Being in India and having two kids who are in the primary level of education, I have found myself sometimes getting frustrated, sometimes disappointed and sometimes curious about how our basic educational system works. Since this is something I have to deal with on a day to day basis, I have gone more deep into it than the average person who is either not in the teaching profession or does not have to worry about schools. The basic opinion that most people have about our educational system is that it is broken and is flawed and is not producing the kind of future citizens as it should. So everyone ends up blaming the schools and teachers and the “system”, and thats about it. But its not so simple. This is a very deep rooted thing which cannot be blamed on any single entity – whether teachers or educational institutions or the government or anyone else.
I did some informal research on the schooling systems around the world. The two countries which have the best schooling systems in the world are Finland and Japan. For the past few years, in a global survey, Finland has consistently been at number 1 and Japan at number 2.
In Finland, the aim is on putting as little pressure on children as possible. The Finns believe in letting kids be kids for as long as possible so they prescribe 15 minutes of playtime for every 45 minutes of study. Almost all schools are govt.funded and there are very few private schools. The number of students in a class is kept low – generally below 20. Students get no or very little homework. They believe in making sure that every child in a class gets the education they deserve and the emphasis is more on cooperation than competition. Marks and ranks are not given much importance here as they believe that a child has to learn and every child has different ways of learning. Finland does not just focus on the students but also places great importance on the teachers. Teachers are among the top paid professionals in Finland and they are very well respected. A teacher has to be highly qualified to even teach kindergarten. Teachers are allowed to experiment and come up with their own styles of teaching and change the curriculum if required. The Finnish education system gives respect and freedom to both the students and the teachers. Though their educational system is considered a little strange as compared to the rest of the world, the results speak for themselves.
The Japanese schooling system also approaches education in a novel way. But it believes in individual performances and rankings as a measure of how good or bad a student is doing. They have a fixed educational system which is not open to experimentation or change. Every school has to follow the system. School uniforms are a strict rule. Every school provides meals and lunches to its students. No student is allowed to bring in outside food. This is to make sure that the kids are getting proper nutritious food. Teachers and students eat together. Children are expected to clean their classrooms and also the washrooms and toilets. Japanese schools have no sweepers or janitors to do cleaning. Thanks to this early focus on cleanliness, Japan is one of the cleanest countries in the world, because every adult has learnt the importance of cleanliness right from childhood. Students never bunk classes or come late. 85% of the students say they feel happy in school and like being there. Because of the rise in population, each class can have about 40-50 students. They have a very interesting way of teaching maths. They treat maths like a language. For the Japanese, language is extremely important and unlike the English language which has only 26 letters of the alphabet, the Japanese language has over a 1000 kanji alphabets and by the time a student reaches the age of 15 they have already mastered 1,100 kanji characters. It is only because of the high quality of teaching that children become fluent in writing, reading and speaking Japanese which is extremely complicated for a non-Japanese.
The Japanese teachers believe that the best way to make students learn is to let them teach other students what they have learnt. This is one of the best kept secrets of why their students learn so fast. For instance, a teacher would explain a maths problem on the board and then students will be asked to solve a similar problem. The first student who completes it correctly will be then asked by the teacher to go and help the other students finish it. The belief is that if a teacher just stands and does all the teaching then the student retains only about 40% of what is taught. But when the students themselves do teaching, then their retention rate goes up to 90%.
If you noticed, the Finnish system and the Japanese systems are somewhat opposite of each other, but the results are outstanding. That is because the educational systems are deeply rooted in the cultural needs of the country. The Finnish society is free-wheeling and flexible, where as long as you are doing your job properly, not much else is asked for. People are free to experiment and make rules as they go along. The Japanese society is rigid and very tradition-based. Social rules are strictly followed and you are not encouraged to break tradition. It would be a disaster if Finland adopted the Japanese way of education and the Japanese adoped the Finnish system. I feel the most important aspect of why these systems work is that education is regarded very highly in these countries and they take it very seriously (which is exactly how it should be). Population, politics and religion also play a major role in shaping education policy. Finland has a tiny population of 5 million with a single major religion so its easy to experiment and everybody has the same mindset. Japan is also homogenous in terms of religion, though it has a higher population of 125 million and that leads to a lack of individual space, specially in cities. People get used to following rules early in life, which leads to an organized society and culture.
In India, there are many religions and sub-cultures. On top of that, the population is 1.1 billion. Education here is not about learning – it is aimed to get children jobs once they become adults. That is the basic mindset of everyone involved in the system – parents, children, teachers, institutions. There are multiple school boards and different syllabi and they are all good actually. But it is in the implementation, where we fail. First and foremost , teachers are one of the worst paid professionals in this country. Even the few who actually want to make a difference, in spite of a lack of support and proper remuneration, find it very difficult to go against the system. Govt.funded schools are in pathetic condition – lack of basic infrastructure, lack of proper teachers. So most of the education is done by private schools. Education is almost a full-fledged business now, where people set up schools just because it is a stable way of earning money. Schools cut corners by hiring bad teachers or they end up with bad teachers simply because they do not want to pay more. They want to fleece the students with exorbitant fees. Not all schools are like that – some do a great job of educating children but they are exceptions.
In spite of so many schools mushrooming, education is still missing for a lot of children in this country, which means we need many more schools. The blame also falls squarely on parents who are always in “fear” mode. They will push their children like slaves to get good marks so that somewhere down the line they can land good jobs or go abroad to study. They are afraid that if their child does not do well, it will be the end of the world for them. A lot of parents try to live their dreams via their children, with disastrous results. The logic being that “just because I was not able to get a good education, I will drive my children like slaves so that they can get what I never got”. The children are the worst victims. At best they come out of the educational system as educated zombies, who only have book knowledge. They fall flat on their faces, the moment they face the real world, because nobody prepared them for anything outside of examinations and degrees. At worst, they end up committing suicide as they are not able to take the pressure, or they end up with mental and personality disorders which haunt them for the rest of their life.
Again you cannot blame anyone for this state of affairs. Living in a third world country like India, where resources and opportunities are scarce and people are abundant, you are always in “fight mode” where you want to be the person who gets that one opportunity, for which 10,000 others are fighting. This kind of mentality creates intense competition instead of cooperation. You are in competition with your classmates for marks, grades , everything.
But since this is not going to change overnight, one has to find ways at an individual level to find solutions. There is no point complaining about something which cannot be fixed at a macro level. You may not be able to change the education system overnight, but you can take steps to help your child get a good , well-rounded education. Like Finland, which understands that each child is different and will learn at a different speed and method, we have to find out , how our individual child thinks and feels and then spend time and effort in tailoring a way of learning customized for him/her. Only by taking special time and effort, can you make sure that a child becomes a mature, well balanced adult in the end, in spite of whatever madness is going around them.
Education is not about filling an empty bucket with whatever stuff you can throw into it, but its about lighting a fire and making sure that it is able to sustain and grow without anyone else’s help in the long run.
(Featured photo by Sean Kong)