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THE GREAT EDUCATION DEBATE

By Lakshmi Palecanda Email By Lakshmi Palecanda
October 2012
THE GREAT EDUCATION DEBATE

Through her daughters’ education, first in Montana in the U.S., and now in Mysore, India, the author compares and contrasts the styles and practices of primary education in both countries.

Like a typical mother, I was overjoyed when school started in June. Ah, my days could now go back to the normal coffee-newspaper-books-TV-nap schedule. However, there was a small hitch.

The first day, my kids went to school like blithe sprites, and came back loaded down like the dhobi’s donkeys. There were text books, notebooks, diaries, and other items crammed into their backpacks. ‘Welcome to India,’ I thought, as I sympathized with their plight. Then they said something that really brought my childhood back to me.

“Mom, my teachers told me that we have to have them covered with brown paper by tomorrow, otherwise we’ll be punished.”

Soon, we were standing among a group of little kids at the book store, all clamoring for brown paper, labels, and ruled and unruled notebooks; it was truly déjà vu for me.

It took my husband 20 minutes to wrap one text book. I was much faster, so the job fell to me. It was during the Brown Paper Cover-athon that I began thinking about how education is imparted by Indian schools, compared to American schools, like the one my kids attended before we decided to return to India. As I delicately measured, cut and folded the paper, and affixed Chhota Bheem labels, I grappled with the differences between the two systems.

Every Indian-American immigrant associates Indian schools with one thing: homework. Children as young as kindergarteners come home every day with loads of homework, even if it is just writing the letter ‘K’ on three pages of their handwriting books. As they grow older, this transmutes to words, numbers, question/answers, notes, and projects, with sundry punishments and ‘I won’t talk in class’ impositions thrown in from time to time. Burdened with homework and extra coaching classes, children can hardly spare time to play or indulge in music and sports.

Teaching in India is textbook-based; therefore it takes longer for the learning to sink in, and the joy of learning is mostly missing. The knowledge is also not retained for long. When I was a teacher’s aide in a U.S. elementary school for a while, a teacher taught the solar system to kindergarten kids by making them planets and stars. I don’t know if all the students understood, but those who did will never forget. After all, how can you forget the few moments that you were Jupiter, the gas giant?

My older daughter put it succinctly when she said, “There (in the U.S.) we were taught very little and learned a lot; here, we are taught so much but learn little.”

Classroom learning in India is one-sided, mostly involving the teacher lecturing the student. This takes all the fun out of learning, and makes it one big drudge. No wonder Indian children love to cut school. My older daughter put it succinctly when she said, “There (in the U.S.) we were taught very little and learned a lot; here, we are taught so much but learn little.”

Of course, how can we forget the all-important exams? Sometimes, it feels like life in India is centered on those exams. Teachers build fortunes tutoring kids for exams, charging exorbitant fees for afterschool sessions that, weirdly enough, exactly mirror classrooms. Mothers become recluses when their offspring prepare for the big day, going to the extent of asking family and friends not to visit and disturb the ‘scholar.’ And the tourism industry experiences a huge downswing during the months of January, February and March, owing to the swotting masses of future citizens.

Exams are followed by the mindless frenzy of results a month later. For a while, the family becomes child-o-centric, with marks being compared furiously, and career options discussed endlessly. As if there is not enough stress to go around, parents whose children have taken the exams feel like the results of their parenting are now out. Your child does well, you are a good parent. But let the percentage in his elective subjects sag a little, and boy, have you ever messed up your divine purpose in life!

I can’t overstress the importance given to exams in India. At the end of February this year, my children came home one day and said that they didn’t have to go to school the next week because they had study holidays. “My friend’s mother is taking a week off from work to help her study,” my sixth grader said. Then my third grader’s classmate’s mother called. “Did your child bring home the model question papers? Have you seen them yet? Is she able to answer them all?” Model question papers in third grade? Are you kidding me?

No, it was God’s honest truth. I am no tiger mom, and so my kids goofed around the entire week, preparing for their exams just the night before. I suppose when they make a 100 grand less a year than the kids who crammed all week long and practiced on the model question papers, I, their tabby cat mom, will be blamed. But I refused to mess up my kids’ psyche with exams, on principle. I preferred to do it in other ways.

One wonders if all this cramming really helps a child learn more. Does it help to have a strict and sometimes punishing curriculum in childhood, or is it better to let them figure out things when they are older, though it might affect their working life? Has anybody actually surveyed the toppers in school exams to see how they fared in life? I was pondering these weighty questions, when I realized that I had a crisis on my hands. I had run out of Chhota Bheem labels. That it was a minor problem and not a full-blown catastrophe was only because there were other labels. However, these had Barbie on them. I couldn’t reconcile myself to psychologically destroying my children’s delicate sensibilities with a switch midstream from a chubby dhoti-clad youngster to a snotty botoxed blonde. Yet the alternative was to get dressed, leave the house, and overpay an auto rickshaw to get to the store for more pictures of the insipid Indian cartoon character. I started on the Barbie labels without missing a beat.

And that was when I began to see the few advantages to the Indian system of education. The biggest one that caught and held my attention was the mandatory uniforms in all schools.

For five years in America, I had struggled to outfit my kids for school—and this when they were just in elementary school. Luckily for me, we left before middle school. I remember seeing a high school student dressed in the skankiest of outfits with make-up to rival an aspiring movie starlet. When I asked a friend if the student didn’t look like a hooker, I was reprimanded for insulting hookers. Now, I know there are many decently dressed school kids out there, but I still feel that peer pressure can be hard on kids, especially tween and teen girls.


 Also, if taught the right way, Indian kids would be at a great advantage in today’s flat world. After all, their syllabus is vast and highly advanced; therefore, the standard of information they get in school is very high. This, combined with their ability to apply themselves, should make them very competitive. This is what President Obama talks about when he says that children from Bangalore and Beijing have the advantage over children from the States.

Also, if taught the right way, Indian kids would be at a great advantage in today’s flat world. After all, their syllabus is vast and highly advanced; therefore, the standard of information they get in school is very high. This, combined with their ability to apply themselves, should make them very competitive. This is what President Obama talks about when he says that children from Bangalore and Beijing have the advantage over children from the States. If taught to learn through understanding, instead of rote memorization, Indian youth would be further enthused and energized.

And call me chicken, but I am truly happy that kids in India are kept so busy studying that they don’t have too much time to spend hanging out at the malls or with their friends. I’d always been turned off by crowds of teens congregated at malls, doing nothing on weekends.

By the time these thoughts had run through my head, I began flagging at my work. It is hard to sustain the spirit and buoyancy of brown-paper-wrapping after the 33rd book, I’ve found. Moreover, I was coming up with far more disadvantages than advantages for the Indian education system, and that was depressing me quite a bit.

That was when I found a stash of Chhota Bheem stickers hidden inside a second stack of brown wrapping paper. Great! Now, I had to switch back.

It was then that I had my biggest epiphany yet. I could choose to stick the Chhota Bheems over the Barbie labels, or I could choose not to be bothered by the labels. In the same way, we as re-immigrants could make the best of the situation we were in, or forever bemoan what we had left behind. In the long run, it is what the student chooses to take home with him/her that matters more than just what is given in school. We had made our decision to return to India in best faith, and for family reasons, and we were all the better for it. Our children could come to the US for graduate studies. And let’s face it, people are grappling with the education system throughout the world, and no one has come up with the best one yet.

Humorist and freelance writer Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana to Mysore and is still adjusting. 

 


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