In the next month, more than 500,000 students in the NCR—among 2,500,000 nationally—will be taking their Grade 10 or Grade 12 CBSE board exams. Students, teachers, and parents are preparing urgently in everything from math and science to history and Sanskrit. But to what end?
Intellectual curiosity and flexibility are marginalised by the requirements of board exams; analytical thinking and creative dissent are actively suppressed…
As educators, we believe that the Indian board system is leaving its students increasingly less prepared to compete in the international marketplace, which is a failure that has long-term academic, economic and political consequences for India. Strict adherence to doctrinaire systems of memorisation-based learning is leaving its all-important demographic dividend ill-equipped in critical thinking, creative expression and effective communication—the very values that are driving global innovation, which is the real test of life.
Memorisation is a useful tool—Dr. Eleanor Maguire of UCL famously determined the positive brain-altering effects of rote-learning in her landmark study on London cab-drivers—but excessive reliance on recitation leaves students less prepared to think flexibly and spontaneously, which are vital skills in today’s fast-paced and competitive workplaces.
2. Words, words, words
Although English is an official language in India—as decreed by the Constitution—the way it is taught in schools results in students who lack fundamental skills of vocabulary, grammar and comprehension. In our experience, students can become adept at following grammatical rules, but struggle to process and apply abstract concepts such as paragraph structure, transition and redundancy. We view this as a by-product of inadequate preparation in written expression and reading comprehension in schools.
3. Skimming the surface
Board exams by necessity explore limited curricula, and this is especially evident in the CBSE Sanskrit syllabus, which emphasises phonetics and repetition, leaving aside the richness, complexity and poetry of India’s linguistic legacy. Roots, cases and euphonic rules are being lost in translation, which is not only leading to limiting access to India’s living history, but actively creating impediments to the enjoyment of the language of Kalidas, Valmiki and the Vedas.
4. Too much cramming
Throughout history, education has consisted of learning, memorising, and retaining important classical and religious texts. In the modern age, however, this time-tested practice has been corrupted to prioritise the temporary recall of information. This not only diffuses depth and scope of knowledge, but marginalises talented students who prefer to think more deeply, slowly and carefully about complex ideas.
5. Too little research
The Indian high school system neither incentivises nor prioritises personal or academic research. Students are commonly assigned research “projects” that they are not given the training, structure or support to engage with meaningfully. Research is meant to involve finding and critically comparing points of view and sources of information that allows a student to draw an informed conclusion. Ignoring the established methodologies of analysis, synthesis and evaluation will leave India lagging in the innovation race of the 21st century.
6. Argumentative Indians
Developing a complex written argument is one of the most important skills in higher education and professional life. However, many of the students we have taught find it challenging to use the common literary and expository devices needed to structure a coherent and nuanced argument. Modern India’s vibrant political and economic institutions are based on the principles of discussion, dialogue and debate. It is vital for the future of the world’s largest democracy that its education systems prioritise creative expression and critical thinking.
5. McCaulayism 2.0
The educational philosophy that was established by the British Raj is in a sense continued by the widespread use of the CBSE boards. Intellectual curiosity and flexibility are marginalised by the requirements of board exams; analytical thinking and creative dissent are actively suppressed by the same. It is imperative that India begin considering a new modality of education—combining technology and modern pedagogical methods—that leads its youth toward a more personal engagement with learning that better reflects each student’s needs, wants and interests.