THERE’S hardly a field, domain or discipline that has not been affected by the Covid 19 pandemic. One such field is that of education which has been hit at all levels- primary, secondary and tertiary. While attempts have been and are being made to deliver education non-conventionally- online through zoom and other channels- but it is not the same thing as the ‘bricks and mortar’ stuff- that, actual and real class room learning. What may accrue from this is that in the future there might be a synthesis of online and real, classroom learning. But, all this obscures one important aspect of learning and teaching- grades, marks and the grading system(s).
By way of a bit of a digression, in South Asia, there is an obsession with grades or more accurately, getting good grades. Such is the fanatical obsession with good grades, that these are almost held to be a measure of self-worth. But, grades are grades- a subjective evaluation and assessment of a student of his or her exams or assignments. So why this monofocal emphasis on grades?
The answer is multi-pronged but in the main it pertains to society and the importance attached to high grades by some or even most employers. Consider society first. In , say, the context of Kashmir, my birthplace, society holds good grades to be the epitome of a student’s worth , emblematising the ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ of a given student. By default, then it is assumed that a student who has obtained good grades is ‘naturally’ good and the one who has not is ‘bad’. Employers use grades as a yardstick and a proxy for the ability and intelligence of a potential employee. But, then , to repeat, grades are grades that may have some correlation to intelligence and ability of a student but are not and should not be the end all or be all.
High grades can be obtained by hard work and diligence or by rote learning and memorising that while are reflective of one aspect of learning but do not constitute real learning. The bane of memorisation and rote learning is very real in Kashmir. Real learning, among other things, is the ability to understand and put into perspective concepts, gain conceptual clarity and understand, all overlain by critical thinking. There’s more that goes into education, learning and pedagogy but these aspects or attributes might be the core of these.
In Kashmir the delivery and nature of education is not a picture of excellence: it is, in fact shoddy. Government schools are the worst where many times, the teacher student ratio is skewed, delivery is extremely poor, curricula are outdated and rote learning is incentivised, to name just a few negative aspects of learning and teaching.
Moreover, grades can be merely suggestive of a student’s ability and intelligence. In Kashmir, for example. The delivery and nature of education is not a picture of excellence: it is, in fact shoddy. Government schools are the worst where many times, the teacher student ratio is skewed, delivery is extremely poor, curricula are outdated and rote learning is incentivised, to name just a few negative aspects of learning and teaching. The situation is to bad that it is only the extremely intelligent who manage to educate themselves through and in the cracks of our bloated, ineffective and inefficient educational eco system. Yet, again then good grades cannot be indicative of a student’s real ability and intelligence. There is also the effect of poverty. Education is an eco-system where the family and the student, to use the jargon of social innovation, co-create value. But students from poorer backgrounds suffer, on this account, for no fault of theirs.
At best, then grades are a partial surrogate and proxy of a subjective and contingent assessment of a student. Does this mean grades are no good? No. All it means is that grades must be viewed as a form and kind of feedback used for determining where the real interest of a student lies and as feedback for improvement. Grades- whether poor or good- must not leave an imprimatur on the direction and thrust of a student’s life. But this assertion might hold more in developed contexts where student choice is more, universities and institutions of learning do not generally discriminate on ageism and so on. In lesser development contexts, grades can be or ever are determinative. How can this problem be obviated? The answer lies in the supply side of education which must be improved drastically so that students, especially disadvantaged ones, are not had done by and their life chances thrown down the drain just because of grades.
In the final analysis, grades do matter but these should not be seen as a matter of harsh judgment and cast gloom and doom on a person. It has been, in developed contexts been observed that individuals who have done stupendously well have been school dropouts. This is not to suggest that students should leave school but to put into perspective the nature of intelligence which can be, at times, totally divorced from grades. So, students who read this essay: chill, understand yourselves and focus on what you are really into and find for yourselves niches where you can excel. Good grades and great careers will follow!
Tailpiece: The Covid 19 pandemic whose duration remains unknown has thrown into tizzy academics schedules. In many parts of the west, what has been done is give predictive grades. That is, grades based and extrapolated from past performance. Perhaps this can be replicated in Kashmir instead of giving mass promotions.
Author is a columnist and has formerly served as Associate Editor at Kashmir Observer.
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