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Case Study: Designed To Custom

How teachers and parents should value their child's uniqueness and individuality. “High School — It changes people into the person they said they would never become...” — Unknown

Photo Credit : Shutterstock

Mahi Iyer watched the scenes play out on the TV news channel. Young students of a college were being thrashed by some professionals who did not like the students to express their views. The disrespect, the disregard, the disgrace of the educational institution as a temple of love and knowledge made her cringe. But equally, her mind examined the professionals — older, experienced, of the world. They had been provoked by their own minds to lose control.

Her father sat a few feet away and he held his head with his wrinkled hand and called out to the Lord. ‘Siva-Sivaaa!’ went his cry. Mahi looked at him and realised how different his life had been in the 1940s when he studied at Ruia College in a thoroughly middle-class Maharashtrian heartland that smelled of food between sounds of vendors wanting to whip the cotton in your mattress or sharpen your knives. The largest group that ever formed was at Mama Kane’s on Senapati Bapat Marg, for his heart warming batata vada…. And even then, it was to discuss Shakespeare. And nobody beat them up for thinking Shakespeare was too intense.

The television screen grew gorier. Discussions mushroomed — should educated professionals thrash students? Each channel emphasised varyingly, the subject, the object or the verb. Educated news anchors were shouting down elderly panellists. Educated panellists were twisting arguments away from ethical and fair to unethical and strategic.

Mahi switched channels to her saved recordings of MasterChef. The only programme anywhere in the world that did not have sarcasm, hatred, jealousy, or innuendos. Anywhere in the world.

But Mahi continued to feel disturbed. If it was not the TV, then it was the newspapers that spewed grief in one form or another. A lady insurance firm manager duped several customers of crores of rupees knowingly and made off, also knowingly. She had siphoned many, many crores into benami accounts, which she had set up knowingly in Chambal. Point was, she also ran away knowing she had done wrong.

A contractor who was given the job of maintaining the facade of a high-rise building had sent up two of his poor, hapless workers in inefficient equipment. The equipment failed (what else?) and the two economically irrelevant men got stranded on the 20th floor level. The contractor was knowingly not going to be arrested because — hold your breath — there were no casualties.

Elsewhere, two brothers, also business partners, had killed the wife of one of them, knowingly. The scene was then made to look like suicide, knowingly. The parents of the girl turned hostile voluntarily.

Not too far away, a four-year-old boy was kidnapped by his relatives for ransom, knowingly.

Seven persons including a bank manager siphoned off Rs 25 lakh from the accounts of several customers of the bank — knowingly. They bought duplicate SIM cards to obtain one-time-passwords to hack into the accounts of these people.

While the cities were sparkling with the educated, well-to-do, conning life to amass more, in a tiny village nearby a 13-year-old girl was accused by her classmates of stealing Rs 1,000. Hurt beyond endurance, the young child went home and ended her life.

Purity and impurity, honesty and dishonesty coexist in our world, except the population of the former categories is fast reducing, thought Mahi. The 13 year old who ended her life was likely traumatised by the entire dishonesty that was being piled on to her. But the grown-ups in the news reports, with excellent jobs and earning potential and opportunity enjoyed being dishonest. Maybe it made for a nice ring of laughter over beer and peanuts. They were confident of finding an escape route for a price — a percentage of their loot.

The 13 year old, although innocent, did not see any reason to live with allegations piled on her.

Whereas the insurance manager, inept businessmen, the kidnappers, the killers and the account hackers had overstayed their existence. Mahi’s thoughts were a froth now: All the dishonest and impure were well educated and had means to livelihood; but the 13 year old depended on her daily wage earning mother.

Mahi — counsellor and advisor to the High School at Wisdom Park — let out a cry of utter frustration. The class of 2016 waited to graduate 30 students — just 5 per cent of the whole school, but what was the education that the system provided going to make out of them? The news reports on paper and screen seemed to indicate that it had not worked for them. Just yesterday she had a room full of parents and students of Class 10 to discuss their subject choices. But for what? For competing better. But no one, it appeared to her, simply wanted to gain wisdom....

Mahi looked back at the newspaper before her. Six thrillers, all in a day’s work, over three pages of The City Times. It was not the death of the child alone; it was also a classroom that had taken interest in attacking the girl and cornering her. What role was education playing, if at all? How would the school explain the collective hatred?

Or was education relevant, after all? This was one question that plagued Mahi. Year after year, she saw parents queue up gleefully for the baby school interviews, and many proudly said they knew their child was going to be a doctor, an actor, a lawyer… they just knew. They tutored their babies and, at the gates, instructed the child to ‘answer all questions nicely, ok?’ Absurd, terribly absurd.

Why did parents want their children in school? Or was it an expensive day care? Mahi chided herself. She was slowly becoming cynical.
When, after a few years, the same parents came back with ‘version 2’, Mahi wondered in amazement, “Why? For what?”

