The fault in our system: Failure of exam-focused curricula
Students currently in Grade 10 rejoiced following the decision Secondary Education Examination (SEE) being cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were many calls following the decision to scrap the national level examination completely. When the National Examination Board declared certification will be issued on internal evaluations, another wave of panic arose amongst these students.
It is no surprise schools go extreme measures in preparing their students for SEE. Each student is doted upon to score the best grades, not for students to evaluate what they have learned so far but for the schools to capitalize on their good grades. Average and above-average students fare well, even in internal evaluations. However, it’s usually not the case for students who are below average in grades. A traceable trend of below average students getting good grades emerged in the past, especially in final board examinations. Now that the SEE has been cancelled, it begs the question: if the internal evaluations are enough for such students to be graded fairly and what negative effects of these grades will manifest into the students’ mental well-being?
Which points to the primary issue—wasn’t education supposed to be about finding your interests, morals, goals, and ambitions rather than just getting good grades? When did getting a good education limit itself to judging students based on their grades only?
The bleak present
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics census of 2011, 65.9 percent of the total population of Nepal is literate. Since then, it has been estimated that the number has gradually increased to about 68 percent. The literacy census is done based on whether an adult can do simple calculations, read and write and use a simple mobile phone. Apart from the national census, a few outdated reports and the national average of grades in SEE, there are no other definite means to measure the effectiveness of educational curriculum in Nepal. Sure, a national average will showcase a graph of how failures have reduced over the years and distinctions have increased, but colourful graphs cannot paint the bigger picture of the current curriculum’s effectiveness in preparing a student to deal with various situations in life.
The Curriculum Development Centre’s primary objectives include finding out and implementing various techniques to assess curricula as well as students. But it seems they have only catered the latter part of the objective.
The Curriculum Development Centre’s primary objectives include finding out and implementing various techniques to assess curricula as well as students. But it seems they have only catered the latter part of the objective. The curriculum developed so far has highlighted in preparing students to face standardized tests rather face life in general. A glaring reality is that although students might do well in these tests, they often feel the knowledge they gain have no practical reference to what they have to face in life after graduation. Most students feel lost in what to do next, overwhelmed at what life has to offer, fearful of making even the smallest mistake leading to failure.
In an attempt to understand the co-relation of the current curriculum and the mental well being of the students, a survey was conducted with 75 participants from various private schools in Kathmandu valley, Chitwan and Biratnagar. A total of 27 questions based on linear choices, multiples choices and written answers were asked. When asked how well they did in school, all participants’ answers ranged from average to excellent but upon asking if they answered only on the basis of their grades, 48 participants said yes. It shows how students often co-relate their time in school to how much grades they managed to get.
Another question asked was if the teachers ever discriminated students on the basis of grades to which surprisingly 66 students responded that they had been mistreated publicly at least once in their school life because they scored less marks. The humiliation, as told by many of the participants, had left significant impact on their ability to perform well in academics. “Being humiliated for low grades was normal in my school,” one of the participants wrote. On the other hand, participants who did great academically lamented they felt tortured to maintain their grades. In fact, those who were inconsistent with their grades were often labelled as ‘bad students’ by teachers.
The survey also found out that the teachers rarely tried to understand the root of the problem or try to change their way of teaching. Instead, the teachers either blamed the students or became more aggressive in their teaching. This resulted in 65% of the participants resorting to extra tuition classes to catch-up. It comes as a surprise because these institutions are one of the renowned private institutions in the country. In other words, if this is the condition of top notch private schools, what hope do we have left in public schools?
- Borrowed curriculum
The irony of our country lies on how we as citizens suspect our politicians are our neighbouring country’s puppets yet fail to realize the foundational system of our knowledge is also borrowed from them. The long tradition of home-schooling and Gurukulas discontinued once the Rana regime took over and established Durbar School as the first formal school. Since then education was provided only to the elites until the 1950s when with the democracy opened it to the masses. However, instead of creating constructive and critical pedagogy from primary to university levels, we did what we do best—copy from the Indian system. The ultimate loss here was that the Indian system was rundown of the British colonial regime, modelled to divide rather than unite people of India. Hence, our education system began restricting education within four walls with massive imbalance in teacher to student ratio. Additionally, it brought forth problems of lack of physical infrastructure in rural areas, lack of textbooks as well as textbooks with only monolingual instruction.
Despite CDC’s attempts of curriculum decentralization through local curriculum policy of giving rights to individual schools to design their own curricula, central bodies subscribed the course books while asking to finish teaching the contents within a given period of time.
A 2019 report based on Participatory Action Research (PAR) project in public school of Nepal by Shree Krishna Wagle, Bal Chandra Luitel and Erling Krogh explained how contextualized teaching and learning has not been the priority of school education of Nepal. The paper highlighted how falling under neo-liberal political agenda of labour market, parents from rural Nepal understood learning as mere securing good exams results. It also reflected how the gap between centrally designed educational policies and implementation widened due to the imitation of western modern ideals of education. Nepal’s education is trapped under misguided westernization in the false hope of modernization. Despite CDC’s attempts of curriculum decentralization through local curriculum policy of giving rights to individual schools to design their own curricula, central bodies subscribed the course books while asking to finish teaching the contents within a given period of time. The obsession with international standards of examinations with influence of geo-politics, Nepal fostered the test and exam-centred curricula permanently.
