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The Case for Politicizing Education

For too long, high school classrooms across the world have shied away from topics that seemed too controversial, topics that could generate potential conflict, topics that forced uncomfortable conversations and introspections. Politics, it seems, is to stay strictly outside the walls of the classroom, and the closest we ever get to it is a dry account in our Civics textbooks. This widespread belief stems from a popular misperception of politics – as a violent, corrupt game played only by political parties, something children should be kept far away from. What most adults, parents, and teachers alike, seem to forget is that politics isn’t a distant phenomenon happening in the nation’s parliament. Politics is present in our everyday lives – the fare of the cab to work, the water supply to our homes, the taxes we pay every year, and yes, the status of our citizenship. Issues that are labelled ‘political’ or ‘partisan’ are very often important issues of human rights and social justice. If education is meant to empower our children with knowledge, why are we afraid to have these important conversations?

The pressure on educators to remain ‘neutral’ comes from a deep-rooted fear of offending parents, school administration, or the government with “propaganda”. Research by Michigan State University shows that even beyond this pressure, teachers feel unequipped to initiate discussions about such issues without passing value judgements, or pitting students against each other. The impact that this vacuum in political education has on the development of students is crippling. Students are denied a space of healthy discussion and argument, and subsequently a chance to develop an independent opinion for themselves. Their only source of information remains dinner table and drawing room conversations – usually one-sided beliefs from authority figures, which are easy to adopt without questioning. Additionally, in times when the safety and stability of certain students’ lives are in doubt, avoiding discussion of certain subjects (be it violence against religious minorities, racial discrimination, or gun violence) is itself a form of exclusion.

Avoiding discussing politics in formal education more often than not produces young adults who are unaware or misinformed about issues happening around them. Having never been taught why problems that don’t affect them personally still ought to be valued, these adults consequently struggle with empathy and inclusion. Having never been taught how to respectfully disagree with an opinion, they are defensive and vitriolic in their arguments. While we might produce renowned engineers and budding entrepreneurs, we aren’t producing sensitive, independently thinking individuals. 

According to data from the Election Commission of India, 45 million young people have been added to the electoral rolls since 2014, expanding it by 5%. In 2020, the youth make up 34% of India’s population. The impact of the youth on politics is only increasing, and so are the perils of having a misinformed opinion, or just as bad, no opinion at all.

How then, can educators facilitate a platform for healthy debate, without becoming divisive and exclusive?  The way forward could begin by anchoring classroom discussions in a framework of concepts like justice and equality. This would involve making justice-oriented pedagogical choices: through revising and updating curriculum to make it more responsive to the current political climate as well as the increased exposure children already have through media, by cultivating respect for differing opinions and sensitivity towards vulnerable minorities through empathy-building exercises like stakeholder debates, through stimulating independent thinking and critical analysis of information and other such methods. The shift towards a proactive, engaged approach to politics will not happen overnight and requires equipping teachers with these skills, along with other skills of conflict moderation and resolution, before equipping students with information. A foundational education in politics does not mandate the teacher to espouse political beliefs. It merely requires them to ask students to think harder about the realities of our society; realities that will only benefit from the active engagement of young minds.

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Making a (trans)ition to inclusive education

Schools are complex social environments that reflect the diversity of our communities. In liberal democracies, the responsibility of ensuring a safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environment for all students is shared by all stakeholders involved in the education sector. This is especially important with regard to transgender and other gender non-conforming students, with a growing body of evidence indicating that these students are often targets of discrimination, harassment, bullying, and violence in schools. A recent report by UNESCO on sexual orientation and gender identity-based bullying in Chennai revealed that 60% of students who did not conform to the gender-binary faced bullying in middle and high school while 43% were sexually harassed in primary school. Further, only 18% of the victims could report such instances of bullying to school authorities. The consequences of this reality are grim: over 70% of the victims suffered from anxiety and depression, and 33% dropped out of school.

