Indian elections had taken place just the previous year, and I was shocked that most of the students didn’t know the distinction between parliament and assembly.
Schools should provide an education that builds children’s confidence, kindles curiosity and creativity, and sharpens intellect, thereby paving the way for a prosperous and enlightened life. Are schools meeting this expectation? To find the answer, I took time off from my computer science research and taught students from rural schools and colleges in two summers. I was pained to observe that our schools are unwittingly working against this goal, imparting an education that shatters children’s confidence, suppresses curiosity and creativity, and blunts intellect. The culprit, I discovered, is the English-medium education. Children and even teachers, in rural and under-resourced urban schools, have little facility with English. As a result, English-medium is forcing children to learn every subject, from mathematics to history, by rote, without any understanding of the underlying concepts. The end result is that students don’t learn and lose interest in learning. I describe my experiences of this alarming ground reality in the first half of this article. In the remainder, I outline a vision to fix this malady and unleash the full potential of our children. Teaching in the mother-tongue while also imparting excellent English skills, and emphasizing conceptual understanding from the earliest years are the core elements of this vision.
To understand the ground reality for the vast majority, who live in small towns and villages, I held education camps in the summers of 2014 and 2015, one for middle school children and the other for final year B.Sc. students, in a small town in Andhra Pradesh. The students that attended the camps came from private and government schools and colleges in the town and the surrounding villages. These camps were possible because of Sri Vishnu Raju, CEO of Vishnu Educational Society, who shared my passion and extended full logistic, financial, and infrastructural support.
Algorithms, which are at the core of computer science, finally started to make sense to them and learning became enjoyable.
In the middle school camp, we had 45 boys and girls whom the schools recommended, out of over three hundred that expressed interest in attending. The mathematics level of all, even in this select group of students, was far below their grade level. In particular, they didn’t know how to even add and subtract negative integers. Further, even though most children studied in English- medium, they couldn’t follow when I taught in English and hesitated to ask questions. Once I switched to explaining the concepts in Telugu, their receptivity surged: they started to engage, ask questions, and understand the concepts. The students left the camp not only with better mathematics skills but more importantly, with genuine excitement for learning.
The experience with computer science college students was even more dramatic. More than 90 students wanted to participate, so I conducted a test to select the 30 students for the camp. I designed a test that had just two simple programming problems, which were so easy that my son was sure that all 90 would answer both problems right, so the test wouldn’t serve its purpose. Alas, when the students took the test the next day, none could solve either problem and all 90 students got a 0 out of 100!
How could we explain this abysmal performance, especially when some of these students got top ranks and distinctions in their college exams? I learned that they had never been encouraged to think for themselves: the lecturer copies algorithms from the textbook to the board, which the students simply copy in their notebooks, memorize, and reproduce in the exam. In their 15 years of education prior to the camp, they were never encouraged to think about, question, or understand the substance of what they were learning.
At this camp too, it quickly became clear that English was a barrier in our communication. Once I switched to explaining in Telugu, the students started to understand the concepts. Algorithms, which are at the core of computer science, finally started to make sense to them and learning became enjoyable.
The lack of foundation was not confined to computer science. Indian elections had taken place just the previous year, and I was shocked that most of the students didn’t know the distinction between parliament and assembly. So, instead of limiting the camp to computer science, I engaged students on contemporary issues, conversational English, and Telugu literature. When I explained Sanskrit’s influence on European languages, students’ interest was aroused, leading me to introduce the Sanskrit language to them. This wholesome learning environment, which even included yoga and cricket, was so stimulating that students didn’t want to take even Sundays off. They were sobbing and unwilling to part with us on the last day, which is a testimony to how much our students enjoy learning if only the exchange happens in a language in which both the teacher and the students can express themselves clearly and comprehensively.
If we want the child to understand what we teach, there is no choice but to use that language as the medium for instruction and interaction.
The next experience is a curious phenomenon that my wife and I observed when we visited a UKG (Upper Kindergarten) classroom. Whenever we spoke to the 29 lovely four-year-old children in that room in Telugu, they responded enthusiastically. For instance, when we asked in Telugu that the girls alone rise and clap, they did. A minute later, we asked the boys to rise and clap, except that this time we spoke in English. No one responded because no one understood English. What is shocking is that this was the state of affairs even after these children were taught only in English full-day for the entire previous year of LKG. Still more, unfortunately, when children asked questions in Telugu, instead of answering, teachers would rebuke them for not speaking in English. Such rejection saps children’s enthusiasm, stunting their inquisitiveness and confidence forever.
To be continued…
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus
- English medium in public school education: The Ills and a Path Forward – Part 2 - December 17, 2019
- English medium in public school education: The Ills and a Path Forward – Part 1 - December 15, 2019