Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Clever Hans

Kolkata’s St. John's School for Girls holds 3900 girls ages K-12 on a small campus of colonial era buildings.  We visited an 11th math class where 45 girls in close rows took notes from a popular teacher named Mr. Francis.  He lectured on graphing parabolas, a lesson I somewhat recalled and somewhat understood. The method was strictly chalk and talk. There were no questions and few opportunities to offer any answers.  Sitting in the back of the stuffy room drifting off to the lull of four ceiling fans, I suddenly came to a new appreciation for Kahn Academy’s video lessons.  At least you could stop and review a lesson and do so at your own pace.  

Students here work toward two sets of board exams, one after 10th grade and another after 12th. The second one, as well as an optional additional exam, determine their college choice options.  With a burgeoning student population, admission to the most competitive universities requires scores over 95%.  In addition to the private schools that most aspiring students attend, they also go to ‘tuitions’ for up to four hours in the evenings.  Here they study the material again, in theory. The teacher we spoke with said this isn’t really tutoring in the proper sense, rather many of them simply do more worksheets on the material. One girl noted that many Indian students suffer from depression from the work load, and then she asked about her American peers.  

St. Johns, like all the schools working with the Fulbright exchange program, is a private school.  A NYT article notes that 90% of Indian students attend public schools which have larger class sizes and very poor instruction and accountability. So the kids in this class are the elite, cramming to do well on exams. The teachers feel the same pressure and largely teach to the tests which focus on content not understanding.  In the Telegraph newspaper today  the director of Modern High School for Girls, Devi Kar, compared Indian students to Clever Hans a horse who had apparently learned to add, but was ultimately proven to respond to subtle cues in his owner’s face. The Fulbright teachers here agree that students study advanced material at early ages but don’t really understand it.  

Of course test driven learning has a long if not noble tradition.  I've seen French boys cry in their mother's arms after receiving poor Baccalaureate scores.  My Senegalese students were entirely test driven as well.  They said few students read the books as their instruction was often poor and the exam requires little more than rote memorization of plot and character. And my SPA students increasingly (and often unwillingly) take SAT prep classes for a few extra points as well.  Despite huge differences in educational systems and resources, stressed, alienated children seem far too common.

Rabindranath Tagor, the most famous Bengali/Indian author and philosopher challenged this approach to education a century ago in ways similar to Dewey and Montessori. His conclusions here still feel too true both here and at home.  

“We have come to this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. But we find that this education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed. From our very childhood habits are formed and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days. Thus the greatest of educations for which we came prepared is neglected, and we are made to lose our world to find a bagful of information instead. We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for the Epic, but he is supplied with chronicles of facts and dates…Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment. (Rabindranath Tagore, Personality,1917: 116-17)” 

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