What is wrong with our education system? Is anything wrong at all? These are questions that some people are asking now. Let me try to explain what I think about this, as it is a very important subject and everyone has to spend some thought on it. I was not, and am not, a teacher. But I have had relationship with school education for a long time. For one, a colleague of mine and I did a study on “how to improve education in government schools without investing a lot of money” in the late 1990s, which was very much appreciated by the evaluation committee. Then, I took the lead in organising a programme for talented students called “Discovery Trek” for three years from the academic year 2000-2001 to 2003-04. Moreover, I have been associated with the IT@School project almost from the time of its inception and have had the opportunity to interact with several teachers.

Our education system, as that in most countries now, is designed for the “average” student. This is assuming a “normal” distribution of learning ability among all children (see figure 1). Let us assume for the time being that this is the case, though this doesn’t seem to be based on any study and no one seems to bother about what is the parameter used here or what the standard deviation is when they talk about the mean. Only statisticians seem to bother about standard deviations, which is always essential when you talk about a mean, as the mean alone doesn’t give any idea about the distribution.

Now, a large number of students (64.2% if you take one standard deviation) naturally belong to this “average” group. Yet, there are a significant number of children outside this “mean” and how many are there depends on the “standard deviation” about which no one seems to be bothered. Some of those who lie outside this “mean” could have less ability than the mean, while others are more talented. So, obviously, what our education attempts is to pull everyone into the “mean” space.

In this process, the less able students get support in the form of extra teaching within the school system itself, or outside it in the form of personal tuition classes. Many of them struggle, but are eventually “pulled up” into the “average” group (in terms of scores or marks). Whether they do really learn as much as the others remains unknown. And now that there are no examinations, or exams don’t really test the children, as they anyway pass through, there is no way to find out too.

On the other hand, the more talented children (let us say, those who fall beyond 2 standard deviations on the higher side), often find the classes boring and become inattentive because it is easy for them. Eventually, as education psychologists say, they lose interest and their performance also suffers. This is sad, because these are the ones that should be growing up and contributing significantly to society in the form of creative work in fine arts or scientific research or just intellectual thought. Our school system has no way to help such students to grow at the pace that is comfortable to them. And they face no challenge till they grow up and start working.

Actually, there is no challenge in the education system now, as every child knows that it doesn’t matter how (s)he performs, until they reach class 10. Even there, the system makes it easy for everyone to get through, pushing through those who are behind by freely giving extra marks. The children are then somehow put into higher secondary classes, where also they naturally expect to be pushed through. This can go on until they enter higher education where they face real challenge for the first time in their lives. Again the children who are born bright get through without problem, but the “average” students, who were brought up by the school system, start failing because they had never faced such challenge and they expect the system to take care of them.One can imagine what happens when they are employed. They continue to expect the system to take care of them. The result is that they don’t try their best to do a good job of whatever they are doing–which one can see all over the country today.

I know that there are people who won’t agree with what I have written. I request them to post their views as comments. Let us make this a debate on an important subject.