The design flaw in schools

As we have already discussed, the current format of schools was created to spread formal education on a mass scale – from royalty to ordinary citizens. However, rich families continued home-schooling their children with accomplished persons as private tutors, long after schools had come into existence. One of the primary reasons for this was the quality of education in schools.

Schools were aimed at ‘educating’ as many students as possible. Their focus was on following fixed procedures to share prescribed knowledge with the maximum number of students and did not care about individual students.

Expectedly, the entire ecosystem, right from the teaching methodologies to progress monitoring systems, was aimed at educating the masses in an efficient manner. All students were given the same resources in the form of teachers, books and teaching techniques, irrespective of their abilities and context. As it happens, in all natural systems, the same input did not generate the same output from all students. Hence, despite being a part of the same structure, some students managed to excel whereas most others suffered.

To ensure high-quality learning outcome among all students, it is essential to provide them with personalized attention, especially where assessments are concerned. Detailed assessments at an individual level allow for proper remedial interventions. However, in the 19th century, it was not logistically possible to conduct such detailed assessment of students. Additionally, there was limited recognition and need in society of the advantages of honing individual personalities.

However, we have evolved as a society to celebrate diversity and equality for all, but our schools have not transformed in accordance.

As a result, schools continue to monitor student learning at very gross levels:

  1. Since schools, on an average, manage to assess only 1/3rd of the total concepts taught in a year, they do not have an accurate sense of any child’s overall progress and understanding.
  2. Marks and grades of numerous assessments in a subject are aggregated for convenience, but students scoring the same marks/grades have widely varied knowledge in each subject at the level of individual concepts.
    We certainly know that two students with 85% score in an exam cannot be recommended the same strategies to improve. More likely than not, at the level of concepts, the two have different strengths and weaknesses. But, both will get the same recommendation from their teacher – ‘work harder’ (but where to put more effort), ‘you just make calculation mistakes’ (but who doesn’t), or ‘write more elaborately next time’ (but how does one do that unless one is specifically shown how to).
  3. Because of the system of aggregated scoring, remedial actions are also planned for a group of students at the level of a subject or chapter. However, conducting remedial classes with the same content for all students scoring low in a particular subject will not help any of them.

There is a flaw in the design, schools can’t do better

While this system seems flawed today, as discussed earlier, the objective of public schooling and the resources available in the 19th century only allowed gross assessments. Personalizing the school experience for each child to enhance their learning outcomes was impossible.

The schools have a design flaw – a fundamental limitation – schools were designed for mass literacy and numeracy in a faceless manner. For schools it didn’t matter who topped the charts, as long as some child did. Schools did try to make a difference to as many students as possible, but there has never been any emotional attachment to the goal, quantitatively (how many do better) and qualitatively (who all do better).

However, we now have the (information) technology to personalize such experiences in a cost-effective manner – to undo the fundamental shortcoming of the school system. But school system as a whole has been very slow in innovatively adopting technology to overcome its fundamental limitation of gross teaching and impact. In fact, the entire school ecosystem has largely remained complacent and failed to capitalize on new and emerging innovations.

The design flaw – a reality to date

Let us now specifically explore why the challenge of attending to every student was unsurmountable then and remains as challenging today, except for elusive innovation in harnessing information technology for effective learning and success of every student.

We can best explore this challenge with a practical example of how this lack of attention on every student is still so rigidly embedded in the current educational system.

For the sake of convenience, we plan to illustrate it using the science syllabus of Grade VIII in the Indian national curriculum.

Here is the list of all the science chapters in the Grade VIII syllabus:

Chapters in Class VIII Science Syllabus
1. Crop Production and Management 10. Reaching the Age of Adolescence
2. Microorganisms: Friend and Foe 11. Force and Pressure
3. Synthetic Fibers and Plastics 12. Friction
4. Materials: Metals and Non-Metals 13. Sound
5. Coal and Petroleum 14. Chemical Effects of Electric Current
6. Combustion and Flame 15. Some Natural Phenomena
7. Conservation of Plants and Animals 16. Light
8. Cell-Structure and Functions 17. Stars and the Solar System
9. Reproduction in Animals 18. Pollution of Air and Water

