Open book exams — a step towards ‘learning without burden’ for students

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By Sunil Chaudhary

With weekly and monthly tests, a breathless routine destroys the child’s search for meaning in what is taught. This failure needs a broader remedy

Trying new things in education has been common in our country’s history. One of the latest ideas tested is the open-book exam. It’s not a new idea, but it’s hoped that this time it will make school less stressful for kids. A group looked into what makes school so stressful over thirty years ago.

Open book exams — a step towards ‘learning without burden’ for students

Even though many groups have tried to solve this problem, it still exists and sometimes gets worse. In the early 1990s, a small group led by the late Professor Yash Pal looked into why school is so stressful for kids. Yash Pal was a space scientist who used to answer kids’ questions on TV or in newspapers. His important report called ‘Learning Without Burden’ was recently discussed at a workshop at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai. People there talked about what we mean by “burden” today – has it gotten less, more, or just changed?

This group was formed after the writer RK Narayan gave a heartfelt speech in the Rajya Sabha. It was his first speech there, and it was so touching that it made the Deputy Speaker and others cry. Narayan talked about how kids are losing their childhood because of heavy school bags, lots of homework, and extra classes, calling it a country-wide problem.

The Yash Pal group said this problem comes from a wrong idea of what learning is and from bad school programs. They thought this was because of a rush to catch up with the West, where people believed there was a big jump in knowledge. Bad textbooks and teaching methods made this rush worse.

Kids also feel stressed because everyone wants to be the best. Schools make this worse by encouraging competition. Principals and teachers are pressured to get good results, so they push kids too hard. With constant tests, kids lose the joy of learning and just memorize stuff for exams.

At the Mumbai workshop, people talked about a new book asking where we are more than twenty-five years after the Yash Pal report. The book looks at school subjects and how teachers are trained. Some good changes have been made, but the recent Covid years have brought new problems. Textbooks have been shortened, making them harder to understand, and there’s a big shortage of teachers, as shown by a recent survey

During the workshop, there was a discussion on how technology affects both children and teachers, an area that remains largely unexplored. This topic has seen strong disagreements between its supporters and detractors. Three teachers shared their difficulties with being forced to use tech tools during the session, while an opposing perspective was also offered.

The issue of educational stress, once highlighted by the Yash Pal report, is evolving into a wider concern involving widespread worry among parents, teachers, and students. This anxiety is linked to the changing economic landscape and job market. As the chase for traditional, esteemed careers like medicine and engineering intensifies due to shrinking opportunities, private tutoring centers exploit this anxiety, escalating the stress to unprecedented levels.

The rise of technology and private tutoring has paralleled, both contributing to a new format of testing that relies heavily on multiple-choice questions. This format encourages a roundabout way of tackling subjects, pushing students to decipher the correct answers. Tutoring centers have become so adept at navigating this system that they now boast about their ability to prepare students for the relentless barrage of multiple-choice questions, diminishing the chance for teachers to emphasize understanding and the joy of learning.

Yash Pal, who passed away seven years ago, might not have foreseen the significant shifts in children’s experiences that have unfolded since then, particularly those changes initiated as responses to the Covid crisis. The transition to online learning, initially embraced as a temporary fix, became a point of pride post-pandemic, despite its ineffectiveness being recognized by teachers who, unfortunately, had little influence over this shift. This dynamic, where teachers are pressured and in turn pressure their students, exacerbates the educational burden identified by the Yash Pal committee, now intensified by new challenges and dynamics.

A voice like RK Narayan’s is needed once more to articulate the peculiar obsession that has taken hold of us, driving us to impose undue expectations on our children. By the time they graduate, they’ve lost any sense of passion or curiosity.

Whether open-book exams can address the deep-seated issues identified in the Yash Pal report remains uncertain. According to Yash Pal, the essence of effective teaching is to foster innate motivation, a goal that requires a solution far more comprehensive than any single educational reform.

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