grades/classes before completion of primary/elementary education? That is maybe there are no grades 1 to 5. Only years in school and completion of stipulated learning. Similarly, for elementary education. That will give the schools complete flexibility to organise their learning groups and facilitate CCE and pass-fail will become redundant, at the least till students reach completion of primary education.

But this is the tougher path. It will require developing a complete conceptual scheme of elementary education with new organisational principles, massive teacher education and very substantial changes in the administration system. But this is not impossible.

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12th November 2017