Transgender is an umbrella term used to describe all individuals who diverge from the roles associated with the sex they were assigned at birth. This continues to be a problem for a cisgender-normative society like ours, where rigid definitions of masculinity and femininity are reinforced by parents, teachers, and other adults. Students who don’t identify with the gender binary are bullied and harassed by their peers and teachers alike. The UNESCO study, in fact, found that a culture of victim-blaming surrounds transgender students in Indian schools.

Given the pervasive bullying, the first step towards making schools trans-inclusive is to have comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that protect students from harassment based on their gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation. Health professionals, particularly psychologists and counsellors in schools can support trans students by helping them develop and enhance coping mechanisms aimed at building resilience and facilitating positive socio-emotional development. Facilitating access to safe spaces including washrooms and common-areas helps make the educational environment more conducive. 

Furthermore, doing away with the need to specify a child’s gender identity at the time of enrolment can go a long way in dealing with the pressure of gender-conformity. Students should be allowed to participate in sex-segregated classes or activities in a manner consistent with their gender identity. The same goes for dress codes and pronouns, as reforming small practices are key to achieving the larger goal of a truly inclusive education. Inclusion of LGBTQIA rights and movements, as well as nuances surrounding the community in the school curriculum, can go a long way in eliminating stigma. Giving a voice to their historical presence and experiences, articulating their specific needs and expectations from state and society, and normalising transgender sexual orientations in social sciences and biology textbooks can potentially challenge entrenched structures of heteronormativity that dominate Indian society. 

Some state governments have initiated action aimed at making schools accessible to trans students. In Delhi, a pilot project called ‘purple board’, aimed at eliminating transphobia and trans-bullying, held sensitisation workshops for nodal teachers, which were followed by sessions with high school students. This was the first step in a year-long process of training and evaluation that led to the awarding of the ‘trans-friendly’ certification to 27 schools. The Kerala government has directed all state and affiliated universities to reserve seats for transgender students in undergraduate and postgraduate courses. These initiatives show that it is possible and necessary to transform our schools that have been unsafe and intimidating to trans students into inclusive spaces that facilitate holistic education.

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Bridging the Gap: We Can’t Isolate STEM from the Arts

Until 2018, students in CBSE affiliated high schools were reading one unabridged novel every year as part of their curriculum. The texts were versatile: a tale of perseverance in ‘The Story of My Life’ by Helen Keller, a Sci-fi account of ‘The Invisible Man’ among others. However, in 2019, seeing the overwhelming number of students drawn to STEM (approx. 15 lakh JEE/NEET aspirants each year), it was decided that the humanities were of little use for these stressed students. Since then, CBSE has undertaken syllabus cut downs exclusively in the social sciences and literature to provide necessary ‘unburdening’.

CBSE’s actions further a traditionally maintained divide that views STEM and the humanities as distinct educational priorities. This separation of disciplines hurts education and limits our ability to solve big and small problems. When it comes to STEM, Indians are very involved in various Sci-Tech industries, though often as workers and more infrequently as leaders and visionaries: we are expert learners and efficient employees but we don’t seem to win enough Nobel prizes, publish ground-breaking research or create radically new things. What goes unrealized is that no matter how much knowledge of science these individuals have, applying the same for the creation of something novel requires certain skills that they missed out on, because they were discouraged from a more integrated liberal education early on. 

Innovation requires critical and divergent thinking and understanding of social circumstances. Social innovation, which seeks to uplift the lives of different people using science has emerged as the most valuable field of scientific endeavour in recent years. A key prerequisite for creating something for a diverse society is the ability to empathise with equally diverse people and their needs. Reading offers the ability to see the world from another perspective, to immerse oneself in lives that are embedded in different contexts and to empathize with people who may be very different. 

Novels build complex characters that make difficult choices, and have grave flaws. When taught in classrooms, novels are deconstructed by students: why a character acts a certain way, what social factors contribute to their misfortune, etc. This entire process involves the use and development of critical thinking. In fact, as per the European Journal of Communication Research, novels are widely accepted as exceptional tools in developing soft skills like dialogue, creativity and emotional intelligence – all being skills that every STEM student can only benefit from. 

