Dialogue  April-June 2007 , Volume 8 No. 4

Indian Students Speak on School Education

Michel Danino

We have long heard from every quarter that India’s school system, a legacy of the colonial era, needs to be radically overhauled if it is to meet the needs of a modern, independent nation with a huge and ever-growing number of students. While shortcomings have been regularly pointed out by various official commissions and innumerable seminars bringing together educationists, students themselves have rarely been asked for their own impressions, much less consulted on ways to improve the quality of education. This is in keeping with the obsolete perspective of education still in force in India.

To help fill this lacuna, the International Forum for India’s Heritage (IFIH) conducted a Survey on Education for Standards 9-12, which was sponsored by the NCERT; we solicited replies from over 11,000 students to a wide range of 72 questions covering most aspects of school education. Our volunteers and associates contacted schools either in person or through correspondence, and asked the students to be given one hour to fill the questionnaire; we promised confidentiality, and noted from the replies that most students had answered freely (only a few schools sent clearly doctored questionnaires, which we excluded). Our report was submitted to NCERT in 2005, and we present here some of the important trends emerging from our analysis of the 8 lakh data.

The following basic figures will show that we had a fairly wide representation of students from different regions, mediums and social level:

         Ø    the survey was conducted in English (66%) and seven Indian languages: Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Malayalam, Marathi, and Tamil;

         Ø    the students were drawn from 278 schools spread over 21 States (Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chattisgarh, Delhi, Goa, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, West Bengal);

         Ø    girls formed 40% of the students;

         Ø    85% of the students were from private schools;

         Ø    81% of the students were from urban schools.

The questionnaire’s first part dealt with Indian culture and values, the second part with the students’ experience of other aspects of the educational system: teaching methods, examination system, book load, homework, teacher-student and parent-student relationships, etc. Most importantly, we decided to part with the average “box to be ticked” survey, which can often lead to incomplete or misleading results. Thus, while some questions were of the yes/no type, most required the students to spell out their thoughts and suggestions. Even though this made the analysis of answers more delicate and complex, it provided a substantial qualitative feedback in addition to the quantitative one, and also a greater degree of reliability of the answers.

Findings on culture in education

In its first part, the Survey questioned students on aspects of Indian heritage: arts (music, dance, painting...), science (Indian achievements in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, medicine...), festivals, traditional sports and games, literature (ancient or modern), inspiring historical or mythical characters, yoga and spirituality, and put various questions in this connection. The results are striking: 91% of all students felt that they would benefit from learning elements of Indian culture. While 80% wished Indian culture to be part of extra-curricular activities, 60% wanted it taught as part of the curriculum; moreover, 45% wanted it through both methods—even though we presented them as mutually exclusive—and 1.3% did not want to learn about it at all). Among the aspects of Indian culture that students would like to learn, art comes first, followed by asanas and pranayama, physical games such as kabaddi, and meditation.

         Ø    Indian arts: Students showed a liking for Bharata Natyam (22%), Carnatic and Hindustani music (17% & 14%), despite the fact that art is clearly low on the priorities of today’s education: over a third of students had little awareness of Indian art forms, and only 37% reported learning art as part of their regular curriculum.

         Ø    Festivals: Hardly one fourth of students were aware of the significance of popular festivals (such as Holi or Pongal).

         Ø    Yoga & meditation: 83% of all students found the practices of yogasanas, pranayama and meditation helpful. 52% have learned some of them at school, 28% outside.

         Ø    Spirituality: Almost half of the students were unable to offer a definition of spirituality.

         Ø    Indian texts: 80% were familiar with the Ramayana, 72% with the Mahabharata, 33% with Buddha’s teachings and 29% with various saints. (Most of this awareness likely came from outside the school.)

         Ø    Regional traditions: Only a third of students reported having learned stories or teachings from regional or tribal traditions.

         Ø    Sports & games: 82% were familiar with kabaddi, 45% with kusti, 40% with chaupad, 37% with paramapadamu, 22% with pachchisi. 67% of all students reported that some of these traditional games are practised at school (kabaddi in most cases).

