Education reforms – adding to or reducing anxiety?

For most people “change” is an alarming concept. It signifies the end of continuity or familiarity, the start of a journey into the unknown. If change is difficult for adults then it probably has a magnified impact on children who carry the baggage of their own expectations, in addition to the baggage of expectations and insecurities of their elders – so unreasonably thrust upon their tender shoulders. I can see how changes to the education system can result in feelings of fear and anxiety in children and in everyone who are stakeholders in their journey into the real world. After all, India’s education system has virtually not changed for decades and students have mastered the “Art of Performance” through rote learning and teachers the “Art of Delivery” through chalk and talk. Marks in high 90’s are common practice and is symptomatic of how the system has been mastered. Thus, there is bound to be resistance towards any significant changes to this system.

Over the last few weeks, I have been reading with keen interest the various aspects of Mr. Kapil Sibal’s proposed reforms to the Indian education system, including the abolition of the Class X external exam, assessment & grading system,  and his proposal to introduce an all India exam for admission into the science stream; amongst other things. While most of us would agree that the system needs review and revamp and it is high time a well thought-out action plan was implemented to weed out the malaise that infects the K-10/K-12 system, there is significant resistance to the changes from almost all quarters. I have also had the opportunity of speaking with a number of principals, who too, are not enthusiastic about the changes proposed by Mr. Sibal. Why is it that we are resisting? Some of the objections that I have read or heard are akin to clutching to the last straws and do not withstand any degree of scrutiny.

Evaluating the arguments, it seems to me that the resistance is not against the changes, but against the lack of insight into how the proposed reforms will be implemented and more importantly, how the system will work post reforms. Change, in any context, needs to be undertaken with great sensitivity; and in most successful implementations significant time, effort and money is expended to educate the affected stakeholders on their standing and understanding of the new system. Buy-in from the main stakeholders is a prerequisite for achieving any significant degree of success.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kapil Sibal’s has not articulated his vision of what the system will look like once he has implemented his full range of proposals/ initiatives. Nor has he provided an insight into how the individual components of reforms fit into this vision. To assuage the fears of the parents, teachers, administrators and students, Mr. Sibal should start communicating with the nation on what his proposed changes will mean for them, instead of their receiving piecemeal information in the form of selected passages provided by the media.

Mr. Sibal and his band of Merry Men in the education ministry, should also reach out to as many principals and education professionals by holding discussions and by articulating the many benefits they see from the reforms and by addressing common concerns.

It seems to me, that the changes proposed by Mr. Sibal are well intentioned and if implemented well, could result in a significant improvement in the teaching learning practices adopted in our schools. However, I am concerned that the implementation process is not robust and significant areas still need to be addressed before we can be made comfortable with Mr. Sibal’s vision. At the moment, Mr. Sibal is adding more stress to the lives of the children and parents instead of his claim of trying to reduce it. My suggestion to him would be to defer the implementation of making 10th class exams optional from academic year 2010-11 to say academic year 2014-15. This would give schools, administrators and regulators adequate opportunity to implement a holistic model and to cater to the needs of the new reality and to address its shortcomings.

Change cannot merely be brought about by a mere sound bite or stroke of a pen; it needs to be understood before it can be embraced.