Time-Bound Schooling – Is it really necessary?

Every week, I sift through many articles lamenting the state of education in the country. One of the raging debates concerns the issue of testing students regularly to find out their progress and level. In this article , Wendy Kopp , founder of Teach for America, argues about the need for testing students to figure out where they really lie on the “ladder of education”. As a person who believes that numbers always make life simpler and give students ( and the teacher) a definite direction to proceed and a definite goal to meet, I really welcome the thoughts that Wendy puts forward.

However, two questions emerge and I am yet to find a satisfactory answer to either of them despite going through dozens of scholarly research articles in education journals. I list them forward with the hope that someone would enlighten me.

  • Who decides what these levels are ?
  • On what basis have these levels been mapped to a person’s age?

These questions must be answered because the effectiveness of many education systems in the world is measured under the assumption that the age-skill mapping is an accurate one. If the child has the skills he is “supposed to know”, the system is deemed to have succeeded and if not, the system is deemed to have failed and becomes a subject of criticism ( as is the case in India ).

What if the measuring chart itself was wrong ?

What if the basis did not arise out of supply of grey cells and thinking ability and instead was derived based on what the demands of the society were ?

I can assert for a fact that the age-skill scale does not have a statistical basis like the Intelligence Quotient scale, more popularly called the IQ scale does. If that were indeed the case, given that so many people in the world struggle in Class 5 Math ( as PISA assessments reveal)  , doing long division should not have been a grade 5 standard. ( I chose this particular concept as I have had a harrowing experience trying to teach it in 3 days , and it has been one of the hardest things to teach students conceptually. It, incidentally is a part of the PISA assessment).

The Common Core Standards Initiative , which is referenced earlier in Wendy’s article states its mission as :

To provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers. With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy

The idea is simple. The common cores are probably prepared not keeping in mind what the brain is capable of  doing at that age, but rather what is needed at that age so that the student is on track to ensure that his / her communities are best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.  To put it simply, some self appointed representatives of the community decided that by age 21 , every kid should be part of the workforce. If they need to be at the workforce by 21, they should have finished their education between ages 5 – 21 ( thank heavens they spared us from ages 1-5). 15 years seems to be a reasonable time-frame, doesn’t it?

Except that it isn’t. If you do some simple math,  counting the time needed to finish an Indian high school science textbook,  devoting at least 30 classroom minutes to teach each concept, you would realize that it would take at least 2 years to finish the contents of the book. This is clearly unreasonable. However, our teachers are forced to “finish the syllabus”  and hence, opt the easy way out. They teach to the test and assign all other stuff as homework. I won’t really blame them for doing this.

For every person who scores an A in class, there are probably ten equally smart classmates , who score Bs and Cs. People may argue that it was because they did not work hard. I believe that they worked hard, but the unrealistic burden placed on them led them to lose motivation. Lack of hard work was not inherent, but was rather forced due to a system which gave little incentives for working hard. Recently there have been developments towards helping students  learn at their own pace, albeit for a short period of time. The idea is to “integrate” these “slow learners” back into the “mainstream majority”. What people fail to realize is that the so called “slow learners” are actually now  the “mainstream majority” and we are either consciously ignoring this or are still blatantly unaware of this trend.

I do not reject the hypothesis that lack of good teachers is one of the major challenges education systems throughout the world face. All I suggest is that  it is equally likely that  the standards which we use to assess our students’ level are unrealistic ones. In the current system, such cases are treated as failures / underachievers. The more politically correct among us choose to call them lower performing / lower order students but words matter little here. The writing on the wall currently says they are stupid, by using a wrong scale to measure their performance. Maybe the average human brain does not need to so much by class 5. There are going to be exceptions, but these are a very small fraction of the student populace.  Those students will anyway figure out their path in life.

Increasing the time a student has to study may be a solution. I doubt our society would incur a massive loss , if students finish high school by age 20 instead of age 16.  Critics may again say that these students fundamentally would not have wanted school to be such a big fraction of their life. I differ. May be if they were given the time that their minds needed to learn at a steady pace, they wouldn’t have hated schools so much. Maybe the high achiever who spent his time with books as this was his only way towards a better life, would have relaxed and tried to have a life.  To me, this seems a win-win.

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2 thoughts on “Time-Bound Schooling – Is it really necessary?

  1. Ashish says:

    Great post and thought. I agree that scoring poorly in school (or anywhere for that matter) is very de-motivational and probably leads to the student performing even less than what he or she may actually be capable of. So the crux of the problem is the fact that the current education system does not allow all students to “learn” to their full potential.

    Also I agree that the education system is (and probably should be) based on the needs of the community. However the basic flaw (in our current system) is in assuming that the need of the community is to have ‘all’ students pass through the education system and enter the work place at a certain age. (16, 20 whatever).

    Obviously given the rapidly increasing collective human knowledge, different professions (i.e. applications of this knowledge) need different amounts of learning. For E.g. a doctor or researcher needs to invest more time in “learning” than a typical engineer/sales manager/accountant, and a truck driver needs to invest much less time in “learning” than either. This just a requirement of their respective professions (each of which is important to our society).
    i.e. post-high school everyone has a choice in terms of how much time they want to invest in more learning based on which profession they would like to enter and where there interest and aptitude lies.

    Could high school be made more flexible in the same way as higher education? i.e. can students be give some choice in terms of the speed of their learning and the ‘quantity’ of their learning?

    To answer the second question (quantity of learning) you may need to ask:Is our current high school syllabus the absolute minimum that a human being need to know to be a productive member of society? If not, then the only “compulsory” courses/subjects/topics should be this absolute minimum. The rest could be elective based on the needs of different professions. This way students choose what interests them and what they know will be valuable knowledge in their future life.

    The first question is the speed of learning. if this is left upto the individual, he/she can choose the pace at which they are comfortable with learning and thus result in a more optimal education for them and thus benefit the society more (as opposed to students losing confidence and interest in learning).

    However, even if such a system is implemented, there will be those who learn more and those who learn less, those who learn quicker and those who learn slower. So there are still relative parameters that individual capabilities can be judged by. But maybe such a system will reduce the pressure on students and allow a more “fair” evaluation of their capabilities rather than the “forced” evaluation through board exams and standardized tests and the grade/class based structure of our school system.

    Also in such a system since younger students are probably ill-equipped to make all the choices, parents and teachers have additional responsibility to make/guide the right choices that are optimal for each individual student.

    Lot of rambling thoughts, but a very interesting topic so I couldn’t resist. 🙂

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