         Ø    Indian languages: 51% felt that Indian languages (ancient or modern) should be learned, half of them for cultural reasons, the other half for the promotion of national integration.

         Ø    Literature from other States: At the same time, only 21% remembered having read any literature from another State. This low figure reflects an alarmingly use of literature in promoting national integration.

         Ø    Values: Only 38% of the students felt that they were acquiring some values at school, an alarmingly low proportion; 7% specifically stated they were acquiring no values at all, 11% gave intermediate replies, and 44% did not reply at all. As regards the values which students said they would most like to assimilate and practise in their own lives, those fell in the following categories: honesty 10%, truthfulness 9%, brotherhood and friendship 6%, duty and dharma 4%, reverence for / inspiration from one’s parents, self-perfection, courage and simplicity 3% each, and non-violence 1%. When a separate question asked the students which values they felt they had acquired from stimulating stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Panchatantra, etc., the categories and proportions were very similar, which eloquently reflects on the inspirational potential of such texts and stories when used as educational tools.

         Ø    Overall interest in Indian culture: In a study correlating 11 different questions and defining a five-grade scale, 83% of students showed a substantial degree of interest in Indian culture or in learning about it at school, denoting an eagerness for cultural education — undoubtedly one major finding of this Survey.

Influence of variables on cultural education

Looking yat the Survey’s first part through the main variables, we may add a few observations:

         Ø    Gender: Girls are generally ahead of boys: overall, they appear more interested in Indian culture as well as more aware of it.

         Ø    Medium: Indian-language students value Indian culture (including yoga and meditation) markedly more than their English-medium counterparts. They are also more eager to learn it, both as part of the curriculum (67% of them, against 45% English-medium students) and as extra-curricular activities (86% against 78%). Indeed, 59% of them want culture through both methods, against only 38% for English-medium students.

         Ø    Tamil-medium students are the most dissatisfied as regards the attention paid to Indian culture in their curriculum, followed by Bengali- and Marathi-medium students. At the same time, Tamil-medium students show very little interest in learning other Indian languages, and report the poorest awareness of literature from other States.

         Ø    Hindi-medium students share the last two characteristics of Tamil-medium students.

         Ø    Bengali-medium students and Gujarati-medium students are the most interested in learning other Indian languages, and the latter are in addition the most aware of literature from other States.

         Ø    Overall, students of Gujarati and Bengali mediums are those most interested in Indian culture, followed by Marathi, Tamil and Kannada. Barring Hindi, English-medium students score the lowest.

         Ø    Class: As we move from class 9 to class 12, we notice two parallel trends: while the cultural content decreases, students feel a growing need for it . For instance, the higher the class, the lesser the exposure to literature from other States, but also the greater the eagerness to learn Indian languages.

         Ø    School type: Private schools tend to have more cultural content than Government schools (this appears clearly also as regards the practice of yogasanas, pranayama and meditation). This may be one reason why we find a higher demand among Government rural school students for Indian culture to be integrated in the curriculum.

         Ø    However, rural schools, whether Govt. or private, rank higher than urban ones as regards traditional sports and games.

         Ø    Overall, students of rural Govt. schools showed far more interest in Indian culture, followed by their counterparts from private urban schools. Students of Govt. urban schools seemed the least interested.

Some comments on values

It is worth illustrating the students’ mind on the study of values by quoting verbatim a few of the students’ thoughts on the values they are assimilating through the educational system:

         l    “A kind of hollow and materialistic thinking.”

         l    “Everything except human values.”

         l    “To become more and more selfish.”

         l    “Values? Hardly any.”

         l    “The students get to learn only about other countries and nothing of India.”

         l    “To achieve success, you have to cut others’ throats.”

         l    “The students are not assimilating any value, they are just learning everything like parrots.”

         l    “Selfishness, money-mindedness.”

         l    “I really feel that child is not assimilating a single value except from parents.”

         l    “Nothing other than a materialistic approach for life.”

         l    “Nothing, blindly reading and vomiting in the paper.”