The syllabus changes are part of a larger discouragement of the pursuit of liberal arts degrees because these graduates appear to have lower employability. Research has often proven otherwise. Glassdoor’s 2019 research found that eight of the top 10 best jobs in the UK were managerial positions – people-oriented roles that require communication skills and emotional intelligence, and arts graduates excelled at these. As per BBC Worklife, the benefit of a humanities degree is the emphasis it puts on teaching students to think, critique and persuade; the combination of these skills along with STEM offers a more realistic chance of finding sustainable people-centric solutions to global and local issues while creating more innovative and employable graduates.

CBSE is a very visible and influential part of the secondary education mechanism in India. Its decision to chip away areas of study that it deems less contributory to landing jobs represents much of what is wrong with the pedagogical machinery. The guiding principle to education cannot be to create people crafted to fit one job; rather individuals who have enough skill and knowledge at their disposal to create jobs, ideas and solutions, and enough curiosity to learn more when they lack this knowledge. To better cultivate such skills, bridging the gap between STEM-Humanities is a good starting point.

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Creativity

Creativity, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, is a motivator, the essence of innovation, and absolutely important for the evolution of self and humanity. Even though it is recognized that creativity is valuable for society and critical for economic growth, people often feel that they are not living up to their full creative potential. In fact, many believe that schooling has stifled their creativity.

Because exam scores, unfortunately, are the admission criterion for higher education (and are perceived to be a measure of a child’s intelligence and ability), teachers often ‘teach to the test’. The emphasis is no longer on learning, questioning, exploring and enjoying the process of education but rather on scoring more. 

For instance, if you look inside a classroom, where, Indian Judiciary is being taught, chances are that you’ll find the teacher dictating notes, asking students to memorize ‘important features of the Indian Judiciary’ and emphasizing on frequently repeated questions in the paper. As a result, students end up rote memorizing, instead of thinking critically about the fundamentals – ‘Why do we need justice systems with codified laws?’, ‘How/Why do societies agree to be governed by laws?’, ‘Is the current system the best there can be?’, ‘What can be an alternative model?’ and so forth. This habit of not questioning and taking current systems for granted curbs children’s capacity of becoming active members of a dynamic, progressive society and they often fail to take an informed stance and action in times of social, political or moral crisis, let alone think of creative solutions for resolving them.

But, behind this dominant culture of testing lurks another, bigger evil: standardization. It begins when a kid is scolded for painting Santa Claus blue, instead of red.  Children are never given the avenue of thinking about different ways of interpreting a question and coming up with lots of possible answers to a question. Often, students are left with little choice but to conform to the ‘standard answer’, because the stakes are high: a deviation from the standard (perceived as an error) in Board Examination can cost a student her dream college.

Worse still, these high-stakes standardized tests are backed by a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We all had that friend who hated mathematics but was a gifted artist. The current curriculum doesn’t enable children to develop their natural creative power. Because students have to conquer an ever-more demanding, predetermined syllabus, there is very little scope for finding and developing passion for a discipline and using one’s creative genius to open new avenues. As children increasingly find themselves restricted to textbooks, their innate creativity suffers.

It’s not surprising then that children in school often feel disengaged from education, that they find it stressful, not enjoyable.

Here, there are some important lessons to learn from Finland, which, according to many international comparisons, leads in education. There are no mandated national standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school.

The Finnish education system has recognised that to foster creativity, children need to be given the opportunity to think beyond test scores and deadlines, along with some agency in deciding what they want to learn and how. It has moved beyond the watertight compartmentalization of  subjects by making projects interdisciplinary, and has pooled in creative talents of different children by making them collaborative. In comprehensive schools (7-16-year-olds), students work collaboratively on interdisciplinary projects, and can even contribute to the design of these projects in upper classes. In the final 2 years prior to university, there are no set classes nor grades. Students design an individual education plan and are expected to complete it at their own pace.

