Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Factors which influence a student's studies and Education in India

When I was counselling in India, many parents would ask about tips  to improve their children’s academic performance. Unfortunately they would ask this question too late i.e. when the exams were fast approaching and when there was little time to make a difference.
Here are  my thoughts  about the factors which influence academic performance in students.
Children’s academic performance or understanding of school subjects is influenced by a whole range of factors. For convenience I have divided them into factors outside the student and factors within the student.

  • Needless to say, a student who has adequate nutrition, sleep, both physical and mental health, calm and peaceful surroundings at home and school, will have less problems to distract him or her from studies. Of course, having all these factors in itself will not guarantee that the student will study well.
 If quarreling parents think that kids are not affected by their fights, think again. If these parents think that avoiding fights in front of kids will fool them, think can sense undercurrents of hostility in the family and these family hostilities  affect most kids.

  • Teachers who (1) Like students (2) Like teaching (3) Love the subject they are teaching (4) Have excellent teaching skills and who have the capacity to inspire students are the ideal teachers. But tell me how many teachers have these qualities? In all my school life, I had 2 teachers who were ideal! And 9 ideal teaching staff between PUC & PhD i.e. over a period of 9-15 years! This number is less than 20% of the teachers I had. Most teachers in India are the type who will kill whatever little interest you had for a subject! I had many teachers who were bitter and took it out on the kids! They were bitter about their salary, life in general, the school authorities, etc. 

  • Good texts, labs, libraries, space, time and equipment for sports activities and most importantly a safe and friendly environment:
The texts I studied in school, more than 30 years ago were ranging from good to mediocre. My favourite ones were the English texts i.e. New Horizons, English by Stages, Radiant Readers and various MacMillan publications for non-detailed texts. The English poetry books and a few English texts I had in primary school were printed in England and I still remember how engaging the stories, how  smooth & glossy the pages, and how  lovely the  illustrations (woodcut lithographs) were ! (these were the prescribed texts in the National English School in Rajajinagar, Bangalore in case any one who studied there remembers…around 1974-77 maybe. The text, English By Stages and the poetry texts were from England). The texts for social studies, mathematics and science were not the least bit inspiring  and were barely informative.
  •  Some qualities a text book should have are: Be attractive to the student. The information should not be a stream of facts but there should be an emphasis on “How” and there should always be some content explaining how this information is applied and is useful in life. The texts I had (published by state government of Karnataka) simply gave facts and no explaining what caused the phenomenon and I simply could not remember the facts, without knowing why and how something happened. The facts should be woven into a meaningful context in the lessons. My lessons (social studies for example) seemed like a stream of barely connected facts.
  • Teachers taught me stuff such as formula in geometry and algebra but never ever told me why those formule should be learnt  nor did they tell about the applications and uses of the formule. How is this formula useful, why should I learn it were questions I had in my mind all through my school. If I knew why I had to learn it, besides 'for passing in the exam', I would have found learning more meaningful. Because of the apparent meaninglessness of the formula I was forced to learn,  I simply could not learn or remember them. I still remember how meaningless the damn a+b whole square and a-b whole square stuff seemed to me in school. It was only recently, while googling, that I realized the applications of algebraic equations in measurements when quantities are unknown. If my great Guru had explained at least briefly, it would not have been meaningless and my brain would not have rebelled so much against learning.                                                                                                                                     Similarly, many kids today, question, why they should  study Sanskrit. There are pretty good reasons why but the teachers do not explain, convincingly as to why one should. Kids then develop a boredom and resentment towards Sanskrit as they are forced to learn but they dont see it as useful. Teachers have to realize that learning should be made intrinsically attractive and valuable to students. Without intrinsic value, students will have ot be brib ed or threathened and bribing and threathening is  tedious for both the student and the briber/threathener i.e. teachers * parents.
  • Hands on learning  helps students understand and learn better than simply reading facts from the texts. There should be work-shops and labs right from grade one for kids to enjoy, remember, apply and make sense of what they learn. When I suggested this to a mother of two, she said she can teach 5 facts and experiments in one hour while it would take more than an hour and a lot of work, equipment and trouble to do one experiment to illustrate one fact. I tried to convince her that the kids will never forget the fact by actually doing one experiment but she was vehement in her arguments saying that the syllabus was simply enormous, the school was not up to speed and she had to rush through the syllabus before the exams started!
  • Which brings to mind another fact about school education in India……the syllabus is huge and in order to finish, the lessons are crammed and there is neither  joy nor meaning in the teaching and learning…the goals of the schools, parents and society itself seems to be to finish covering the syllabus, put them through schools, universities, see that they get good ranks so they get into good (read lucarative) jobs. Whether the student enjoyed learning, whether he found it meaningful, whether he was inspired to do something different with this learning,  are not in the equation at all. Because the syllabus is huge,  teachers rush through in order to 'complete' the portions. Therefore, the kids have no clear understandinng or what is taught, their basics are unsound and this is reflected in many ways...their inability to apply what they learnt practically, some stupid mistakes they make, their inability to understand nature's phenomeon such as rains, etc. The kids end up learning by rote and are unable to think independently and problem solve. This inability to think, this blind following of rules and acceptance without questioning of 'facts' are some of the most exasperating behaviours I see in my country men and also in people from countries with a similar education system.
  • I think all schools should buy or get the films from agencies such as National Geographic, BBC, NASA, etc. Seeing a volcano erupting and listening to the information about the volcano simultaneously has a greater impact on the child than reading about volcanoes from a text (with lousy black and white illustrations). I still remember the winds we had to study and how they affected the monsoons in India. It just did not make sense to me and I had great difficulty remembering them as the teacher (or text) never explained what caused the winds, why they happened during those months, etc. And remember neither I nor majority of students had access to information from internet or encyclopaedias or television educational programs  in those days.
The emphasis on rote learning, the non-encouragement of creativity, independent thinking, the emphasis on conformity are all the damages done to millions of kids psyche in schools, decade after decade. Sometimes I feel, I learnt to think independently, trouble-shoot and  think logically, only after I started working! I had to unlearn what I had learnt in schools and colleges, and completely rewire my thinking style! To me, kids in India are born normal…..once they start school the process of brain and soul damage starts and continues till your education ends! Then, the lucky few, manage to unlearn and recover from the systematic damage caused by the education system and society!
  • I am not even going to go into sports for kids in India. Majority of schools do not have playgrounds and those who do have playgrounds do not spend enough time on sports activities. I am seeing that most urban kids in India today are not exercising and many many are overweight. Kids do not get space near their homes  to play nor do not get companions of their age to play for various reasons. Most parents are busy making the kids complete homework or attend classes (like drawing, dancing, singing, etc) after school and so kids have limited opportunities to play after school. These days many kids prefer indoor activities such as television, music on ipods, internet, etc to physical games. While I see a few boys playing on the streets or parks, girls after reaching their teens hardly ever play outside, due to fear of being sexually assaulted (highly common in India...both verbal and physical assault)