         l    “Not much, the present system is backward.”

         l    “Not many good values. In the present system, students do not develop their hearts.”

         l    “To be true, nothing.”

         l    “Students do not assimilate values, they gather qualities like selfishness, self-centeredness, which they call values.”

         l    “How to get good marks, how to throw off competitors, etc. Having been trained as given above in various schools, I can hardly think.”

         l    “Lies and dishonesty.”

         l    “Value of hard work, importance of money, that exams are the only thing in life.”

         l    “Hard work, punctuality, perseverance.”

         l    “Through the present system we learn never to get tired and always to carry on your work boldly.”

         l    “No gain without pain.”

We quote also a few thoughts on the values students feel they have imbibed from Indian classical texts and stories:

         l    “The sense of responsibility, truth and respect.”

         l    “Honesty is the best policy, expect from others what you have given them, behind every dark cloud there is silver lining, try and try at last you will win, never take unfair means to do your work, God helps those who help themselves.”

         l    “To concentrate, learn from mistakes, hard work is the only way to success.”

         l    “Enmity makes you destroy yourself whereas friendship makes you safe. You have to live without jealousy.”

         l    “Being true to oneself.”

         l    “Be bold enough to face the challenge, always speak the truth, have faith in God.”

         l    “We are one and no one is superior or inferior.”

         l    “We have to be the people of high thinking.”

         l    “Krishna’s discourse to Arjuna in the fields of Kurukshetra, when Arjuna was hesitating to fight his own brothers (Bhagavat Gita). From here I learnt that no matter what happens or who we are against, one should always stand up for truth and justice.”

Findings on the quality of the educational system

This was the Survey’s second part.

Study of the educational system

The Survey highlighted some of the students’ experiences at school.

         Ø    Student satisfaction: Half of the students find the educational system deficient in some respect. Among their chief criticisms, the lack of Indian culture comes first (17% of those who expressed a criticism), followed by the lack of practical applicability (14%), and of values (11%).

         Ø    Mother tongue vs. English: 47% of the students feel that the mother-tongue medium is the best to facilitate understanding (against 24% who favour English). This feeling is especially strong in Govt. schools (63%), and among students studying in Bengali, Kannada, Tamil and Gujarati. Even among English-medium students, 40% favour the mother-tongue medium. Another question brings out that 13% of students cannot read their mother tongue, and 18% cannot write in it.

         Ø    Competition: Even though 64% of the students find competition beneficial, 43% feel that the examination system is stressful. However, the last figure is probably much larger in reality.

         Ø    Textbooks: 62% find the load of textbooks they are made to carry to school unnecessary and excessive.

         Ø    Role of parents: While the majority seem satisfied with the role of their parents in their education, 35% report being under pressure to get marks.

         Ø    Physical training: 70% of the students find physical training a pleasant change, but 31% of them find it insufficient. Most schools have some physical activity once a week, but many have it once a month or even less.

         Ø    Eco-awareness: About half of the students report participating in the planting of saplings or cleanup programmes, but only 26% have been taken on visits to Nature spots. 67% desire a green area in or around their school.

Influence of variables on the educational system

Studies of the influence of variables have enabled us to reach some important conclusions:

         Ø    An elaborate study of a “satisfaction” pattern, correlating 15 different questions and drawing a five-grade scale, concluded that only 42% of all students could be said to be satisfied with the quality of school education (out of which 8% were “very satisfied”). Another 28% were average, 23% were dissatisfied and 8% were very dissatisfied.

         Ø    Gender: Girls are generally happier with all aspects of school education than are boys, except as far as book load is concerned. They are also more articulate than boys (having left fewer blank replies, especially to the more challenging questions).

         Ø    School type: Fewer students of private urban schools find that their education promotes all-round growth. Their schools are also far behind others as far as eco-awareness programmes are concerned.

         Ø    However, students of Govt. schools feel much less happy than private-school students about the level of teachers’ interaction with them, the amount of physical training, and the space given to art in education.

         Ø    Students of Govt. rural schools find the examination system least stressful (perhaps because they are under less pressure to perform); they also find competition more harmful than do other students.

