Stop Teaching Students How To Write Answers, Teach Them to Think for Themselves

An overt emphasis on mechanical reproduction of bookish answers robs learning of its essence, can we rethink education to make it more organic?

Representative Image | prabhmit kaur/ Flickr

From school to college, perhaps the biggest challenge that all students are faced with is regarding how they can write perfect answers to get good marks and grades in their examinations. Every class, every new topic almost always starts with, what kind of questions one is likely to get from it. And from here begins the excruciating journey of learning how to carve the most brilliant answers possible. 

Don’t think it’s easy. Writing a quality answer is a unique skill that requires constant experimentation to reach best possible results. It is also an art with immaculate details which students have to perfect everyday to grab the examiner’s attention. After all, how can you expect a poor examiner, burdened with hundreds of answer scripts, to read each lousy answer and then give marks? Therefore, you have to follow the set pattern which is by default also the ‘best’ pattern to ease things for the examiner and ensure a perfect score. 

This ‘best’ pattern has some common key elements like writing the answer in points because nobody has the time to read paragraphs especially when they have to go through a lot of answer scripts, writing catchy headings and adding a little flavour with flow charts or diagrams. The most important thing is to complete all this under the ‘absurd’ time limit. After going through this toil students are finally free to crack their knuckles and start the next answer.

I have a question, what have the students learnt from all this? Apart from the very mechanical art of writing an answer, of course. One may say that they have learnt the information required to answer the question, and you are not wrong. But is this all that education means, mere facts and information? I  don’t think so. Education is liberation, education is the awakening of critical consciousness, education is celebration of learning, education is introspection, education is dialogue. This spirit of education gets broken each time students are asked to not let their mind wander and stick to the questions given at the end of chapter. 

For instance, while learning about the rise of Nazism students are asked to cram all kinds of historic information very exhaustively right from the birth date of Hitler to the foundation of the Nazi Party, the alliances of World War II to the cause of Hitler’s death. They also learn about the Holocaust and the harrowing conditions of the Jews but only in the form of information required to write the answers. What they don’t learn is how a man was able to implement the mass genocide of six million people and why such evil tendencies erupted in his being, how the Nazis were able to manufacture such moral indifference that more than fifty percent of Germans witnessed the holocaust as by-standers, how the SS guards who committed these horrendous crimes were not able to think beyond following orders, how the USA one of the heroes who defeated Nazi Germany was itself crippled by anti-Semitism and racism  In other words, they don’t learn the lessons we ought to learn from history.

Let’s look at science. We all remember the notorious chapter on adolescence in biology. Flushed faces and hushed whispers of boys and girls on hearing the words breasts, menstruation, body hair is a sight to be seen. By the end of chapter if the students are able to answer questions about; the process of menstruation, functions of ovaries or different kinds of hormones the teacher considers her job done. But I always wonder why, while learning about adolescence the fact that twenty three percent girls have to dropout of schools due to lack of sanitary facilities is not discussed, why ancient taboos and myths related to menstruation are not busted in a science class, why boys are not sensitised about the discrimination girls have to face during periods.

This question-answer system has not even spared poetry, which is perhaps the most alluring way to connect with the soul of life. Like a leech it sucks the joy out of a poem and we are left to learn hollow words scattered on pages. I cannot think of a more hideous way to teach Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ than from a guidebook based on the previous year’s questions. 

The supreme possession of a Class 12 student is likely to be the latest edition of a leading publication’s sample papers. Students trapped in this smothering system are often devoid of enjoying simple pleasures of life like watching the sunset, reading a book, an evening stroll in the park. Every pleasure gets tainted with anxiety of marks, pressure of being a “topper” and stigma of being a “failure”. As if schools were not enough now we also have insidious coaching centres sprawling all around like octopuses strangling students.

Why is this stifling system so ubiquitous? I think it is because it best serves the interests of the status quo of neoliberal society. Where just like everything else, education is nothing but a mere “commodity” sold in the ‘shops’ conventionally known as schools. The fancier the shop, the more ‘valuable’ the education. This system doesn’t need critical thinkers and inventors who work for the betterment of society. It needs an army of indifferent people obsessed with the notion of “getting settled in life” to follow orders and write just correct answers without any deviance. 

This “Banking model of education” as observed by Paulo Freire treats students as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge or more appropriately with information by teachers. More often than not these over brimmed vessels vomit all the information in their examinations and get promoted to the next class.

It is about time we realise the perils of this exam-centric question-answer education system which turns our children into meek followers and robs them off their uniqueness and creativity all the while presenting “rote learning” as the best system of education. I urge teachers to let go of these outdated practices of teaching and embrace dialogic education, to celebrate the uniqueness of every child and break free from the rigid curriculum and standard objective answers, to stop teaching as task doers and start contextualising knowledge with the real lives of students.Education should be the way to get better at ‘being human’. Do not reduce it to perfecting the skill of answer writing.

Manika Chhabra is pursuing her graduation in Sociology from Punjab University.