Most people studied to be fit for the world of incomes and revenues; the world of commerce and earnings; to have a livelihood. And how did it matter if physics came in handy to break a lock and chemistry to end a life cleverly? How did it matter if math helped analyse how to hack accounts and plot a clever system? It was math, now was it not? So, when you split the atom how were you to know that it could also destroy whole nations?

There, before her, yesterday, had been a room full of parents who believed they were planning their wards’ lives with precision. There around her was a whole school based on an education system that taught textbooks. And all of them kow-towed to a system that made the rules. That brought them salaries and a collar tag. No. No. Mahi could not fault a single teacher in her school. No doubt some toed the line, but when the young faces puckered up and cried when binomial theorem did not make sense, fear and hopelessness writ large on their sweet faces, the teachers wondered why some kids just don’t like math. Or science. Or grammar. Then other teachers would pull something out from their old bag of tricks and say, “Try this,” or “this” or “this…” and thus they would chisel and chisel and chisel till the child was force-fed quadratic equations or whatever it was that went against his grain. Most used harsh words like “Work hard! Do you want to end up on the streets? Be a criminal?”

Teachers did speak very badly in the classroom, often out of their own frustration at not being able to move on with a chapter when a few students derailed the whole class. Mahi looked at the newspaper again. These were the criminals who got their binomials and quadratics and integral calculus right…. But was that out of choice or.... coercion?

She was reminded of bonsais…. She hated it when people played with nature for want of something to do. They did that to children, she saw now: clipping and trimming and pruning them to force-fit them into IIT/IIM raw material.

Or…. They got into professional courses through dupe and capitation. It was not the education that was bad. It was what it did to some kinds of minds that was bad. It gave individuals the courage to bend the system, hurt, trouble, offend, … So, where lay the ‘bad’? And how did it get there?

Mahi was one more pawn that moved around the lesser pawns — the hapless students. There were days she disliked being a teacher.

Wisdom Park was a small school of 600 students and Principal Singh had no desire to grow bigger. “If we can successfully put out 60 kids into the world every year, sensible and stable, we would have done life a great service,” went Singh’s business model.

As for Mahi, she felt that the subjects are not enough as a menu for the students to choose from, or, the textbooks are not elaborate enough even while they are tedious (“We are not asking for 22 chapters in History; do 10 but do them with width, engaging the student’s wisdom even as you build on it.”) or, she feels the system is very harsh.

Principal Nimrat Singh has heard her quietly all these years, knowing that her observations were right even if idealistic. Mahi had been annoyed. She had observed once, “Social media has come in, businesses have grown bigger and better, new product innovations are flooding life week after week. Technology has made phenomenal progress, the world is pouring into our lives through the Internet and TV channels, information is a blast in the face every time we open the sites.... Yet our high school format, content, style, method… have remained exactly what it was when I was in school. If at all, it has only become tougher.


“We have not found any solution and, the angst of the students is only increasing while we continue to unleash more and more frustrated students into the system.”

Singh disagreed. She cited the examples of many, many students who were all happy and successful. “Investment bankers, heads of organisations, doctors, lawyers, marketing men … we have given so many such successes, …. Why, that boy Angad Dalvi, who is the owner of that world class sound recording outfit — A-voiz — he is our student. So too Romesh Bhargav, the Wall Street king, Achala Sachdev, the biochemist with Sloans, Simi Gaur, the golf champion…!”

Happy and successful. Really? Who decided happy and successful, wondered Mahi, unsure about voicing the question. The seller of education (schools), the buyer of education (parents) or the consumer/user of education, the student? If education’s role was to deliver ‘happy and succe- ssful’ then what accounted for those who could not get admission into college/university? Had they failed? Or did the school fail them? Or did the parents ‘buy’ poorly? Just because most were ‘happy’ did not make the ones unhappy, irrelevant or their unhappiness unimportant. Maybe the happy ones are happy being mediocre? Maybe they don’t care enough?

And so often that happiness was transient. The ‘happy’ that they saw on graduating faces was more an expression of pure relief that the treacherous three-month confinement to harsh labour, intensive study and no TV, has ended. Last year, the students of Class 12 had burnt their uniforms on the last day of school in some show of relief that school days were over. The news channels (prowling for prey) had gone to town with that episode. Singh had been gracious when she told the news reporter who came armed with camera and all, “Leave them alone; they don’t need your headlines; they are celebrating growing up. We have no problem with their expression. Have a good day!”

“Year after year after year, we groom the kids who come to us right from the time they are in their Mother Care wear,” said Mahi today to Singh, “till they leave those huge doors dreaming big dreams. Those dreams we put in there. We made them believe it was ok to dream … why, we even said ‘chase your dreams!’ And we told them the rags-to-riches stories of dreamers, that dreams are fulfil-able.

“But truth is we are all play acting. We pretend we have a great role to play in bringing up society; that we are the spine that puts man on his feet. That we build futures.... I think we do nothing of the kind. I think we are running a business where parents who have children and don’t know what to do bring them to us in the hope that we will shape them to fit them into the CBSE format and at the end of 12 years these little kids will be extruded and ready for input into IIT, Medicine or IIM.

