Thursday, April 6, 2017

Renew The Classroom - Tackling Mass Cheating in Board Exams

Elections and Board exams are arguably the biggest “social” events in our country; so much so that the issue of the purity of these exams was raised by the prime minister in an election meeting in UP. While cheating is a global phenomenon, mass-cheating on the scale we witness in some of our exams, is not.
Cheating has gone beyond the technique of copying from slips or books and has institutionalised itself in many places. Examination centres providing various services for a price (even dictation to the examinees) are not uncommon. However, the menace has been sought to be tackled only at the level of examination centres. Little has been done to understand the various reasons that have, over time, made cheating an inexorable part of our education system. Isn’t it strange that many of our examination boards, like CISCE and CBSE, are free from allegations of mass cheating? Even in higher education, the examination environment in most of the state universities is very different from top engineering and medical colleges.
The reasons for mass cheating in board exams present a convoluted mass of interlinked issues, from pedagogy to the selection process for jobs. The poor quality of teaching in most of our elementary schools — in both rural and urban areas — is not a secret. The massive enrolment of first generation learners due to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan in the last decade-and-a-half has only resulted in an influx of semi-literate students at the high school level who have aspirations for jobs but, unfortunately, lack in learning. Besides, the secondary and higher-secondary schools have also seen a massive lowering in quality due to various reasons of their own. Students enroll in these schools but prefer to go to coaching institutes for studies, turning these schools into mere registering bodies for board exams.
Since various certificates/degrees are mandatory for different jobs, a student obviously wants to possess these through any manner possible. The lure for jobs involving large-scale recruitments — like elementary school teachers and police personnel — done on the basis of marks obtained in the board exams, make our students and their parents strive to get the highest marks possible by any means. When the working of examining agencies like Vyapam in Madhya Pradesh or the Public Service Commissions in various states start losing their credibility, both the educational institutions and the exam system start losing their value and sanctity.
In this scenario of poor quality teaching combined with the importance of board exam results, students take recourse to unfair means. The examination centre facilitates the conversion of individual proclivities to a mass benefit arrangement — at a price, of course. The use of unfair means in the board exams undermines integrity and fairness at all levels. Each successive generation of examinees becomes weaker, resulting in the making of poor professionals. Just think of the values a teacher who is a product of this system will possess and propagate.
Given the gravity of the situation, well-planned, holistic measures are imperative. To begin with, academic supervision for quality should be ensured at all levels of school education. If the teachers are made to teach, there would be no reason to use coercive action against examinees during exams. Second, recruitment for government jobs should be on the basis of tests and not on board exam marks, thus reducing the premium on board exams. Board exams should test understanding, not rote learning. Objective tests make examining easier but make cheating easier as well. Third, a semester system can be adopted in classes 9-12. This will reduce the burden on students and boards, ensure continuous evaluation and teaching, and reduce the dependence on coaching and guide-books. Finally, the board should frame questions requiring long answers and even allow text books in the exams. This will test higher order cognition and ensure “sustainable learning”.
The writer is an officer of the UP Education Service and a fellow of the Arizona State University
Published on the Edit Page of Indian Express dated 30-3-17 Link-

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Holi Hai! Holi Hai!- The Carnivalesque Festivities - published in The Hindu 19/02/17