It might be useful here to remind ourselves that not just in education, Finland has also retained the top spot in the UN’s World Happiness Report for the third time in a row, thereby demonstrating how embracing each individual’s creative genius can create happier people.

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Experiential Learning – The Way Forward

What is experiential learning? 

Experiential learning stems from developmental theories of Piaget, which argue that children are active learners, and construct knowledge on their own. Based on this, the experiential learning theory, in its essence, argues that children learn best when they experience and reflect on the things they’ve done, as they’re better able to conceptualise the knowledge in question. The knowledge acquired then also leads to relatively long-lasting behavioural changes. 

Why is it needed in classrooms today?

Schools and classrooms today are largely responsible to help students be better equipped for their future workspaces, or give them the knowledge that helps them uncover their potential.  In order to do so effectively, classrooms need to change the way they function.  

This transformation can be brought by treating children as active learners who construct knowledge, instead of passive ones who just consume knowledge and information. Traditional teaching methodologies have proven to be inadequate in bringing about this change. Instead, experiential learning activities which are based on concrete experiences, provide a better basis for learning and reflection, thereby helping in bringing about the desired transformation. 

Experience and reflection help students learn the required skills by actually performing them, and then thinking about their performance, to themselves understand what can be done better to be more proficient at the activity at hand; thereby increasing the procedural know-how of the skills in question.  

How to implement this? 

To ground it further, these outcomes can be executed in classrooms by implementing simple methods like pros and cons grids where after reading up on topics, children themselves are encouraged to make decisions regarding what part of it serves as an advantage and what part of it is a disadvantage. Students can be made to design test questions on their own, and there can be increased focus on peer study groups. 

This would encourage understanding based inculcation of information, instead of understanding based on repetition.

The simple idea is to focus on collaboration within groups, allowing students to learn by social, observational learning. Incorporating communication, decision making, and conflict resolution skills within the classroom. This will help them be well equipped to perform the same skills at their future workspaces. 

 

Conclusion – Benefits of ELT

Experiential learning activities today are being adopted by a large number of educational setups because of the benefits they entail. Moreover, it helps students grasp concepts, even the ones which are abstract in nature. What children learn has consequences beyond the classroom, which further encourages them to develop creative thinking, helping them understand the multiple solutions to problems. By incorporating concrete experiences with abstract concepts, and then reflecting on the outcome, students engage more regions of their brain and make stronger connections with the material. 

Most importantly, by being active agents in their own learning, the learning process becomes more gratifying for students, making them more involved, and participative. It’s not just classrooms that are executing these activities today. B-schools, in their MBA programs too, are giving importance to experiential learning and making learning more holistic for their students.

Experiential learning in all classrooms across the globe has been showing better academic results within students, indicating that it is a more effective way of learning new concepts and gaining new knowledge.

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The Shortcomings of STEM Education in India

STEM education refers to a method of learning focused on four disciplines – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. You may have heard about it if you have been keeping up with news in the education sector over the past decade. A great deal of importance has been given to STEM fields and STEM education in India ever since we won Independence but the recent focus on STEM education has been more about the skills it imparts onto students rather than the subjects themselves. These skills include, but are not limited to, critical and analytical thinking, and problem-solving. In short, the recent focus of STEM education encourages students to think in a scientific manner which is useful not only in the field of Science and Technology but in most aspects of life as well.

What’s the state of STEM education in India?

We have a comparatively good ratio of the workforce employed in STEM fields and are well represented in Big Tech. This provides the image of high-quality STEM education in India, but it can be deceiving as there remains immense room for improvement. For one, our approach to STEM, where we prioritise students learning the various methods of problem-solving (in say, trigonometry) rather than focusing on a strong conceptual understanding of the subject and teaching general guidelines that may help understand the solution, is outdated. One only needs to look at how 10th and 12th graders prepare for board examinations to see this problem. Question papers from previous years are taken up by teachers and students, and the solutions to even HOTS (High-Order Thinking Skills) questions contained in them are taught by rote memorisation rather than by creating a conceptual understanding of how to approach the questions and arrive at an answer. If that’s not indicative of what is being referred to, one can just look at the working of JEE coaching centres and understand the crux of the argument. Practising problems is undoubtedly important in learning Science and Math, but in not letting students engage with the problems, we take away their chance to hone their ingenuity and analytical skills – which are crucial aspects of STEM education.

