Saturday, March 01, 2008

Seats of learning

An American educator talks about the pros and cons of the educational systems in Kerala and America

By Shevlin Sebastian

“I love Rajagiri Public School,” says Susan Seats, 57, an educator from Arizona, USA. “I am amazed at how well they teach English. Keralites tend to speak better and proper English than most Americans.” She is impressed by the beautiful campus at Kalamassery and the quality of the teachers. “For many of the teachers, it is more than a job,” she says. “It is what they love to do.”

So, what is the strong point of the education system in Kerala? “The sense of discipline and the way the children take school so seriously,” she says. “They learn so many things.” Susan says most children in Kerala know more about America than many American children. Some American children don’t even know who is running for President. Here, most of them watch the news every day.

She says there is an air of innocence about the children. “They are very gentle and welcoming,” she says. “Many American children are aggressive, because they watch unsupervised TV and see graphic images of sex and violence. There are several children, who suffer from poor self-esteem, because they are victims of divorce.”

On the other hand, Susan is awestruck at how loving Indian parents are. There is a good communication between parents and children. “The emotional strength of mothers is amazing,” she says. “Fathers work so many hours, but still, there is a connection between them and their children.”

However, she admits, all is not hunky dory. One of the biggest drawbacks she has noticed is the pressure parents put on their children to do well in academics. “Children should be allowed to have fun and be creative,” says Susan. “If a boy does not have a high IQ, it is a painful experience for him.”

In America, she says, because of the emphasis on individuality, if a child does not do well in math or science, but if he is good in music, for example, the parents and the school will support the boy so that he can become a good musician. “There is a stress on academic excellence only for those who have the aptitude for it,” says Susan.

However, in India, she says, unlike in America, academic excellence means that you have to be good at by-rote learning. Hence, children are unable to think creatively. Susan says Indians tend to carry this non-creative habit into adulthood.

“Many of my Indian friends in Arizona have told me that in their work place if their supervisors tell them, ‘Here is the project and this is what you have to do and this is how you do it,’ they do an excellent job,” says Susan. “But if the supervisor tells the Indian engineer to create something, he finds it difficult to do it. That is one of the downsides of the Indian educational system.”

Meanwhile, last year, biology teacher Sunu Varghese, 43, went to Arizona in a teacher-exchange programme, sponsored by the Parent Teacher Association of Rajagiri. She discovered that there is no rigid examination system in the US. “In one way, it is good, because a child can develop his creativity,” she says. “But I feel that in the growing-up stage, there should be more structure and discipline.”

She says there are no uniforms, no strict syllabus and in Arizona, there is no compulsory public exam after you finish your Class ten. “You can write the exam when you feel like it,” she says. “The dropout rate is much higher. Only 50 per cent will go onwards for a university education.”

But, as expected, the technological advancement left Sunu amazed. “In most schools, students bring laptops to the classroom,” she says. “There are very few books. Children do the class work and the teacher can read it because all the computers are linked.” When a student has to do his homework, he goes to the teacher’s web site and opens a file in his name and does the work.

Many classrooms are also equipped with the smart board. The teacher can download information on to the blackboard from the Internet. So, in the classroom, information is available from around the world and is a valuable aid in teaching.

Like Susan, Sunu also feels that in our educational system, it is very difficult to develop creative talents. “There are lots of opportunities for students for creative pursuits when they are younger,” she says. “But when they reach the higher classes, in most schools, the emphasis is on academics.” Thankfully, she says, the freedom to be creative is available at Rajagiri and there are quite a few parents who encourage their children to pursue their talents.

Says Fr. Austin Mulerikal, the director of the school: “We support this because there should be equal importance to academics and extra-curricular activities. I believe there should be a holistic balance. We want to develop the complete person.”

Meanwhile, despite the drawbacks of the educational system in India, Susan says that most Americans are worried. “As Senator Barack Obama said recently, unless we match India and China in science and math, we are going to fall way behind,” she says. “Our best scientists, researchers and computer engineers are all Indians. Indians have made America great, now it is the turn of Indians to make India great.”

(Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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