         Ø    Overall, our study of “satisfaction” established that students of Govt. schools, especially in urban areas, are more dissatisfied than those of private schools.

         Ø    Class: Figures show that the higher the class, the higher the dissatisfaction with the content of education, the teaching methods, the examination system, the book load, or the amount of time devoted to sports. Also, the higher the class, the fewer students who find that their education promotes all-round growth. Our pattern study confirmed a steady decrease in satisfaction from class to class: class 9 scores 54 on a scale of 100, while class 12 scores 49.

         Ø    Medium: English-medium students find the examination system much more stressful than do Indian-language medium students; we showed that one contributory factor in the stress is the difficulty of following studies in English. They are also the students who complain the most about book load. In addition, English-medium schools give much less room to Nature-related activities than do Indian-language medium ones.

         Ø    Our study of “satisfaction” showed that overall, Kannada-medium students are the most satisfied with their education, followed closely by Hindi, Gujarati and Marathi. At the other end, Bengali-medium students were ranked as the least satisfied, followed by English-medium and Tamil-medium students.

Remarks on Expression

Our studies of patterns highlighted a few important points:

         Ø    The proportion of blank answers was generally high (21% over all questions, rising to 36% over the more challenging questions), suggesting a lack of habit of original thinking or expression. We feel that this is because the school system relies largely on mechanical methods of teaching and learning, and rarely encourages students to articulate their own thoughts.

         Ø    Girls expressed themselves slightly better than boys.

         Ø    Students of Govt. rural schools are the most capable of expressing their thoughts, not only overall but also with respect to the more challenging questions. Private urban school students come a distant second.

         Ø    In terms of medium, the same study shows that students in Tamil and Gujarati are well ahead of others, including English-medium students, in the ability to articulate their thoughts.

         Ø    We demonstrated through a statistical study that students are prone to give excessively positive responses to individual questions. For instance, as regards satisfaction with the educational system, we showed that over a third of all students contradicted themselves at least once (we suggested a number of possible reasons for this). This confirms the well-known pitfall of looking at a single question in search of a conclusion.


On the cultural content of school education

The Survey has shown that only 38% students felt they are imbibing some values at school; only 37% of students reported learning art as part of their regular curriculum; students had little knowledge of literature from other States, of the meaning of popular festivals, or of regional / tribal culture; students who expressed their thoughts on the deficiencies of the educational system complained first about “lack of culture” (and “lack of values” in third position); and the cultural content decreases from class 9 to class 12.

Such observations emphasize the failure of the average school curriculum to meet the cultural needs of students, regardless of the school type or medium of instruction. This confirms observations by many educationists, from S. Radhakrishnan downward, that schooling in India fails to impart meaningful cultural values to the students. There are many reasons for this situation, but we discern the pressure of the examination system as possibly the most weighty.

It is paradoxical that English-medium students should come out as the least interested in Indian culture. Whether this is partly a legacy of the colonial system, or traceable to the greater pressure on these students to “perform”, and therefore to cut down on topics that do not bring marks, remains to be investigated. But whatever the cause, this points to a systemic failure.

That failure is also reflected in the small proportion of students who feel that they imbibe values through their schooling. Value-based education has long been viewed by educationists as supremely desirable, yet the average Indian school appears to be as far from this goal as ever.

While the educational system fails in the “supply”, the students’ “demand” to learn about Indian culture is clearly voiced, both as part of the curriculum and through extra-curricular activities, and across gender, class, school type, or medium. Among the first aspects of Indian culture that students would opt for, we have noted art, asanas and pranayama, Indian sports and games (such as kabaddi), and Indian languages. It is remarkable that few of these disciplines carry any incentive in today’s school system. To meet the students’ aspiration, therefore, it will be essential:

         Ø    to reduce the pressure of examinations and competition, and to lighten the syllabus so as to make space for such disciplines;

         Ø    to integrate Indian culture in the curriculum in an innovative manner, and also to encourage schools to conduct extra-curricular activities of a cultural nature;

         Ø    to work out ways to reward students who excel in cultural disciplines.