- Examination, comparison and pressure
One might ask how we are ever going to encompass intellectual ability to compete on a global stage without exams. Well, Finland has been doing this—that too exceptionally well. Their motto “Whatever it takes” stems from shifting the curricula’s emphasis primarily on developing student’s ability to learn, completely eradicating mandated standardized tests, and ultimately removing suffocating competitions. Professor Pasi Sahlberg, a former math and physics teacher as well as an advisor in Finland’s Ministry of Education Culture termed the Finnish education system as “preparation for children to learn how to learn instead of how to take a test”. Ultimately due to the Education Index, Finland was placed amongst the highest in Human Development Index in 2008. The Finns have consistently ranked high in PISA study which compares national educational systems around the world.
On the other hand, schools in Nepal do have extra-curricular activities where students can find their talent apart from academics. Despite some students having exceptional skills in extra-curricular activities like sports, music and art, they are pushed to maintain grades side by side. Students tend to drop their hobbies in pursuit of better grades, pressured by their schools and parents directly or indirectly. In the same survey, students confessed how lost they felt after graduation, primarily because they were unable to figure out what subject they were interested in for higher studies. Instead of offering bright future for students, the current curriculum has forced the students into pressurized environments with high competitions. It doesn’t matter what grades they bring—the pressure to do better gets them in the head. The end result begets students with depression, anxiety, lack of motivation and ambitions.
- Victimization of teachers
While we contemplate the perils of students, teachers face the torments of equally unforgiving system. Anthropologist Shree Krishna Wagle observed how teachers were sandwiched between policy provisions of central authorities and the expectations of parents for their child to get good exam results. Teachers face the dilemma to teach curriculum as the content, author Terry Heick says, by practicing thinking simply as a tool. However, he says it’s the teacher’s job to engage fluid intelligence consisting of critical thinking, design, problem solving—where thinking is collective circumstance and where the curriculum becomes thought.
The inability for teachers to teach dynamically also has its roots to inadequate qualifications. Finland has over 62,000 educators in 3500 schools. These professionals are selected from top 10 percent of the nation’s graduates to earn a required master’s degree in education. In contrast, the teaching license exam for primary school held recently in Nepal saw that out of 66,562 examinees, 62,880 had failed the exams. According to results, about 1000 examinees scored zero while about 10,000 examinees scored below 10. The low pass rate has put teachers in overcrowded classrooms consisting of more than 30 students per class. The overwork, exhaustion and limited salary can drain even the most inspiring teachers.
- Government’s failure to prioritize
With a compliant political environment addressing socialism, in order to achieve equality in education, schools require to be funded publicly. But despite government’s promises, the budget for upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 only allocated a mere 11.64 percent of the total budget for the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. Nepal’s pledge to place one fifth of the national budget for education has never been fulfilled. The root problem lies in the people in the government agencies like national official or local authorities. These positions are not held by educators but politicians or businesspeople. In the end, the only one benefitting from the current curricula is none other those seeking to capitalize on education and earn profit. Hence, until and unless the government prioritizes education and shifts its policies intending to introduce student-centred curricula rather than exam focused, the scenario might not change for a while.
The way forward
The most recent step to bring a progressive change in the curriculum of Nepal was the eighth amendment of the Education Act, 2016 in 2019. The CDC which introduced a new curriculum for grade 1 and grade 9 had also envisioned replacing the stream-based education system with a “single-track” curriculum for grades 11 and 12. Apart from three compulsory subjects (Nepali, English and Social Studies/Life Skills), students would be allowed to choose three other subjects as per their interest from any streams such as science, arts, law and others. A welcome stride was the plan to eliminate ranking system with the new implementation of the new curriculum. We are yet to see the plan come to life.
Imagining a student centred curricula is the biggest importance as of now. The reason for this article specifically taking example of Finland’s educational system was for Nepal to learn from it. Questions might arise about how we as developing nation are to learn from a prosperous nation. It must be noted that Finland wasn’t always thriving, especially 50 years ago when the country’s economy had taken a toll. But the country’s immediate recovery plan included radical transformation of the Finnish Educational System. The Nepalese reality differs not much, so the only way forward for Nepal lies in placing our educational system as the key propellant of our economy’s recovery.
Emergence and popularity of Ernst von Glasersfeld’s Constructivist Theory promotes learners to construct rather than store information. Learners are seen as explorers who establish meaning of what they learn in accordance to its relevance in their practical life. According to Professor Bal Chandra Luitel, a visionary researcher in the field of education, we need to develop and adapt a new frame that ensures an open environment to appraisal, critique and exploration. Article 31 of the Constitution of Nepal has listed Right to Education as a fundamental right. It is high time we not only focus on access to basic education but quality education to produce equally affluent workforce that can bring innovation and work hard for a prosperous future of Nepal.
- School Effectiveness in Nepal: A Synthesis of Indicators, CERID, July 2002
- Irrelevance of Basic School Education in Nepal: An Anti-Colonial Critique on Problems and Prospects, Shree Krishna Wagle, Bal Chandra Luitel, Erling Krogh, 2019
- Overcoming Culturally Dislocated Curricula in a Transitional Society: An Autoethnographic Journey Towards Pragmatic Wisdom, Bal Chandra Luitel, Peter Charles Taylor, 2005
- New Curriculum to be implemented from next year, The Himalayan Times, 2019
- Why are Finland’s Schools Successful? , LynNell Hancock, 2011
- Education Act 2016, Government of Nepal, 2016
- National Curriculum framework for school education in Nepal, Curriculum Development Centre, 2005
- Effects of Current Education System of Nepal on Mental Health of Students, Manasa Pradhan, June 2020 (The answers of the survey has been attached as zip file.)
- Data-Driven Teaching? The Unit Isn’t Doing You Any Favors, Terry Heick, 2018
- The national budget fails to prioritise education, The Kathmandu Post, 2020
The writer is a second year student pursuing B.A.LL.B at Kathmandu School of Law.
Published on 28 June 2020