Holi Hai! Holi Hai!- The Carnivalesque Festivities

Does one know of any other festival in the world where the celebrators repeatedly and vociferously assert that it is, it is; and, that one should not mind it- ‘Holi Hai? Holi Hai! Buraa na mano Holi hai!’ Why this refrain, I used to wonder? Observing groups of revelers it suddenly struck. With painted faces they all give two hoots to the world. Decent young persons who would not allow a speck of dirt on their clothes or, would not bear a strand of hair out of place (and if it’s ever so, it’s deliberate, mind you!); ladies, who won’t bear the wind and the Sun rob the skin of its fair hue; middle aged people, worrying constantly of the falling standards in manners and; the aged, ruing over the lost gleam of their days, all give a boot to everyday norms.  Profanities rend the air as the merry makers go round the town exhorting everybody to splatter them with colours. Self-professed teetotalers are convinced by die-hard tipplers that a sip on this day does not amount to ‘drinking’; and many do get convinced as the festival’s spirit commands it. Partaking ‘bhaang’, of course, takes less of a cajoling as, unlike alcohol, it has had cultural sanctions! If mutton and chicken are for the non-vegetarians, the spicy katahal (jackfruit) curry becomes a vicarious pleasure for the veggies. Two riders on a two-wheeler and four on a four-wheeler may be the traffic rule; this day however has its own- the limit being the number the vehicle can carry without toppling over. As the groups of revelers amble along, absolute strangers neck each other and the young bend to touch the feet of the old, the norms of social differences of class and caste get forgotten. The fear of calories is put at bay as the delicacies get devoured by the most health conscious. The spirit of defying the customary is throughout. If the lathi wielding ladies in Barsana break the gender norm, Varanasi’s (in)famous Assi Ghat Kavi Sammelan, where crass Hindi expletives are used in poetry,  can be taken as subversion of the social, political and, language norms.
        Bakhtin gave the concept of the carnivalesque in literature. Isn’t this festival a social- carnival where social hierarchies of everyday life—their solemnities and pieties and etiquettes, as well as all ready-made truths—are profaned and overturned by normally suppressed voices and energies? Or, should we ask, wasn’t this festival meant to be so- i.e. providing a space to the non-privileged by shifting the authoritative norms of the hegemony and its ‘high culture’ to the margins for a short period of celebration- because lately it has changed its colour.  The growth of modern privatized individualistic worlds, perhaps, is leading to jealousies and a disbelief in the other, fun is yielding place to unpleasant jibes, and therefore, celebration for some metamorphoses into perversion sometimes.     
          Holi is the time when man and nature alike throw off the gloom of winter and rejoice in the colours and liveliness of spring. The strictness of the social structure- age, sex, status and caste- is loosened.  The chant of Holi Hai! Holi Hai, perhaps, is to urge everybody to disremember the social divisions of hierarchy in all its forms and let playfulness reign. It has to be repeated so frequently to give a jerk to our mind routinized in the rest of the 364 days of the year. So, let’s throw the taboos to the wind – the restrictions of status, language, age and, of course, the calories- at least for this one day and with pure fun in heart shout without inhibition - Holi Hai! Holi Hai! Buraa na mano Holi hai!

                                                                         Dr Skand Shukla

Saturday, September 3, 2016

RIP VCR, the rage of our teens
Published in HT Allahabad 2-9-16
Video cassette recorders, more popular by their acronym VCRs, officially became a thing of the past on July 31, 2016 when Japanese company Funai, which was still making them, announced that it won’t manufacture them anymore.

What a craze VCRs had in their heydays. What an impact it cast on the powerful Indian film industry. Video libraries sprang up all over. Several cinema halls closed down. Even films began to be shot with video viewers in mind.

As cinema halls started losing their charm, a TV set and a VCR provided them their home theatres. They needn’t even buy them. They could hire them for a song. Many a family used to book VCRs on weekends to enjoy a number of movies of their choice.

Those were the days when watching of films in theatres by youngsters wasn’t much liked by their families. But strangely, watching them on a VCR wasn’t considered bad. A lot of video shows, intended to collect money, were organised in our schools and we, as teenagers, got to enjoy many latest flicks without the guilt of bunking our classes.

Even long route bus travelling became fun with the introduction of luxury video coaches.

In small towns and villages, video-film halls were set up. They were similar to cinema halls but were much smaller and having a TV set with a videocassette player (VCP) instead of a screen and projector.
The VCRs had a tremendous impact on weddings. Video shows through the night replaced the traditional ‘nautanki’ performances for ‘baraatis’ even in remote villages. As the sound of dialogues and noise of a generator spread through the night, one could know from a mile that there was a wedding around.

The man shooting the event with the video camera acquired a higher status than the one with the still camera.

The video shows were not limited to Hindi films. Pakistani comedy serials like ‘Bakra Kishton Pe’, television serials like ‘Ramayana’ and ‘Mahabharata’ were also hugely popular. Some of the video libraries situated in posh areas of big towns took pride in stocking English film videos and catered to lovers of those movies.

For us youngsters, the watching of video films was quite a ritual. It involved getting together, collecting money, selecting the venue with the least disturbance by the grown-ups as ‘all’ sorts of films were on the menu, transporting the TV and VCP on a rickshaw or a borrowed scooter to the venue and then huddling for a few hours.

