The Perils of an Exam-Centric Education System

CBSE’s prevalent culture of examinations, which is indifferent to the uniqueness of a learner, negates creative articulation and critical thinking and kills the spirit of teaching as a vocation.

Students prepare to take a CBSE exam outside an examination centre in Moradabad. Credit: PTI

Students prepare to take a CBSE exam outside an examination centre in Moradabad. Credit: PTI

Once again we have returned to the tyranny of examinations. Although the class ten board exams were made optional in 2011, as the new Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) guideline suggests, from 2018 onwards, it would be compulsory for students to take the exams. In a way, it is not surprising since our education system – despite the illuminating ideas of creative, stress free and child-centric learning that is propagated by the likes of Rabindranath Tagore and Jiddu Krishnamurti – is essentially exam-centric.

The primary goal of education is not the arousal of the child’s innate potential but is instead a ruthless process of elimination and selection for future manpower allocation. Furthermore, in a society guided by the scarcity of resources as well as the neoliberal ethos of social Darwinism, competitiveness or hierarchisation of individuals on the basis of a measured scale, becomes the standard norm that a large section of parents and teachers tend to accept.

No wonder then that exams are seen as meant for making one competitive and for adoring the values of ‘hard work’ and ‘success.’ Exams are seen as being ‘functional’ because they process and filter people, and this normalisation of examinations, as Michel Foucault said in the context of a disciplinary society, establishes constant visibility over individuals and produces docile bodies and minds. When examinations are everywhere – from television reality shows to diagnostic clinics, it is difficult to imagine schooling without examinations which – to refer to Foucault again – are ‘ceremonies of power.’

Yet, it is about time we realise the significance of three truths. First, with the prevalent culture of examinations, meaningful learning cannot take place. Anyone familiar with the rituals of schooling knows how the entire experience of learning is centered on just one goal – how to get good marks in examinations. This instrumental approach denies the students the joy of learning, restrains them and makes it almost impossible for them to go deeper into any issue. No wonder then that like black money, a parallel education system prevails – tutorial homes, coaching centres and all sorts of guide books become an integral part of a child’s learning experience.

Although, in the recent years, great minds in the fields of science and humanities have written NCERT textbooks, and tried to arouse an interest in learning through an innovative and dialogic style of communication involving narratives, illustrations and cartoons, the fact is that the logic of examinations is not at all in tune with the spirit of these books.

Instead, the obsession with objective, factual and short answers negates creative articulation and critical thinking. The more the students take these examinations, the more unimaginative and non-reflexive they become.

Second, it kills the spirit of teaching as a vocation. The role of teacher of being a catalyst and a window into the world does not exist anymore. Instead, with a centralised examination pattern, teachers lose their autonomy and the creative surplus for – like Gandhi said – ‘experimenting’ with the truth. Instead, a teacher becomes a cog in a bureaucratically controlled learning machine whose only task, it seems, is to prepare the child for examinations and remain accountable to the alliance of brand conscious school management and hyper-competitive, ambitious parents. As we lose our teachers, we fall into decadence.

Third, the chain of examinations – from weekly tests to board examinations – is so oppressive that it becomes exceedingly difficult to even imagine a more nuanced and life-affirming practice of evaluation. Children love challenges, and to inspire them to take those endeavours which far from generating fear, activate their cognitive, intellectual, physical, artistic and emotional faculties, is the real pedagogic task.

Group and collaborative work that generates the spirit of humility and mutual learning, relating books to the world through discussions, field visits and community engagements and doing things using hands – there are many components of critical pedagogy that can awaken a child’s innate potential. Since there are multiple forms of intelligence, why should we stick to a uniform pattern of examinations that remains indifferent to the uniqueness of a learner? Let education be a celebration that ignites the flame in each child rather than a process of heartless drilling for eliminating a large section of people.

Possibly, as a society, we don’t have the courage to practice a different form of education. Emancipatory ideas are often thrown into the dustbins of a totalitarian society as being utopian. Hence there will continue to be examinations, more and more examinations. As the rat race manufactures inflated marks, more and more children would begin to define themselves as having failed.

How ironic is it then that these days, not scoring 90% is seen as a mark of failure. With this redefinition of failure, children and youngsters would acquire ‘stigmatised’ identities and lose their self-worth. Meanwhile, we would continue to see the dialectic of this absurd play – television channels are interviewing the ‘toppers’ and giving them instant celebrity status, and schools are hiring counselors and psychiatrists for those who have failed. Are we destined to walk on this path or can we rediscover the fragrance of education?

Avijit Pathak is a professor of sociology at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and is the author of Social Implications of Schooling: Knowledge, Pedagogy and Consciousness and Recalling the Forgotten: Education and Moral Quest. He is also associated with The New Leam – a magazine on education and culture.

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  • venkat

    Examinations truly are a bane of the education system as it prevails today and must be replaced by a truly meaningful system