For schoolgoers in India, life is about lugging heavy bags stuffed with books, spending long hours at school with little time and space to play during the recess, private coaching after school, followed by hours devoted to homework. What such a gruelling schedule has achieved is for everyone to see. A system that encourages learning by rote has robbed millions of boys and girls of their childhood and stunted their physical and intellectual growth. The constant pressure of living up to the expectations of parents has added to the children’s stress and anxiety. In such a hostile milieu, the primary purpose of education — to enlighten minds and stimulate creativity — is defeated.
Against this backdrop, the revelation that secondary students in India are saddled with an additional 21 days of school, with six hours of classroom teaching every day, unlike their peers in an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) country, shouldn’t raise eyebrows. On the contrary, it must have made Indian parents happy that their children have an edge over these foreign students because of those extra hours at school.
The global issue of the number of hours to be spent at school has been a contentious one, with countries formulating their own rules. For instance, in Australia, France and Italy, kids and adolescents spend even more time in school than those in India.
What has recently stoked the debate in this country is the Maharashtra government’s instruction to schools on the number of days and hours they should devote to teaching. Armed with the Right to Education Act, the state government has asked schools to teach children in standard I-V for 800 hours over 200 days. For secondary students (VI-VIII), it’s 1,000 hours spread over 220 days.
However, what should have been the focus of government’s efforts is to improve the quality of education and do away with hackneyed modes of imparting lessons. The classroom set-up calls for teachers to deliver sermons instead of encouraging an interactive style that inspires students to think independently and question the theories they are asked to copy from the board and learn verbatim.
Little wonder then, that attending school is more of a chore. The fun and excitement of learning is lost in the drudgery. Yet, all it takes to break away from this pedantic style is some imagination.
Trips to the museum and planetarium, slide shows and movies can work wonders. There is little to gain by adhering strictly to text books.
For long-term benefits, what the country needs is complete overhaul of the education system. For starters, we need good teachers, right from the primary level. In August 2010, HRD minister Kapil Sibal had expressed concerns about the need to have 1.2 million teachers countrywide. But indiscriminate hiring can have disastrous effects, evident in Bihar where 8,000 primary school teachers in the same year failed to answer basic questions on science, maths, English and Hindi.
Look at how China has built its human capital at surprising speed. In OECD’s 2012 Programme of International Student Assessment of 15-year-olds (PISA) in maths, science and reading, students in Shanghai were found to have a two-and-a-half year education lead over American students. Such drastic improvements in a country that was lagging behind India in education till a few years ago could only have come about from sustained funding and a close monitoring of the educational system. Are we willing to put in money and resources where it truly matters?