There are so many beautiful memories of these shows but this one makes me laugh even today. It was one of those days of marathon viewing at a friend’s place whose parents had gone out for the day. As one of the suspense movies was nearing climax, black stripes began appearing on the T.V. screen due to long hours of VCR playing. As the host was trying to wipe it clean with a piece of cloth, someone advised cleaning it with petrol. He immediately went to the verandah, dipped a length of cloth in the petrol tank of his father’s scooter and wiped the reel clean. It was only when we inserted the video cassette back in the VCP, played it, that we saw a completely black screen staring back at us.
The VCR had had its day once the compact discs (CDs) made their entry in the mid-nineties. It, however, trudged along for some more years like Tennyson’s Ulysses ‘made weak by time and fate’, finally to its death this July 31. I am sure all those who were in their teens in the 80s would join me in offering their condolences to this wonderful device. RIP VCR.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

‘Shastrarths’ in the era of social media sites- The Hindu 28-6-16

‘Shastrarths’ in the era of social media sites

Digression is the bane, and logic the first casualty, in any heated discussion on a social media site. I say the first casualty because the social-site friendship is the next, if the discussion is not stopped early enough. It was only Facebook and Twitter some time back, but WhatsApp has been fast to catch up. While tiny tweets have launched major wars of words, many a WhatsApp group has been broken and numerous Facebook friends ‘un-friended’ since the beginning of the social-site era. The debaters, a laDon Quixote, tilt at windmills and can go off at a tangent any moment. It’s so amusing to an objective eye sometimes, when both the antagonists had actually been saying the same thing but, since they were not caring to read the comments of the others in the heat of the moment, they had been feeling all along that they were on opposite grounds!

      It is remarkable that the original point of discussion is always lost in the heat of the labyrinthine arguments. The averments flow in umpteen directions and are mostly unrelated to the point of discussion. However, every ‘comment’ on that incendiary ‘post’ has the potential to open another front in the war. It’s a free-for-all. It’s like a dance during a baraat procession — one can jump in whenever one feels like, take a completely independent cue, suddenly feel that since one has been a cynosure enough and beaten the rest, quietly exit.

     Aren’t Tolstoy’s words about Sergey Ivanovich, in Anna Karenina, so apt here? “He disliked contradiction, and still more, arguments that were continually skipping from one thing to another, introducing new and disconnected points, so that there was no knowing to which to reply.”
I feel sometimes that these social sites are similar to those places in the real world where people meet each other for a short while and engage in small talk — a railway compartment, a tea shop or a betel stall, for instance. These are places where people cross each other regularly and thus get acquainted. They are not exactly close to each other; they are not exactly friends. They just know each other to the extent that they get into polite conversations and exchange of views while being there together. Things are all right till it is only an exchange of pleasantries and routine conversation; but they aren’t when somebody introduces a controversial subject. People are so bound with their views that all veneer of bonhomie gets shed at the drop of a different opinion. Mere acquaintances till that moment, the people in the gathering immediately acquire a for-or-against character. All become a part of either of the two rival viewpoints. If the discussion continues, invectives are sure to follow and, of course, fisticuffs may not be far behind.

     Our country has had an ancient tradition of discourses, the ‘Shastrarths’. Profound truths and wisdom were churned out of them. The Socratian debates and the Marxian dialectics were quite similar — bringing out truths from questioning; questioning even one’s own opinions. But it can only be when we follow the famous words: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Ironically, however, the words themselves had been an issue of an argument once — whether they were Voltaire’s or his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s!

Friday, May 6, 2016

A Wry Take on Indian Education System byTagore - Hindustan Times 7-5-16

A Wry Take on Indian Education System byTagore  (link-

Looking at his portraits - noble face, intense eyes, hair hanging down to the shoulder, long white beard and, flowing robes reaching the floor- can one imagine Tagore having had a humorous side as well? A reading of his writings show that he did – and quite a lot of it! He was a seer, but not without jollity. Besides being a litterateur, painter, musician, philosopher, he was a great educationist. Since, as he said, he saw education with an eye of an artist, he actually was a visionary and thus, could look upon power play and human foibles with an understanding and a twinkle in the eyes.
            One of the ostensible reasons for Tagore beginning a school was his detestation of the education system. Recollecting the deadening effect on a child’s natural world of the ‘blank stare’ of the classroom walls he satirically wrote- “I was not a creation of the school master - the Government Board of Education was not consulted when I took birth in the world. But was that any reason why they should wreck their vengeance upon me for this oversight of my creator?”  
            Artificiality troubled him. Being a scion of an aristocratic family and devoid of the opportunities of climbing trees and running barefoot during his childhood, he smilingly quipped in the essay- ‘My School’- “I myself was brought up in a cultured home in a town, and as far as my personal behavior goes I have been obliged to act all through my life as if I were born in a world where there are no trees….I have again to confess that I was brought up in a respectable household and my feet from childhood have been carefully saved from all naked contact with the dust.”
            Tagore was against the use of English as a medium of instruction. He felt that it had an irrational spelling and syntax and thus for those in the Eastern world learning it was “as much a feat as fitting an English sword into the scabbard of a scimitar’. He feared the English lessons and he humorously wrote about his English teacher- “He was so inordinately conscientious. He insisted on coming every single evening- there never seemed to be either illness or death in his family. He was so preposterously punctual too. I remember how the fascination for the frightful attracted me every evening to the terrace facing the road; and just at the right moment, his fateful umbrella - for bad weather never presented him from coming, - would appear at the bend of our lane.”