  • In India, use of physical and mental punishments by teachers and parents to make kids study better or stop misbehaving is common. By mental punishment, I am referring to use of verbal abuse, threats, humiliation, shaming the student in front of peers, etc. I am very relieved that this has reduced considerably in ‘convent’ schools in urban areas but not so in rural areas. I remember when I was punished (which was frequent as I was weak in all subjects except English!) I was filled with anxiety, shame, fear, and these emotions in fact interfered with my learning than make me learn faster. Why cannot teachers see that?
I had a tough time studying even when I was not anxious and my brain simply froze when the teacher yelled at me or hit me. Unless teachers identify, why a student is not able to grasp a lesson, they should not take any action. Why cannot the  teachers analyze what is the problem with the student or what is the impediment which is hindering the student from learning?
A good teacher, who is not overburdened with too many students may be able to give individual attention to each student and know each students style of learning, strengths and weaknesses and may identify the problem. However some times this is not possible. Then the student can be referred to a school psychologist who assesses the child.

  •  The problems of referring a child to a psychologist in the school: (1) most schools do not have psychologists; (2): very few psychologists have the training, to identify and deal with student issues; (3): the stigma attached to visiting the school psychologist as you can see by this incident:  My friend was a psychologist in a school while I was a psychologist in a hospital; I once had a student from her school visit me in the hospital; I asked the student’s mother why she did not approach the school psychologist and she said that she did not want the other students to tease her son, when he visited the psychologist in the school.! This is another issue in India….the shame, secrecy, stigma around seeking help for psychological problems.
  • Studies have shown that at least 15% of children of any age experience psychological and psychiatric problems which can interfere with learning. ADHD, autism, dyslexias, developmental delays, emotional and conduct disorders are a few of them. The challenges these kids face in Indian schools is even worse than what the 'normal' kids face. However, I am out of touch with schools in India today and I have heard that it is better than before...I hope this is true. Most schools in India do not accomodate special needs children; in the past (maybe even now) I have seen teachers verbally attacking learning disabled kids with biting sarcasm; I have seen an epileptic child forced to leave a school as he had a seizure in school( the principal said he did not want other students to be scared when this child had seizures and so he had to kick the epileptic child out of school).                                                                                                                                            A new study done in one of the Scandinavian countries puts the prevalence of physical and mental disorders as high as 45% ! Which means that one in two kids has some problem or the other!
 To me, learning requires the following qualities in a student and deficits in any of these qualities can hinder learning:
  • Motivation or interest: A student who is interested in learning a subject, who finds the subject interesting and exciting, will study, inspite of obstacles in his path. The topic of study should be of intrinsic value to the student.
  • Attention: a student with adequate attention will be able to focus. A student with attention deficits, who is hyperactive and cannot focus on one topic for a sustained period, will have problems.  Even a student with poor or inadequate attention can focus if the subject is interesting or if the teacher makes it exciting. 
  • Comprehension and learning: A student needs a certain amount of intelligence to understand what he is learning or being taught. Like all human qualities, this too varies from person to person; the more intelligent will grasp quicker while the less intelligent need more time to comprehend. Parents and teachers should realize that intelligence is distributed unequally and they should therefore have different expectations from different students. The teachers  should also learn to value and appreciate the hard work of the students who have scored less instead of critising their low marks. When a student has done his best, appreciate that! Do not compare the better performance of a brighter student and critisize this student! `
  • Memory or working memory: Once a matter has been learnt, the student has to remember, at least long enough to spit it out in the exams! It would be ideal however if he retains it for life and applies the learnt information when needed! Students with a poorer memory have a harder time as they seem to forget what they learnt and fail to do well in exams. I also suspect that students who learn by heart without understanding are more likely to forget than those who have understood the matter.  
In India, most exams seem to be tests of memory than anything else.
