Where public education has gone wrong | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 05, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:43 AM, April 05, 2019

Exam vs Learning Oriented Education

Where public education has gone wrong

Professor Siddiqur Rahman, former Director of the Institute of Education and Research at the University of Dhaka and member of the National Education Policy 2010 Formulation Committee, has been a member of all the National Curriculum Development Committees (NCTB) since 1985. In an interview with Eresh Omar Jamal of The Daily Star, he talks about the state of our public education and some ways to improve it.

What is your reaction to the government doing away with all examinations for students of classes I, II and III from this year?

I support this decision, but there is a slight conceptual problem here. Getting rid of all exams is not the solution. It's okay to get rid of half yearly and final exams, but not periodic exams. That is to say, you can do away with summative assessment of students, but not formative assessment.

Summative assessment focuses on the outcome of a programme—for example, the half yearly or final exams students sit for every six or 12 months. This contrasts with formative assessment which summarises their development at a particular time and includes a range of formal and informal assessment procedures conducted by teachers during the learning process.

Formative assessment is particularly important because it tells you how well students grasped what they were taught at regular intervals. It allows you to identify which child has fallen behind, or where they have fallen behind so they can be given remedial assistance immediately instead of after months—at which point it may not be possible to provide that assistance because so much time has passed and so much more has been taught.

Gaps in their learning will cause students to struggle later. If we can properly implement formative assessment, we can identify those who are struggling, provide extra attention and remedial assistance to them, and ensure everyone moves forward together which should be the goal.

Without exams, how can formative evaluation be possible in big classrooms? And doesn't this also demand alteration in how teachers are trained and recruited?

Many teachers unfortunately don't know, but there are methods to do this even in big classrooms. Let's say I am teaching students how to identify different flowers or their different parts. At the end of the class I can ask students to write down some answers in their copies and instruct them to switch copies and check each other's answers. That way a teacher can easily evaluate their performance instead of checking each and every copy individually.

But when teachers are not trained and don't know the techniques, formative assessment is not possible. That is why I cannot agree with the government's decision to remove all exams starting this year. For this change to succeed you need teachers who are specially trained. And most teachers right now are not. This means that continuous assessment, or formative assessment, which is part and parcel of the teaching-learning strategy, cannot be properly implemented. Without it, the teaching-learning process is useless.

Given the culture we have where guardians are overly-concerned about the academic performance of their children, how will this change affect guardians who will not have test scores to help them determine their children's performance?

This is a big challenge. Our guardians want to know how their children are doing in exams—they want scores. I wouldn't say that's a bad thing. But it must be explained to them that what is actually important is for children to learn—not their exam scores. Teachers must explain this to them.

Teachers should interact with guardians more regularly. They should also inform guardians how their children are doing in a constructive way. They should give feedback to improve their students' performance—not just complain about students.

Their feedback shouldn't only be about academic performance. It should include extracurricular activities, how students are socialising with others, their health, etc. They should give advice that will help guardians make children stronger in every way.

Would you have advised the government to do anything differently? What do you think about the government's decision to keep the exams for classes V and VIII, ignoring the suggestions of most academics?

I would advise the government not to stop exams from this year. To start training and preparing teachers especially on how to give remedial assistance. Some waiting time before implementing the change will also give guardians time to prepare.

I agree that the government should cancel exams for students in classes V and VIII. Many will argue that students will not want to study without having to sit for exams. Here I will disagree. If they are given the right lessons in class and continually assessed, then the outcome can be positive without exams.

These exams, without continuous assessment, tend to scare students. Students are overworked by their guardians to do well. It would be better if the lessons are broken down, and students are allowed to learn little by little, throughout the year.

When preparing for big exams, students have to handle a lot of unnecessary pressure. Pressure to get GPA-5. This is not a healthy system. And it can negatively impact the social and psychological wellbeing of students.

The fact that we refuse to recognise this shows how our education system is exam oriented rather than learning oriented. Learning is less important, what is important is getting good marks. Children see this and it gets ingrained in their minds. They don't like to read whole books as a result; only those parts that are important to do well in exams. It makes them less curious and less willing to learn. And they obsess over the more pedestrian aspects that in reality are less important.

This hampers their full development—and I have seen this having very bad effects in the lives of many students. Once they are pressurised like this, and their lives are made miserable, it is difficult to bring these students back to being interested in learning again—as they develop a strong aversion for learning.

With your vast experience of working on national education boards, what would you say are the biggest problems that prevent good decisions from being implemented?  The government brings in a number of academics to help formulate policies, but how much of their advice does it actually take?

The biggest problem is placing the right person in the right position. In most cases, not all, that doesn't happen. When a person who is capable in one field is asked to take responsibility and make decisions requiring expertise in another, the result is almost always unsatisfactory. What is ignored is that their decisions affect everyone—which means that the whole nation suffers because they are forcefully given tasks that are not their speciality to perform.

Although this is a national problem, it is also the case when it comes to education. It is thought that you can simply place anyone anywhere when it comes to education. That attitude must change. There is a reason why specialists are considered important around the world.

Another important thing to note here is that the government has different projects for different education levels. For these projects, the government has different development partners—that gives loans to the government. These partners insist that the government hire a number of foreign consultants. The majority of these consultants see things in the context of their countries and cultures. In the meanwhile, local consultants are not paid much attention to. When the government pays all its attention to foreign consultants and completely ignores local consultants, the benefits of these initiatives almost always dry up after a short time.

Not only are these projects a waste of time, but since foreign consultants have to be paid way more than local consultants, huge amounts of funds too are wasted—which the government has to pay back to its development partners. Although, here I must say that sometimes the government is forced to make such decisions by its partners—and is actually left with very little choice.

If we want good results, we must reduce wastage in our education sector. The government, if it wants to improve the quality of our public education, must be willing to spend more. But before increasing its budgetary allocation, it must ensure that there is enough capacity to make good use of it. There is no point in increasing allocation only to see funds being wasted. Which is why, I think the government should incrementally increase the education budget, and not increase it by 2-3 percent at once.

To improve education quality, we must improve the quality of our teachers. Every good teacher must have four basic qualities: i) commitment to the profession above all; ii) mastery over their subjects; iii) know the techniques of teaching; and iv) have strong values and principles, as well as a good aesthetic sense. To attract good teachers, you must be willing to give them good opportunities and benefits—but this has largely been ignored. With mediocre salaries, you will continue to get mediocre teachers and mediocre results.

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