The above can only be done if deeper reforms of the system are to be envisaged. This brings us to the second part of our conclusions.

Suggestions from the students on the educational system

We have established the overall poor level of satisfaction of students with the education imparted to them. On the positive side, questions eliciting the students’ thoughts gave rise to important suggestions. Let us list the main ones:

         Ø    Reduction of the syllabus: 30% of the students who expressed themselves (notably as regards ways to make examinations less stressful) asked for the syllabus to be reduced. We quoted a number of them in this connection; their view may be summarized by one such specific comment: “Large quantity but little quality.” Cutting down the size of the syllabus is the first step to be taken if room is to be made for quality. Unfortunately, in recent years, the overall national trend has rather been the opposite, adding ceaselessly to the number and size of topics to be learned.

         Ø    A less mechanical pedagogy: Although students did not express themselves emphatically on this aspect, 17% of them felt that examinations test only their memory. Among those who did express themselves, many complained in strong terms about a pedagogy which, they felt, brought no stimulation to thinking.

         Ø    A practical-oriented pedagogy: A related and better expressed voice consistently asked for a more practical, less bookish or theoretical orientation or a playway method of teaching (each by 16% of those who made a suggestion), also for more sports (7%). A detailed study on such demands concluded that 65% of all students made them in one form or another. (The demand was stronger in the higher classes and in Govt. schools.) Some students complained that their education is unrelated to their life and environment. Among specific suggestions, we may mention innovative methods of teaching making use of audiovisual material, computers, more sports and physical activities, visits to places, industries, Nature spots, etc.

         Ø    Quality of the teacher: Although this did not appear in the statistics, many students commented on the poor level of qualification of their teachers (some also complained about corporal punishment, a widespread evil). Many wanted the teacher not to mechanically repeat the textbook, but to provide explanations based on practical examples. Even more than qualification, the students asked for human qualities such as patience, understanding, cheerfulness, etc.

         Ø    Mother tongue: Many students were in favour of the mother tongue as the medium of instruction, even 40% of English-medium students, who do not seem able to follow the teaching in English (and often complain about the teachers’ poor level of knowledge of English). Since English-medium schools are unlikely to go, the solution clearly lies in excellence: excellence in teaching in the mother-tongue medium as well in English medium. A vast improvement in the quality of teachers seems to be the key here as elsewhere.

         Ø    Examinations: A significant proportion of students (24% in all) suggest either doing away with exams altogether, replacing them with daily evaluation, or making them more flexible in terms of subjects and timing, or else making sure that exams test the child’s real talent and understanding, including practicals, not merely his or her capacity to “mug up” the textbook. As stated in the earlier section on cultural education, this seems to be the root of all other changes one may suggest or envisage in the educational system.

         Ø    Book load: Well over half of the students came up with sensible suggestions on how to reduce the excessive load of textbooks they are asked to carry to school. The first suggestion is of course that books should remain at school. Others include a demand for a less “bookish”, and for computerized education.

How this Survey could help in designing a better schooling

We do not claim completeness for this Survey: to probe the students’ mind, the sample should ideally be larger (of the order of 50,000) and more diverse geographically, linguistically and socially; the questions could be more extensive, or, on the contrary, more focused on specific aspects of education. This exercise should therefore be regarded as only a first exploration.

Yet, despite its shortcomings, it has highlighted areas where school education has failed in its mission to equip a student to face life. It also shows that the still prevalent notion that education can be designed without the active participation of the students is a relic of the nineteenth century. In any effort to modernize education, to make those twelve years of schooling a more fulfilling and meaningful period in a child’s life, students should not be seen as passive recipients.

The students’ voice is a genuine one and deserves to be heard. Going through their expressions (almost 700 of which we quoted in our full report) as well as practical suggestions, one cannot but be struck by their depth and maturity. The students should be accepted as active participants in their own education. Indeed, it is high time to create a forum or platform where they can collaborate with educationists as team partners working together to bring about the changes our educational system is urgently calling for.