  • Application of what we learn: This is the ultimate usefulness of education. If a student cannot apply what he has learnt, the whole purpose of schooling is lost.
  • Dedication to studies/hard work/discipline: I am not going to elaborate on these qualities. Suffice it to say that I know a few students who were brilliant but did not work hard and they did not do as well as the hard-working brilliant and hard-working average students. Students who are disciplined, students who have good time management skills, who do not ‘enjoy’ all the time but focus and study  even the boring subjects, do well.
  • Sound knowledge of basics before moving on to higher levels of study: What I mean by this phrase is that the child should know the basics thoroughly before he moves on to the higher levels. For example, know your additions, subtractions, divisions and multiplications thoroughly before you move on to higher level maths;
My marks deteriorated as I went to higher classes, especially in subjects, in which I did not have a through understanding of the lessons covered in the lower classes. Lack of understanding of the topics were due to factors such as (1)the teacher explaining once and I did not get it and was too ashamed or scared to ask her to explain again; (2) I missed the class as I was sick and when I went back, the teacher had moved on to a related topic but I did not understand it as I had missed the previous class; (3) Teachers rushing through syllabus without giving the students enough time to fully understand and assimilate what is learnt.(4) teaching in a superficial way…by superficial I mean the topic is not taught indepth and all aspects are not covered; for example, in maths, only one type of problem is solved by the teacher and she moves on to a new topic entirely. But the students cannot/have not learnt to solve problems which are slightly different from the example she taught.(5)For some reason, one aspect of a topic remains unclear, inspite of the teacher trying her best and the student trying her best. Any matter, which is taught about this topic in higher classes, is doomed to failure as the basics are not sound.
I find that lack of basics is the biggest issue faced by students in India. I am not basing this statement on any research but basing it on my own experience and that of students around me, now and before.
If you had a lousy teacher in 5th standard, there is no point in getting a good teacher in 6th standard, as your basics are poor!
Things will work out for you only if (1) the 6th standard teacher, makes an effort to check out your 5th standard basics,
(2)repair them if needed and
(3)only then start on the 6th standard syllabus.
Students have many gaps in their  understanding of  many subjects by the time they reach high school and the high school teachers simply do not have the time to ensure that all the students are completely confident with their basics i.e. middle-school syllabus, before embarking on teaching the high school stuff.
Another miserable thing which happens is that these kids opt for science subjects in standards 11 and 12 (PUC), which dooms them still more! How many kids with mere 50-60% opt for science subjects in Bangalore! How can they even imagine they will understand what is taught in classes and labs in the 11th and 12th grades, when their high school chemistry, maths and physics is shaky?  (I still remember my dad’s disgust when a graduate student of his told him that Bangalore received 100 inches of rain the previous night! This guy is too old to be taught about rain measurements and with his masters degree in science, how can he be excused?
In my opinion, the abysmal quality of manpower in India is due to poor education and of all the aspects of poor education, I think, poor basics is the most influential.
 Effect of lack of basics as you move to higher grades:
There is such a huge snowballing effect as the stuff you have not understood properly, accumulates as you go to higher classes, that in the end, you feel so helpless. This snowballing of what I did not understand in science and maths started in 5th grade and by high school, nothing the teacher taught was entering my head l! I was desperately trying to memorize what I did not understand and you know how difficult this can be! I put my foot down and told a firm no, when my dad asked me to take science in college. Only then did my years of low-self-esteem, shame and anxiety cease!  The snowballing of subjects I did not understand in school, has played havoc with my self-esteem to a great extent! And I am sure it is the same for millions of other Indian kids!(and maybe kids from all over the world too)
  • I have noticed that neither teachers nor parents(most of them) take an analytical view of their kids inabilities to learn. They do not try to find out why the kid is doing poorly in studies. They attack the child or push him to study, without taking the time and effort to find out the exact areas of concern and trying to work on those specific areas. I have had parents making statements such as “ You better improve , or else….” Or “ I will buy you a computer if you get 90%....or “ If your marks do not improve , you will have to stop going to play cricket, in the evening”. These threats are so irritating to the student and also, often ineffective.