Another major problem that exists concerning STEM education in India is the lack of infrastructure and resources required for apt methods of teaching. In schools, curiosity for technology can be fostered better when students can program and see the movement of robots through kits rather than read how they work in books. For undergraduate and graduate courses, this requirement is more urgent as research is of paramount importance in science education at higher levels. The research internships offered in a handful of premier tech institutes like the IITs are extremely hard to get and barely scratch the surface in terms of fulfilling the overall demand. Research integrated courses are a few, if not non-existent. Adding to this is the fact that the majority of STEM courses follow severely outdated curricula that are incapable of fulfilling industry expectations. STEM jobs require a lot of innovation and sound problem-solving skills to approach novel problems and the aforementioned issues hamper the development of these skills. This makes it extremely difficult for the increasing amount of STEM graduates to find a job in their respective fields.

The reason for subjects like Physics and Math being dreaded by students can be traced to the ill-suited pedagogical methods employed by science educators that strip science of its wonder. A method of teaching that focuses on an intuitive understanding of concepts, facilitated by good infrastructure and resources, can make the study of STEM subjects more enjoyable and add to the holistic education of the students. Equipped with the skills imparted by STEM education, students will be able to tackle the challenges of their jobs (be it in STEM or otherwise) and deal with other problems the world throws at them.
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Testimonials

Arjun Shukla is a final year economics student studying in Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi. He is an accomplished debater having won numerous accolades in the Delhi University parliamentary debating circuit and other circuits around the country. While at Mother’s International School, Arjun enrolled in the debating classes offered by Aawaaz. Below is his testimony detailing his experience with Aawaaz and what he took away from it.

Entering the DU debating circuit can be a daunting experience for a lot of freshers. The motions are obscure, the adjudication harsh, and the jargon unnecessary. It’s easy for anybody to be intimidated, but fortunately, I wasn’t – and Aawaaz is the singular reason why. Aawaaz had already equipped me with the skills required to approach the DU debating circuit. Back in high school, the highlight of my week was the weekly Aawaaz classes, where we would discuss and debate upon everything under the sun – from politics in India to the education system in Finland. In the midst of the heated discussions, unbeknownst to me, I was developing skills that proved to be of utmost value.  I was learning how to critically understand, analyse, and rebut arguments. I was developing the confidence to speak in a room full of people and drive my point home without any hesitation. Thus, unknowingly, I became a confident public speaker (arguably) and an above average debater (hopefully).

To restrict the impact of Aawaaz classes to my debating merit would be a disservice. For it has taught me life lessons transcending debate rooms. To think of it, there is no domain in my life which is not influenced by Aawaaz. I remember sitting in job interviews, and being given case studies to critically examine. Albeit nervous, I was at peace compared to the other candidate because I was exposed to critical thinking in high school itself. It has also helped me study huge chunks of syllabus a night prior to the exam, and come out of the exam hall with reasonable results. Most of all, Aawaaz has helped me develop into a more aware and responsible citizen of this country.

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What’s Next? Philosophy in Education

Why do we learn? What do we teach? How do we educate? 

These questions have dictated how education boards design curriculum, which pedagogical methods teachers use, and even how much emphasis society puts on different streams or bodies of knowledge and related professions. The definition of education has evolved- from being characterized as a means of attaining socio-economic mobility to being focused on the ‘all-round development’ of students. Perhaps this is why the Supreme Court of India mandated all CBSE schools in 2016 to incorporate ‘Moral Education’ in school curriculum. 

Subjects taught in schools seek to answer definitive questions and are defined as ‘ building blocks of knowledge’. To put it in simple words, Biology seeks to find out what life is made up of, history is oriented towards determining how we got to where we are and sociology seeks to answer questions surrounding social interactions, relationships, and hierarchies. 

