Skip to main content

It was the picture that gave rise to worldwide derision – an image of relatives and friends scaling the facade of a four-storey building in Bihar, India, to help the pupils inside cheat on their school-leaving exams.

The photograph went viral around the world. In India, there were jokes about Spiderman and how "scaling great heights" means something else in Bihar.

Clearly, cheating cannot be tolerated. But beyond the immediate offence, India needs to tackle the root causes of such large-scale cheating, which happens in various parts of the country. A prominent cause is the system of rote learning common in Indian schools.

Story continues below advertisement

Rote learning turns students into parrots, capable of memorizing anything but understanding nothing. The syllabus of the Indian Central Board of Secondary Education relies on memorization and so do the exams. In many subjects, students don't write essays; they merely tick long lists of multiple-choice questions.

What few sentences they do write on their own have to be identical to what's found in the textbooks to win high marks. Any variation, even if they represent an improvement or show originality, receives low marks. Students who aim for originality and answer questions correctly but in their own words are penalized.

If rote learning is abolished, then cheating will vanish on its own. Students will only be able to succeed if they have understood the concepts taught, because their exam answers will have to reflect their understanding, rather than their memory.

With the exception of new and improved cheating techniques, rote learning kills creativity, along with originality and critical thinking, which is why India is so rarely in the vanguard of anything new in science, technology or design.

It's not that Indians are not capable of creativity. You only have to look at the magical skills of Indian craftsmen to appreciate the beauty they can produce. And you only have to look at Indians based abroad to know their abilities. But India's domestic education system discourages innovation, exploration, risk-taking and the questioning of accepted wisdom.

Who are the educational reformers who can take on this job? Few names but one come to mind: Sugata Mitra, who won the 2013 TED Prize for his fascinating experiments in the use of the Internet in education. Prof. Mitra advocates the benefits of letting children loose in a room with computers, an Internet connection and minimal supervision by teachers. (If nothing else, this would solve the problem of absentee teachers, another bane of the Indian system.)

Prof. Mitra was once asked to name one single measure the Indian government could take to instantly raise the abysmal standards in government schools.

Story continues below advertisement

"Let students use the Internet in exams," he replied. "In doing so, the whole system would have to change. The kind of questions set in exams would have to change. You can't ask, for example, simple factual questions because they would be too easy to answer. The questions would have to be framed instead to probe students' understanding of concepts and principles. Educators would also have to teach differently, just as officials would have to rethink the school curriculum."

Unfortunately, Prof. Mitra has taken himself off to Newcastle University in Britain because the Indian government has shown no interest in his ideas, even though they could lead to enormously improved outcomes.

In other words, the radical reforms India needs are not likely to happen soon. In India, change only happens very slowly and gradually – the country's culture and mentality are Menshevik, not Bolshevik.

Meanwhile, children continue to endure an education system that is a joke. Last year, an annual independent status report on rural schools found that after five years of primary education, more than 60 per cent of children were unable to read simple text at a second-grade level.

Yet these same children will leave school and face ferocious competition for jobs where the only qualification that counts is their exam grades.

When the State Bank of India advertised 1,500 menial vacancies in 2013, it received more than 17 million applications. That's not a typo: 17 million.

Story continues below advertisement

So while it's easy to scoff at the people perched on those window sills, the reality is that Indian parents will go to any lengths – or heights – to help their children succeed in their last exams.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

If your comment doesn't appear immediately it has been sent to a member of our moderation team for review

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.