  • Some new problems in some cities I have observed is the lack of safety for students which is a shame on Indian society. Girls especially those who have attained puberty, are not safe from the leers, dirty comments  and even physical molestations from men and boys on the streets as they walk to school or ride the buses. This is common in areas where the poorer sections of society live or in crowded areas. I am assuming that girls are safer in villages, which are smaller and everyone knows everyone, but this is only an assumption. Many girls form lower sections(by lower I mean, those who are economically not well off) are made to drop out of school and get married or work, even if they want to continue studies, for security reasons. As if marriage will protect the 14 year old!

  • Ill paid and over-burdened  teachers in a society which does not really respect school teachers is a calamity for education, students and  society itself. People in India do not respect school teachers as much as they did in the past. Teaching was (and still is) a respectable profession; however as it is so poorly paid, many people do not opt for teaching and as people seem to respect those who earn well, teachers, do not get as much respect as before. The poor salaries paid to teachers, is not attracting the best to teach.

And what about parents of students……..I can write tons about this but let me just stick to what makes the Indian parent different from parents of western or more advanced countries. Many Indian parents are more controlling and have a bigger say in their child’s education than in the west, where the kids seem to have greater autonomy. In most middle class families, parents pay for their kids education. And in return, the kid is expected to toe the line! study in  a course of parents choice(most south Indian urban parents want their kids to study engineering, medical or dental  than study for example plumbing, art or music) and even marry a person chosen by parents! Kids of parents who are educated, who can and do teach at home, kids of parents who value education above other things, are kids who are lucky in education. ( I always find that kids whose parents are science grads can help their kids out in science and maths which is a big blessing as most teachers do not do teach these subjects well)
From my experience with south indian parents, most push their kids to study hard because they, the parents are anxious. They fear for their kids future, fear that, in an increasingly competitive world, their kids will find it hard to get jobs, to earn a 'decent' living and hence they push their kids. And seeing the increase in population, the increase in demand and less of supply, their anxiety seems logical. Parents worry that if their kids, study less and 'enjoy' life more, they will be left behind; that if they study hard now, they can enjoy life later. But the later never seems to come! It is like getting on a treadmill for life, for some kids! Study study study. work work work, family. kids. more work. health problems. retirement. death!! Is it wrong for parents to push their kids to study? It it wrong of parents who are more easy going with their kids? 

I know this has been too long but I had to get this stuff out of my system! I hope the education system; all over the world becomes child-friendly and sound.
  •  I hope the system improves in the eastern hemisphere, where kids who don’t do well academically are looked down upon. All children deserve to be loved and accepted, irrespective of their academic performances.
  •  I hope the kids with disabilities face less rejection and more acceptance.
  •  I hope that  those who do not do well academically, get jobs which will enable them to stand on their own feet; they should be able to support themselves.
  •  I hope that Indians start respecting all honest labour ; that every honest  worker be he a sweeper or a doctor is proud of his job , does it well and others respect him and his work. ....if all jobs are respected, if all jobs allow for a respectable living, then this mad rush for engineering and medical seats, by the mediocore would finally stop.
  • I hope that the purpose of education is not merely to get jobs but to make the educated person a better human being.


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