He had a tough time making the teachers see eye to eye with his ideas and his comment in one his essays- "I had in the beginning to struggle very hard with my teachers, not with the students, as very often happens in other schools."- evokes a grin.
 His comment in the short story, ‘The Parrot's training’- “With text-book in the one hand and baton in the other, the pundits gave the poor bird what may fitly be called lessons!” is an acerbic comment on the traditional methods of teaching. On the machine-like teaching in our Universities, he said in the essay- ‘The Centre of Indian Culture’, -“We have our hard flints, which give us disconnected sparks after toilsome blows; and the noise is a great deal more than the light.”
He was for a human-teacher -‘These teachers distribute their diets of mental food, gingerly and from a dignified distance, raising walls of note-books between themselves and their students. This kind of food is neither relished, nor does it give nourishment. It is a famine ration…’

The story, ‘The Parrot's Training’ is a powerful statement mocking at the educational system’s great love for huge and costly paraphernalia. It is about a parrot considered ‘ignorant’ by the king to which he decides to give a ‘sound schooling’. Many elaborate arrangements are made and Tagore wryly comments-‘every creature remotely connected with cage flourished beyond words, excepting only the bird’, and ironically, ‘The method was so stupendous that the bird looked ridiculously unimportant in comparison’. The bird dies as the education progresses in a darkly-comic manner and ends only when - ‘Its throat was already choked with the leaves from the books that it could neither whistle nor whisper.’

All of the above, that Tagore touched upon with his typical wit, irony and, at times, hard satirical outbursts, evoke both a smile and a  serious concern on the system which existed then and, exists now. The system’s tremendous centralized control on what and how everybody is to learn, the trampling of the vernacular by English, the teacher-taught relationship having gone commercial, the out-of-touch-with-reality information being pushed down the throats of the young (my 8 year child’s GK Book has questions on western cartoons and none on Indian litterateurs or agriculture), and, the enormous importance being given to accoutrements is only getting worse. Hope the seer is not only read, but followed as well.

                                                                   Dr Skand Shukla
(The writer’s D.Phil is on Tagore’s Philosophy of Education and he is an Officer of the U.P. Provincial Education Services)

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Bias from her perspective

This article was published was published in the HINDU on 2nd february 2016 but it was truncated and its import got diluted . The link is           

A little Girl’s Reflections on her School Books

Why can’t I be the judge in the play? Because I am a girl! Well, this is what my class 3 NCERT Hindi text book says!! In that chapter which contains the play on the parable in which the monkey is the judge between two cats fighting for a bread, the stage directions so clearly say – 7-8 baras ka ladka bandar ban sakta hai aur 5-6 baras ki ladkiyaan billi ban sakti hain.’ (a boy of 7-8 years of age can become the monkey and girls of 5-6 years can play the parts of the cats). Even the dress has been so precisely prescribed for the boy-monkey and the quarreling cats. And, at the end of the play, how I hate when we two girls, acting the cats, chant -“aapas mein jhagdaa kar baithin, buddhi apni khoti…” (we fought among ourselves as our minds are weak). As if it’s only girls who fight for small things!  Doesn’t my brother, many a times, fight with me for that last piece of pizza?
            Yes, I am only a 10 year old small girl and might not be so knowledgeable but, even then, some of it is so obviously unfair. Just look at the picture of the three kids playing basketball, in the chapter ‘Teamwork’ in my class5 English book. It shows the lone girl’s feet on the ground and the ball beyond her reach, while the two boys are shown high up in the air putting the ball in the basket. I really feel bad because I can beat any boy in my class in racing, football and basketball.
I love playing all sorts of outdoor games and my favourite game is cricket. In the illustrations in my text books through all my classes, however, I have seen only boys playing cricket while the girls have dolls in their hands. How much have I always disliked playing with dolls!!
            My aunt is a doctor but I have yet to see a picture of a lady doctor in a book. In that picture of a doctor administering vaccine to a child, we see a male doctor, a nurse and a queue of mothers carrying their children. My experience is so different. I love to go along with my Papa to the doctor and he makes me feel so brave that I don’t even fear the injections. Oh! How I pity those boys who are so frightened of injections.
            It’s not only about the doctors. If you see my EVS book you will see that the pictures in the chapter ‘Organizations that help us’, depict only men doing all the important jobs. There are five different pictures of various professionals- the police, doctor, army personnel, workers in a post office- and none of them has a woman. Even in my younger brother’s book who is in class 2, there are pictures of 12 professionals in the chapter, ‘We Need Them’, and none of them is of a woman. And you know what? The only picture of woman in his book is in the part ‘People who entertain us’ and, that is of her as a dancer. Even in my book the chapter ‘Our Heritage’ has women in all its pictures- the pictures being of various dances in our country. Hey! Everybody, even a kid, knows that women are performing duties in every field. My father showed me in the newspaper the other day that they were the lady scientists who made the Indian Mars mission so successful.
            I have heard so much of a lady Arunima Sinha who reached the top of Mount Everest even though she had lost her foot in an incident; but I can’t understand why my text book has the picture of only men as mountaineers. Don’t these writers of the text books read newspapers?
            And it’s not only about the outside world. Even the description at some places of the household chores make me think them to be so odd! Just sample this from a chapter ‘Drop by Drop’ in my NCERT EVS book - ‘His mother and sister have to walk a longer distance to fetch water… While walking on the hot sand their feet burn and blisters just cannot be avoided. When the train carrying water comes they are very happy. Madho’s father goes to fetch water in his camel-cart’.  Is it all right that while the women travel on foot, the man does it on a cart? To my little girl’s mind it somehow doesn’t feel all that nice.
            I don’t know if I am a bit weird and that all of the above seems strange to me only or, something’s really amiss in our books. If it’s so, somebody please do something as what we learn in our childhood stays with us forever and makes us what we are in our adulthood. Why do they think that it’s only boys who can jump high, love cricket and football or, do jobs like flying a plane or working in a steel plant? I hope people writing the books start believing that even boys weep and the girls love to play boisterously.

