Final day of school
Final day of School as I know it. Guwahati, 2017.

To give you some background, I spent the first ten years of my life in a village where proper schooling was a distant dream. From there, I moved to a nearby town and even switched the medium of instruction from Bengali to English. That turned out to be a life-changing move. Once I completed my Class 10 board exams, I moved to Guwahati for better educational opportunities. That move started a series of events and led me to where I am today. For brevity, I would not describe every decision but change gears to focus on the issue at hand – the Indian school education system. Of course, like any other system, there are both good and bad sides, but the current essay will focus on the not-so-great aspects of the school system.

The Indian school education system forces children to be subservient to the teacher’s instructions – sometimes the instructions are reasonable, at other times they are flat out non-sensical. Students are not encouraged to question authority, a trait that shows up well into their college years. Once school students grow up, we make a big deal and say things like, “Why don’t Indian students ask questions?”

Well, if you trained children not to question authority for as long as they can remember, how do you expect them to change overnight? How can you expect the same children to grow up and question various policy issues or speak out loud against societal problems? It takes massive willpower and effort on the part of an individual to get out of the subservient mindset. I like to think I have improved in this aspect, but there are obvious remnants.

A good teacher should be humble enough to admit that they can be wrong at times – that is perfectly okay. On the contrary, the current practice is to penalize students for contradictions, resorting to calling students “over-smart,” and so on. If you are not proud of your students going above and beyond to learn independently, are you doing your job well?

Sometimes students get penalized in exams for solving problems using methods not taught in class. School classes usually focus on teaching what is “important” for exams and glossing over/skipping other things. Sayings such as, “this is not important for the exam” or “that is out of syllabus” are too common. Instead of rewarding students for creative thinking, they are actively discouraged from thinking outside the box. Students must stick to the “tried and tested” problem-solving methods.

And no, when I talk about creativity, I don’t mean that students should write lyrics of their favorite songs (yes, this actually happens) or cook up non-sensical answers. What I mean is if someone solves a problem using a different method (for whatever reason – maybe they are comfortable with that approach, or they just vibe with specific methods, or they just wish to show off their knowledge) and that solution is correct, it should be acceptable.

Speaking of exams – exams decide so much of what happens after school life. School exams are probably one of the worst conducted measures of anything. 1 There are no set criteria or agreed way of evaluating answers. To illustrate the absurdity, consider two questions.

1) Define sericulture. (2 marks)

2) Define speed. (2 marks)

Normal humans would probably answer something like this:

1) Sericulture - The production of silk and the rearing of silkworms for this purpose is called sericulture.

2) Speed - The distance travelled per unit of time is referred to as speed.

But, no. The school education system expects you to define sericulture and write the different sub-processes. And you are expected to write the SI unit of speed after defining it. Why? “Well, the question was for 2 marks, so writing just the definition isn’t enough.” That is the level of absurdity that goes on. For God’s sake, if you wanted the students to define and write the SI unit of speed, why couldn’t you frame your question as, “Define speed. Write the SI unit of speed. (1+1 = 2 marks)” The students know what is expected of them, and the examiners also know what they want as the answer.

A student who does not write the extra stuff would often lose marks because of stupidity such as these, even though they answered the question correctly. In my experience, the point is not to judge whether a student knows something. Instead, it is about seeing how much a student can mug up, and then vomit the answers in their answer sheet. As I said, thinking about answers isn’t encouraged, so people who can memorize definitions and the units and whatnot and also vomit those on their answer sheet score better. And as I previously mentioned, since exam scores can pretty much dictate where you end up in life, simple absurdities such as these can have a huge impact. Technically, the student who did not write the SI unit because the question didn’t ask it is no worse than the others who wrote that extra bit. 2

And, of course, you cannot challenge how the examiner evaluated your answer sheet because then you come off as “over-smart,” and they would make sure to re-evaluate your paper using an extra pair of eyes and, frankly, some hatred for you. None thinks about the student – the parents think it’s the student’s fault, the school and the teachers make a big deal out of the simplest things; all parties are fired up; meanwhile, the student is devastated.

Simple things such as drawing diagrams using a pen instead of a pencil would lose you marks. I don’t think anyone ever considered the emotional burden that students go through while appearing for a public exam such as their Class 10 school board exams. If it were that important that students must only use a pencil to draw diagrams, a simple solution is to keep pencils in the exam hall – someone might have forgotten, and some are too poor to afford them (this is true; I hate it that I have to say this out loud).

So many things are stupid – you can’t smile in class, students are pitted against one another (they appoint “class-monitors” who could snitch instead of encouraging collaboration early on in life), and you need to ask for the teacher’s permission to use the toilet. Like what?! What is a child supposed to do? Hold on till the class is over? I can’t believe some teachers actually used to say no at times. What a tragedy!

Teachers take on the role of a disciplinarian akin to a jail warden or the police officer in charge of a crime district instead of helping students through one the most confusing and turbulent periods of their lives – hormones are raging, there is so much to do yet so little knowledge about things, what to do next and so on. Most have no idea. A little kindness and understanding would do so much good; instead of helping students navigate life on their own terms, school administrators and teachers act as gatekeepers – students are only “allowed” to do a set of things.

I believe schools can help students and be the guide that they need. At this point, it seems as if the single focus of schools is to help students score the best marks in exams and nothing else.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m a proponent of getting good exam scores. It opened so many avenues for me, but at the same time, students, especially teenagers, need to know that there is a world outside of academic rigor. Where possible, the school education system should encourage habits such as reading, writing, and learning things by doing.

Lastly, I hope the school education system will consider what they do for the girls. The gender gap widens so much after school; at least give them the space to learn and grow in school. Please do away with stuff such as “only boys can play during games; girls can sit and cheer.” The “Boys can do this, girls should do that” mentality needs to change. I don’t see why girls should pursue biology and not Math or Engineering.

In writing these words, I fully acknowledge that my schools and teachers had much to do with what I am today. Whether I like it or not, I’m a product of the Indian school education system. While there are undoubtedly good aspects, I hope they would be gracious enough to accept my feedback and be kinder to the next generation of students. After all, it takes a village to raise a child.

Leave a comment if these words resonated with your experiences. In fact, it would be awesome if you can share the not-so-great experiences from school. If commenting is too taxing for you, you can just react. Until next essay, bye! 👋

  1. I’d like to say things improve considerably afterward. Once I was out of the school education system, my experiences were amazing. IITK was a lovely place to learn and grow, and so was IIMA. 

  2. I understand that in some cases, students writing extra demonstrates their exam-readiness and, by some proxy, their knowledge too. Again, the question paper should make the expectations clear. 

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