But who asks these questions? And is there a value to that? 

Aristotle is considered to be the father of both Biology and Political Science- two subjects that are rarely associated with each other. However, neither of these concepts existed as ‘subjects’ during Aristotle’s time. Despite his significant contributions to different bodies of knowledge, Aristotle is primarily remembered and glorified as a philosopher.  

Philosophy is defined as “the study of knowledge ” or “the study of fundamental questions”. Whereas other subjects seek to answer questions about areas that are usually pre-defined, philosophy seeks to ask those questions, the answers to which have led to the creation of ‘subjects’, or bodies of knowledge. 

Where does this fit in? 

Our education system is flawed because we have devoted so much attention to what to learn and how to learn it, that there is not enough room left for students to ask, ‘Why?’. We need to question not only because it adds to our ability to develop new ideas but also because questioning assumptions and ‘facts’ is imperative to make healthy and rational decisions in life. This becomes even more important in the age of fake news and populist nationalistic politics. Learning to question narratives, policies and people right down to the most fundamental level (Socratic Questioning) enables us to make ‘rational and informed’ decisions in public life. 

It has become imperative that we keep asking ourselves, ‘Who we are?’ and  ‘What do we stand for?’ in this divisive world. Education exists to prepare people for healthy functioning in society. It is therefore important to teach children to question, to question continuously and repeatedly, to not just consume knowledge but also to study it. The study of philosophy is presently limited to very select circles of academia, and that needs to change.

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Levelling the Learning Field – Tech Can Do It Better

As 2020 takes a historically memorable turn, most students seem to have made necessary adjustments to carry on with their academic endeavours: buying bigger data packs, installing Google Classroom, and so forth. However, the disruption caused by COVID-19 cannot go unnoticed, and once again points at the weakness of the Indian education system. As a country that relies on public education for 71% of its learners, there’s a near-total split from schooling for a sizable section of school students in the wake of the pandemic. When they can resume their learning goes unanswered, simply because there’s no existing plan to facilitate eLearning.

The stark reality in current times is that India has a visible obsession with digitization in all spheres and the current government believes that the nation will soon play a role in defining the knowledge economy of this century. However, achieving the latter is increasingly unlikely, without the foundation of a more holistic education that introduces technology early on, and that is yet to occur. 

At the same time, the union budget allocation for education has dipped from 4.14% in 2014-15 to 3.45% of the GDP in 2019-20. Raising the budgetary allowance to at least 6% of GDP share is a necessity for a nation having a demanding responsibility of educating 133.92 crore Indians.

So why, despite the cash-strapped economy, is education technology still worth introducing on a larger scale? Access to technology can provide more equalised learning to a greater number of students. It has been long ignored that when students are marginalized from the current system owing to gender, caste, and other social disadvantages; it is challenging for them to be motivated to learn skills in the classroom set-up. Learning apps, audio-visual resources and even educational games can help embed interest in schooling. Technology can better serve the linguistic needs of students across the nation as well. eBooks allow students to better access their curriculum, as many schools in rural areas report understocking of textbooks. In further pursuit of accessible education, the eLearning industry can offer several resources to accommodate students with different learning pace and also customize audio, visual and textual materials for students with a diverse range of disabilities.

The harder task at hand is identifying the best way, to begin with this introduction. Inaugural efforts were made by the NITI Aayog that launched Atal Innovation Mission to familiarise students with STEM technology, robotics, and so forth: after realising the importance of creating innovators. Interestingly, only schools with 1000 square ft. of built-up free space are considered eligible to apply and get an Atal Tinkering Lab under this mission. This is reminiscent of Green Revolution-style hopes and results: selective picking of institutions that are already better off in an ambitious programme that is not sustainable in the long run, while hoping that it will launch India into a new Digital Age. The Mission running from 2015-16 has not churned out any noticeable achievements, while each ATL enabled school continues to get Rs. 20 lakh of tax money.

