August 19, 2017

Holistic approach to School Education – What’s Missing?

On a recent tour of certain international schools across Uttarakhand, I discovered aspects that were common among them with many of the other regular schools across different places; however, there were some aspects which seemed to stand out, and those are the ones that matter in the long run! What’s different between such schools of international repute, such as those from Doon Valley and those other schools from across the country that have a single minded focus on competitive entrance examinations to the exclusion of all else? How do the Doon valley schools manage to produce outstanding students across a wide range of fields and professions, which are not limited to the traditionally accepted career choices of Engineering and Medicine, or of a similar ilk? How do their students continue long after leaving school on the path of success in diverse fields such as the Defence Services, Administrative Services, Diplomatic Careers, Films & Television industry, Business & Industry Leadership, Public & Private Sector Leadership, and the pursuit of Higher Education? These were some of the questions playing upon my mind as I visited them.

It is well-known that the human spirit is at its elastic best in its infancy, and this elasticity continues to grow through the wonder years of a child’s discovery of self and the world-at-large. Although thereafter its elasticity is inversely proportional to age, in a student’s life, however, curiosity is at its best and the hunger for knowledge is directly proportional to the amount of knowledge available on offer. Analogically speaking, the human spirit is the farmer’s field into which the seeds of knowledge are sown. The growth of this seed into a strong tree depends on the entire ecosystem around this field and the seed itself. Failure can result from any of the following errors:
Mismatch: The wrong seed is planted in the wrong field leading to a complete mismatch between the student’s curiosity and the knowledge being delivered to him, as depicted by the character ‘Farhan’ of the movie “The Three Idiots.” He has a creative mind, but he is getting technical education in a totally strait-jacketed college, which has no value for creativity!
Choice: The freedom to choose inculcates a self-driven commitment to the cause as depicted by the protagonist ‘Rancho’ in the same movie. Rancho is free to choose and therefore exercises his choice to the maximum, and does well in his chosen field! On the other side of the argument is the forced choice, which generates fear/antagonism and thus rejection, as shown in the same movie by ‘Farhan,’ who is forced by his father to choose Engineering, perhaps under societal pressure, only to perform badly at it and later on opt out of a career in it! We note the sad consequences of this pressured choice.

Ecosystem: The right field and the right seed but the wrong ecosystem comprising the learning environment and the learning influences can result in failure. For Example: A bright young mind in a typically understaffed State school run by demotivated teachers with poor facilities; another example could be a bright young girl who has to give up studies due to regressive gender-based discriminatory practices within her immediate society and environment, with no support forthcoming from the education authorities!

Coaching Schools: High specialisation and focus on competitive entrance examinations very early in the learning stage, quite long before the child has developed enough maturity to choose based on her own preferences, can lead to long-term negative consequences. This is true of certain private school franchises across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Kota-Rajasthan, Delhi and other such places.
These schools advertise only the successful stories, but what happens to all those other students who could not succeed in the forced competition, who could perhaps have done well in other fields, had they been given the choice of the right mix along with the appropriate learning environment? On the other hand, general all-round development until a later stage of learning and maturity gives greater flexibility, and allows the student to make better informed choices and to stay committed to them.
360 Degree Personality Development: When it comes to general overall development, little or no focus on life skills, soft skills, leadership, creativity, critical and analytical thinking can lead to underdeveloped personalities resulting in sub-optimal performance in life. Concepts are thrust upon the students and crammed up by them in order to clear exams, and hence there is little time given to understanding, assimilation and application of those concepts. Appreciation of the abstract ideas behind theoretical concepts needs the development of higher order thinking skills among the students.

Higher-Order Thinking: Higher order thinking skills (HOTS) is a concept of education reform based on learning taxonomies (such as Bloom’s taxonomy). Some types of learning need more cognitive processing than others, but they also create more generalised benefits for the learners. Bloom’s taxonomy, for example, says that skills involving analysis, evaluation and synthesis (creation and absorption of new knowledge) belong to a higher order of thinking, requiring different learning and teaching methods than the learning of just facts and concepts.

The focus of education in India has not been oriented towards the understanding of abstract ideas behind those facts and concepts. For example: In the global era of Information Technology and Software Development, while the software code at the micro level of software development is written by Indian engineers, the actual Software Architecture behind such software is mostly designed and developed by engineers from Europe and America! Software Architecture requires HOTS aplenty, and we in India have barely begun to teach these skills and that too at schools with the CBSE Curriculum.

We have barely scratched the surface and no significant progress has been made in this direction, hence It is not surprising that very little research of international acclaim has come out of Indian universities, even the premier ones, in many long years! However, these very Indian scholars doing research in the Knowledge Ecosystems of Europe and America come up with outstanding research output!

Over the years I have personally perceived that there is a lack of the appreciation of the ‘Abstract’ in the Indian scholastic system, to the particular detriment of the students. The real-life application-side of concepts and theories comes only with a thorough understanding of the Abstract side of such concepts. For example in most schools, Calculus and Trigonometry are taught merely as technical concepts in a way that does not develop any understanding of the practical applications.

A very good reason to study calculus is that the student will be more competitive and have more career opportunities, and it is well accepted that students who enjoy intellectual stimulation and the power of Abstract Thinking tend to enjoy the beauty of calculus the most.  To illustrate the point further about some interesting ways of how the study of Calculus should be presented to a beginner, readers may visit:

This is also true for subjects other than Mathematics, such as the study of Economics, Social Sciences etc. However, an introduction of such a subject without appreciation of its Abstract side will only create confusion and discontinuity for the learning effort unless there is a systemic and systematic study of the ‘Abstract’ as a part of the school curriculum.

Many schools avoid demanding challenges such as teaching the Abstract side of concepts; however, those schools willing to face the challenge head-on have evolved into premier institutions with a high pedigree output spanning a century of students who went on to have successful careers. This is the fundamental difference in the approach to education at the school level of these highly successful residential schools of international repute and the rest of the schools following the competitive coaching school programmes.

They invest significant amounts of time and effort in building systems and infrastructure for developing the above mentioned holistic skill sets in their students. One accepts that these schools charge premium fees, however the question that begs to be asked is what must be done to innovate and implement some of these practices in other schools as well.

Most parents, since they cannot afford the premium fees of these holistic schools, are faced with the tough choice of taking the risk of opting out of the rat race and having faith in the innate abilities of their children to develop the Higher Order skills, or of joining the rat race very early in the lives of their children in hopes of beating the competition by getting a head start.

The scholastic system needs to gear up to meet these challenges in a more significant manner than ever before. Otherwise we will continue to see student suicides and other such drastic outcomes of the boiler room pressure situations prevalent in coaching schools.

With Permission from Chandrasekhar (The author is a senior consultant and strategist in education sector) @PoduriChandra 

Published earlier on July 21, 2017 at


Sentient Poet,amateur writer, perennial student and a persistent analyst, the author is a Senior Management Professional in the Indian Microfinance Sector