                                                Dr  Skand Shukla
(An Officer of the Provincial Education Services and was a visiting Fellow to the Arizona State University, U.S.A)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Musings on the Rooftops-

Musings on the Rooftops

How empty and lifeless are the rooftops of these high-rises! The huge water tanks and dish T.V. antennas are their only adornments. Children do not go there to play, neither does a young lady dry her long tresses sitting there in the warmth of the winter Sun, making some young boy smitten on some neighboring rooftop. Winters, on them, do not resonate with the laughter of ladies sitting together, creating designs on the wool with their knitting-needles while keeping a watch on the kids playing nearby. The young, from these rooftops, do not render the sky a riot of colours with their kites in that short spring season before the Sun turns fierce. Summer evenings do not see the drenching of the rooftop floor before the cots are laid down for the night’s sleep. And, no longer do children or lasses dance on the rooftops welcoming the splatter of the first showers as it soaks the world around with petrichor.
 It was so different when the towns hadn’t turned into megalopolises and, the houses did not resemble cells of a honeycomb. The roofs of the houses were as lively, open and, welcoming as the then life. The sound of chirping crickets, the waft of an old film song on radio from some distant roof and, the soft voices of a conversing couple or someone narrating stories to kids slowly faded away, as the gentle summer breeze, with a whiff of the sweet mild smell of a mango tree in bloom, lulled all to sleep. The warmth of the afternoon Sun in the winters brought all and sundry to their rooftops and it became a stage for varied activities- sun bath for the oil glistening torsos before the water- bath, indoor games or outdoor games with improvisations according to the size of the rooftops and, a snooze for the elderly.
Life, however, in these giant residential complexes in our asphalt jungles, is a bit different. Closeted with the four walls all the day long, it is amidst the monotonous whirr of the air-conditioners and intimacy with the communication gadgets that one goes to sleep. Isn’t the word ‘complex’ denoting these giant residential buildings so apt? This word– both as a noun and, as an adjective- signifies all the characteristics of these buildings aspiring to touch the clouds. In thinking thus, I am reminded of two great thinkers- Ruskin and Tagore. While Ruskin believed that our architecture is an expression of our life and character, Tagore wrote- ‘…walls leave their mark deep in the minds of men. They set up a principle of ‘divide and rule’ in our mental outlook, which begets in us a habit of securing all our conquests by fortifying them and separating them from one another…. It breeds in us a strong suspicion of whatever is beyond the barriers we have built, and everything has to fight hard for its entrance into our recognition’.  The openness, sharing in the griefs and happiness of others and, genuine joie de vivre  in our lives, a few decades back, seems to have been replaced by canned emotions and their digital expressions. Has our world view   been limited by the size of our open terraces and the time we get to spend on it? I wonder.

                                                                    (published in HT Lko - 15/12/2015 Link-