Out of these 18 chapters, ‘Sound’ has 13 distinct learning outcomes, or concepts, as listed below:

Key concepts in the chapter ‘Sound’
1. Sound as a form of energy 8. Characteristics of Sound
2. Sound produced by Humans 9. Audible and Inaudible sounds
3. Medium of sound propagation 10. Sound produced by animals
4. Speed of Sound 11. Use of Ultrasonic
5. Ear, the sense organ for hearing 12. Production of sound – Musical Instruments
6. Characteristics of vibrations (Oscillations) 13. Noise pollution and control
7. Relation between Frequency and Time-Period

Next, assuming each of the 18 chapters have 12 concepts on an average, we reach a figure of nearly 200 concepts to be taught in an academic year in Grade VIII.

Now, let us turn our attention towards teachers. Each teacher, on an average, manages 5 sections with 25 students each (a scenario typically associated with the 'best of schools' in terms of teaching load and class size). Hence, a Grade VIII science teacher will be teaching, evaluating, reporting the progress in, and remedying 200 concepts to each of the 125 students.

A detailed progress report of this grade, for all 125 students, would look something like this:

Thus, there would be 25,000 unique student-concept pairs to be measured, recorded, reported and taken cognisance of in decisions regarding remedial interventions, etc. It is easy to visualise what an impossible task it would be for any teacher to assess, record and analyse 25,000 unique student competencies. For many bigger or understaffed schools, the 25,000 unique student competencies records could easily swell to nearly 50,000 records.

Furthermore, a good teacher at a good school will assess students' competency at multiple levels for each of the 200 concepts. For example, a four-level competency achievement could be:

  1. Knowledge level
  2. Application level
  3. Competitive level
  4. Project/experiential/activity/demonstration level

(The levels are organically linked, but schools must assess them separately because of the diversity in students' understanding and goals.)

Effectively, it does add up to 1,00,000 competencies (4 x 25,000), or even 2,00,000 competencies (4 x 50,000) in the case of bigger schools.

To make this herculean task manageable, schools were designed with a more realistic achievement assessment measurement. The students' progress was measured in terms of 6-8 annual tests/exams (two six-monthly exams, and two tests in each of the six months). Each test/exam reported just one number/grade for every student. Thanks to this, just 750 competencies (6 x 125) had to be monitored for all the students! These marks are the ones visible on the progress reports of students and this hasn’t changed in 200 years!

Schools do not even make effort to offer student achievement by the grossest unit of teaching – chapter. The bare minimum assessment and achievement feedback must be something like this:

While this made it easier to manage all the students, it prevented the system from identifying the needs of individual children and addressing them effectively. Consequently, most children struggle in schools, and no teacher, parent, tutor or counsellor can help them once they start struggling in academics, because no one knows any better.

Incidentally, the ideal progress report in schools should look like this (for a Grade VIII student):

This kind of personalised monitoring of learning is needed. No school in the world, to the best of our knowledge, has achieved such a progress reporting system, we call this reporting system as ‘Micro-progress Reports’. It is all possible now due to technology. This is the most impactful use of technology (not AR, VR, gamming, etc.).

Alarmingly, not only do students continue to be assessed at a gross level, but other stakeholders too, such as teachers and principals, are assessed in an even more subjective manner. Micro-progress reporting will also revolutionise teacher evaluation and transform the quality of teachers and teaching.

To reiterate, this is what we call the design flaw in schools – the very architecture of schools’ teaching is limited in its ability to focus on each student. Schools are designed keeping ‘mass and standard’ education in mind, and all its processes and methodologies are adapted around this. Governments, school administrators, principals/HMs and teachers haven’t truly cared for system level change to ensure all students succeed, if anything it is all a mere slogan.

But as parents, we must also ask ourselves as to how much do we care about the education of our children! It is certain that EVERY SCHOOL would be transformed within two academic years if we, parents, want schools to ensure that our children succeed, come what may!

We would be happy to hear from you all for any support in ensuring that your children’s school really cares for your children and will ensure their success in school!

Read this book carefully, read again, go on the Internet to read more, and fight for your children! They have it in them to be the best human and professional imaginable!

Excerpted from the book ‘You, The Unsung Hero’ by G S Madhav Rao, Sandeep Srivastava, Saloni Srivastava