By Heart

‘By heart’ is a phrase we use in English. “I learnt the poem by heart.” It means to memorise something. It is used as a verb, here in India: “most lesson time is spent by-hearting the textbook”. And this is another beautiful use of language. If you don’t make ‘by-hearting’ a verb here then you are left with very few verbs that can be used to describe what happens in an Indian classroom. Verbs are doing words. And Indian classrooms don’t involve that much doing!

Most teaching here (I use the term ‘teaching’ as loosely as possible) involves the teacher writing on the board and the students copying. Or the students working from the textbook. Sometimes the teacher is in the room shouting or caning people occasionally. Sometimes the teacher isn’t there at all.

But even when teaching does happen in Indian classrooms it is all about the teacher transferring information to the student. The teacher tells the students what the answer to the question is. They by-heart it. She then asks the question. They tell her the correct answer or get shouted at.

Students are actively discouraged from thinking for themselves, from questioning, from developing an understanding of the material.

So asking students to summarise a text is difficult. Not just because I’m asking them to do it in English, but because the very nature of summarising involves thinking for oneself. You need to read the information in the source text, understand it, process it, extract the key features, express those key features. Not within the normal skillset of the average Indian school student.

I do a warm up activity called “What’s the Question?”. I give students an answer (e.g. water) and they have to ask questions that have that as the answer (e.g. what do we drink?). I have done this activity with primary, lower secondary, senior secondary and post-secondary students. And the quickness of the response, the creativity, the variety of responses all decline markedly with the age of the students. Some of the primary kids I’ve had have come up with some amazingly interesting questions! I put this down to the fact that they have had several fewer years of the Indian education system trying to beat creativity and autonomy out of them.

And there is a place in education for learning by rote. I was recently able to answer the burning question “Which element of the periodic table is Phosphorus?” because I memorised the first 20 elements for Year 11 Chemistry (way back in a dim and distant past decade). There is also a place in education for telling students that they don’t need to understand exactly why, they just need to be able to use it (one month before the GCSE exam, they don’t need to know how to derive the quadratic equation by completing the square, but they do need to be able to use the quadratic equation). However, both of these features of education should be limited. There is much more mileage in teaching students how to think, how to question, how to learn. Because then, they can expand their learning to fit their needs and their potential for growth and development is so much larger!

I hope the Indian education system wakes up soon. And I hope that ‘by-hearting’ will become, for Indians, as ridiculous a verb as it currently seems to us from the UK.

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