“But what about those who don’t ‘form’ , and fall out as crumbs? Should we not be worrying about them? For them?” Singh was not disagreeing. That morning they had heard of Noreen Rao who had run away from home/ gone missing. Noreen was 18, graduated last year and didn't make it to any college, blamed herself, called herself a loser, her Facebook was full of her different states of idleness which she framed neatly into pretty frames she created using Plaxo and laced them with captions like: Today’s loser: fat and lazy; Today’s loser: bored and bumming; Today’s loser: thinking cocaine.

For several months, nobody mentioned it to Singh. Mahi did not know as she was not connected to Noreen on FB; but she knew Noreen worked at an NGO. Rumours said Noreen had eloped. Mahi knew that was the last thing Noreen would do. Noreen was fighting a battle with life and not winning. She loved food, both cooking and designing food and had hoped to get into hotel management. 


She didn't.

Her parents both worked at exciting careers and felt Noreen had been silly in choosing sciences. “She should have chosen arts. It is simple and easy. She is not a hard worker…. In life, you make mistakes and learn. Noreen too will,” they said, as they went about sticking many labels on Noreen.

For Noreen, nothing held meaning, especially at a time when her classmates with ‘successful’ lives, revealed on their Facebook pages exciting nuggets from college life, the cool canteens, their awesome new haircuts …The world would not go away from her, but she could leave home and this Facebook.... And that is what she did.

The search for Noreen was going on... but Mahi’s unhappiness only became worse. She sat on Principal Singh’s window ledge and said, “We have more Noreens ripening for running away from home next year.... I want to discuss them with you. If CBSE cannot create new moulds, we can create them? We can create an education system with new subjects and build the students? Help them find new tricks to solve old problems? Something like a gap year where students who wish to complete what they could not, stay on, research, explore, coast, enjoy and leave school with their new look? A look that is restoring and confident? You know what I am saying? Let us design a very exciting fun year during which time the students who fail to get into colleges of their choice (not any old college) enrol to study intensive new subjects like web design, business skills, digital marketing, report writing, technology…. And a mentor who will travel with them, plus they do six weeks with some organisation in roles that we can plan…Why should our children feel they have failed? They have not. It’s just that the system is unbending, limited and incapable of dealing with all varieties of students.”

Singh: I am sorry that Noreen felt so troubled. These children are so young and frustrated … Noreen was always unhappy with her lessons… you recall? Could not apply herself to Biology, Chemistry…. She should not have chosen those subjects. Her mother was not wrong even if she was artless. I asked her once and she shrugged her shoulders. Her mother said it was a safe back up lest she does not get into Hotel Management. What happened then, do you know?

Mahi: Noreen scored 73 per cent. No college would take her. The cut off was 98 per cent. I find this whole marking system terrible. Noreen hung around. Her parents got her to work at some NGO as if it was some kind of retribution. That was the last thing Noreen would have wanted to be doing. Everyone else’s life was frothing with newness, Noreen was figuring life alone. We don’t ever realise how much we hurt our children… That boy on TV? So sad! All he was saying is don’t put caste labels on me… and they... oh, God.

Singh: Mahi, this happens to so many children every year….

Mahi: Should it happen? Isn’t that greater reason why we should be working on giving our ‘lesser’ students a new definition for life? Or do we exist only for the glorious successful? Like, insurance firms that say ‘We don’t want customers who can fall sick...!'

Mahi said the problem is not simply CBSE. Many kids beat the system, grab that 98 somehow, answering the objective questions through guesswork and coming to be known as brilliant … Did you hear about Faiz? The 12 answers he ticked turned out right! He scored 94! It’s ok. You have a system like that, then that’s what you get. But when you add parents’ expectations, a career economy that is insecure and unimaginative and needs certificates to know your capability, then you have a bigger problem. There are four stakeholders in this business: parents, school/teachers, the education boards and finally a market that employs the student. Look at all of them, they each use the student!

“Why do we have these straitjackets? That if you take sciences, then you take Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, but you can’t also take history? That if you take sciences you do 170 derivatives, 200 elements, 300 riders, 400 something else… why? Because we want to prepare them for a tough life, for IIT. Like fabric for bags, fabric for sheets, fabric for shirts and fabric for cleaning are all different. And when they become these investment bankers and things, we are proud. But are they happy? Truly happy? We chip and shape them and squeeze them out of extruders….who are we to do this? Teachers. So, can we also help them know what they can do when that extruder fails?

Singh: You may be very upset over Noreen. She will come back. Don’t worry over her. Don’t forget every student faces this, not just Noreen. This is also when students need to find solutions, work with their minds. All experiences bring learning. This format applies to not just kids in our school but kids across the country!

Mahi: That is why we have insurance managers defrauding and doctors indulging in unethical practices and lawyers thrashing. We must stop designing children….!

Read Analysis: Pranita Lele | G. Gautama

To be continued...

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case study teachers education magazine 04 april 2016