Archive for December, 2013

Missing Skills- A Test for Sikshana

December 30, 2013

 
Recently I walked into a First Year Pre-University class in Dodda Alahalli to get an idea of what happens to a typical student in the Higher Secondary Stage, something that Sikshana may have to deal with in the near future. The exposure was indeed a rude shock even to  a hardened person like me.

 There was absolutely no sign that these kids have really evolved into the upper teens; for all purposes they were still a bunch from High School who have accidentally strayed into the Higher Secondary stream. The class room dynamics was the same in the “You teach- I listen” mode. On the part of the lecturers too, it was business as usual: cover the syllabus, conduct tests, evaluate and grade the students. Anything beyond what is explicitly stated in the curriculum is strictly a ‘no- go’. As a part of the course there seems to be no stipulation on any extra- curricular activities for the students. No one stays an hour beyond the college hours for activities such as debates, special lectures or meets of any type that will add value to the ‘education’ that is being imparted.

 I asked the staff about the performance of the last batch of the students; as expected they had a mediocre 60% pass rate where even a pass which does not mean much in terms of academic achievement. When queried about the reason for such a poor result, pat came the standard response: the students who come in from High Schools are found to lack the “basics”.

 That struck a chord in me; I have heard this term- and the excuse- often enough at every stage. When students were found to lack even the basic reading skill in 6th Std the response invariably was that these kids were not their own; they came from LP schools which do a shoddy job. Two years pass thereafter in the Higher Primary schools during which a lot could be done to undo this damage but never gets done. When these kids move into High Schools, the refrain from the teachers there is the same; the incoming students lack the basics and they could do pretty little to make them pass the Tenth exams with the three years on hand. It seems to be the same story at every stage. Any surprise here really ? No, not as I see it.

 There are two fundamental flaws in this scheme of things.

 First, the entire system is built around fulfilling the needs of an externally administered syllabus thrust on students and teachers. Acquisition of a skill is never an issue in this scheme. An example: in the Kannada class and the subsequent tests, a student is checked for knowledge of content in the given text rather than the underlying lingual skill. A well written answer which does not reflect correctly on the content is viewed more adversely than another that gives the right one in a poor lingual format. This is what encourages rote learning; it results in kids who are unable to deal with any content other than what they have come across in their text books.

 Worse still, the kids tend to miss out on essential skills such as comprehension and enunciation. For them a sentence is just a string of words and a para is one of sentences. There is no planned/ sustained effort within the framework of the existing system towards understanding, analysis and reaction to the content in the text. In effect, nothing is done to acquire the above skills;  neither is there any effective tool to monitor their acquisition or absence. The  net result is one or more of the following:

 The kids are able to read a given text fluently but  are unable to recall the gist of what they read. The few successful ones just repeat verbatim what they read, showing that it is coming from memory. Once the text becomes long enough, this ability gets stretched beyond limits to a point at which he/ she fails in this futile effort. The interface under check here is between reading, comprehension and expression.

 One can narrate a simple story slowly and ask them to narrate back the gist of it at the end. Comprehension at this stage should in fact stretch far beyond this when they should be able to come up with answers for complex queries like the moral of the story. I have done this often enough and most kids fail this test even in the High School, and that too at the first level. Interfaces here is listening / comprehension/ expression.

 There is always a possibility that the kids are unable to express themselves even though they might have understood the content. The kids were then given a story to read and at the end asked to write down the gist of it. The results were no different; the interface here is reading/ comprehension/ writing.

 The common factor in all the three is obviously comprehension, a skill essential for all forms of learning which is difficult to define and even more difficult to measure. Sikshana came across this barrier first during its drive towards ‘total’ acquisition of reading skill. After all, what does reading fluency amount to if what is read is not understood? Ironically it took some time for us to realize that one does not automatically entail the other.

 The subject of comprehension does not suffer from lack of learned treatises and analytical studies. But when it comes down to something that can be done in the context of a public school in an environment like ours, we found there was little to go by in terms of the following:

Tools for intervention

Tools for assessment

Acceptable and valid Benchmarks

 Sikshana is presently coming with a few inputs under each of the above; a pilot program is being planned based on them.

 The goal simply stated is this: A student who listens to a few minutes of spoken content is able to comprehend it and come up with a gist of what he heard. Without this skill, is there any hope of such a student grasping anything that is transacted in the classroom and use it for his academic advancement?

 

E S Ramamurthy

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