Tag Archives: reading

Rethinking Long Breaks

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, highlights an interesting research by Johns Hopkins University sociologist Karl Alexander. Alexander demonstrated that the reading scores of the wealthy kids jumped high after their long summer breaks whereas the reading scores of the poor kids dropped after the holidays. Poor kids may out-learn rich kids during the school year. But during the summer, they fall far behind.  Gladwell says, “When it comes to reading skills, poor kids learn nothing when school is not in session. Virtually all of the advantage that wealthy students have over poor students is the result of differences in the way privileged kids learn while they are not in school.” In a nutshell, poor children lag behind their wealthy peers during long breaks.

In the times when everything else is changing, are we going to continue with the same hundred-year-old school system? We need to rethink our schools and question the assumptions.  Should we have long summer holidays or could we spread those out across the year and have small school breaks? It is not a difficult change to make at the policy level.

While we wait for such a top-level policy change, schools, parents groups, and NGOs can conduct summer learning camps, library programs and digital learning programs especially for financially and socially backward children. That’s the least we could do in the direction of equal opportunity.

What do we assess?

Whether it’s CBSE, ICSE or SSC; there is a text book for learning languages in India. There are stories, essays and poems in the text book. What are kids supposed to learn from these books? Are they supposed to learn only the lessons in the text book or are they supposed to learn the skill to understand, comprehend any text with the same complexity level as that of the textbook?

The way it currently works in India is either the question-answers on the lessons are dictated in the class by the teacher or they are solved at home as part of the homework (probably with the help of a parent or a tutor or a guidebook). Kids mug up (which is often referred to as “learning”) these answers and clear the tests because the same questions are asked in the test. There is no way to assess whether they have understood the lessons. Even if we assume that the lessons are understood by the kids (since the lessons are taught in the school), there is no way to assess if they have developed the capability to understand a similar kind of text on their own.

In many developed countries, right from the primary school, they don’t have a textbook to study languages. The goal is to learn the skill to comprehend the text of a certain predefined level instead of learning some predefined lessons. For example, in England they don’t have standard textbooks for learning English. Children read and discuss age-appropriate stories, poems and essays in the class. As they grow up, the complexity of the text and the comprehension expectations go up as well. In tests or as homework, children are supposed to read a completely new text and answer the questions. This ensures that children’s comprehension is tested and not their memory.

This is not to say that India should do away with the textbook concept. I understand that there is a thought process that goes in designing the textbooks. A certain level of depth and a variety of topics and genres are included in the textbooks. But why should the exam paper be based on it? Why not have the tests only on unseen prose and poems?