The power of humbler beginnings: Starting smaller might minimise the wastage of funding and make outreach of technology more divergent. Simply put; introducing one PC, or teaching usage of few educational apps (India has 200 million+ rural smartphone users as per Kantar IMRB) and involving parents with lesser technical know-how in the same can yield better integration of technology in Indian education with lesser cost than monumental missions right now.

The introduction of equitable education using technology depends on improving policy formulation along with more realistic budgeting. After all, it is the Prime Minister who himself said, ‘the world is at an inflection point where technological advancement is transformational.’

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Competition and the Myth of Success

If each of us got a penny each time we were asked ‘So, how much did you get in that exam?’ by a classmate, parent or relative, we would all be millionaires. This seemingly harmless question exemplifies the sad reality of our education system. The question is not ‘How happy are you with your performance?’ or ‘How have you improved from the last exam?’ Here, you are only as much as your marksheet says.

For too long, the characteristic competitiveness of our system has been brushed off as an inevitable consequence of a large population with limited opportunities to succeed. The social narratives of success and failure that we simultaneously produce and sustain ourselves on are rigid – high-paying, stable professions carrying social status are the only ones worth pursuing. These narratives are also widely flawed; most of us are familiar with the almost impossible odds of getting into an IIT or cracking the NEET, and the increasing unemployment rates of mainstream professions because of the incongruence between demand and supply. Yet we still continue to run the race, believing that if we struggle now, it’ll pay off in the end. The truth is harsh – there is no end to the race, there are no winners.

The intense competition hits those hardest who aren’t adept in subjects and skills that the system values. Being labelled as a failure for not ‘putting enough effort’ towards the predetermined goal and the anxiety of letting down their family takes an immense toll on the mental health of students. According to a 2015 Lancet Report, India’s student suicide rate is one of the highest in the world – one student kills themselves every hour. Even those students who seemingly thrive in this system are not better off. The constant pressure to perform exceedingly well ensures that even academically talented students define themselves solely in terms of their marks and ranks – the sole incentive to do any activity is how good you’ll be at it compared to the rest, and how it’ll boost your college application.

The most explicit manifestation of this competition-driven structure is the shadow education system comprising professional coaching classes, entrance exam driven pre-university colleges and centres like Kota. Competition, however, exists even in apparently liberal-minded circles – the college admissions scandal in the US which saw the conviction of several celebrities for bribing their children’s way into Ivy League universities is the best example of this. We would do quite literally everything it takes to get ahead.

It is ironic that what becomes worst affected by the rigidly competitive nature of the education system is personal satisfaction. The exercise of individual choice to discover and develop interests and aptitudes is at best, respected only in choosing hobbies, and at worst, simply not respected at all. The intense competition we were subjected to as children is something we carry with us into adulthood and subject our children to as well. We think of our salary in comparison to our colleagues’, our promotions in comparison to those of our college friends’, and our children’s mark sheets in comparison to the neighbour’s children’s. A 2013 report by Gallup shows that in East Asia, only 6% of workers reported being happy in their jobs. We simply don’t know how to build an identity and define any milestones in our lives in terms exclusive of others and their success. The satisfaction that ‘success’ promises us remains a myth; we instead suffer from stress-induced conditions of diabetes, hypertension, depression and other mental illnesses.

To create a healthier, happier workforce and student population, we must break down the monistic definition of success that colours our ambitions. Ideas are already trickling in – the overhaul of traditional career counselling methods, skill development conclaves for students across economic strata and opportunities to explore different avenues without the pressure to excel are necessities. Competition might still be valuable, but only when it pushes students to be the best they can be in comparison with what they were. The best college means the one that is best suited to our inclinations, not the highest ranked one. The best career is that which best allows us to explore our passions, not the one with the largest paycheck.

We probably cannot do away with competition altogether, but we can find healthier channels for it; at the very least, we must not allow it to remain the rigid spine of a broken system. It’s time we started viewing our children as individuals with aspirations in their own right, not merely racehorses bred to run infinite lengths.