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16 February 2008
Board Exam HOTS Up
While our educationists’ endeavour to increase the content of reasoning in school curricula is welcome, an examination hall is the last place students would like to be taken by surprise. CBSE must wait for a year to let students develop Higher Order Thinking Skills before testing them
All those who had been lamenting for decades that academic education in the country is all about devouring bookish matter and regurgitating it in the examination hall must welcome the new format for AISSE and AISSCE question papers, especially those of physics, chemistry and biology. But a basic doubt remains: Shouldn't such a scheme have been announced last year in April so that the students could practise analytical questions the whole year and, if announced now, shouldn't it be implemented not before the session 2008-09?
It's good that 'reason' has finally prevailed, though only up to 20 per cent! Well, that's the weightage for questions of reasoning. What can be philosophically asked is whether it is really about doing away with cramming. If a student is asked, say, our stomach has hydrochloric acid to help us digest food; so, how come the acid does not digest the stomach itself? If the student answers, "The stomach is lined with a dense layer of epithelial cells, which continually sacrifice themselves in order to protect deeper layers of the stomach wall; each minute, the surface lining sheds some 500,000 cells, and it completely replaces itself in three days," did he discover this answer (if not invent it)? Finally, it is the book that asks the questions and the book itself that answers them. Now the point is, had the Higher-Order-Thinking-Skills policy been announced last year, the books could have been equipped with such Q&A, in the absence of which the student cannot be expected to tell the invigilator, "Hold on, I'm going to rip my stomach apart to find out why it's not digesting itself!"
Then comes the question of the extent of logic used in each subject. To every reason, one can ask an additional 'why?'
- Why is a blue substance blue?
- Because it absorbs lights of all wavelengths except that of blue, which it reflects back (which reaches our eyes to make it appear blue).
- Well, why does that thing 'discriminate' with blue?
- Because of a unique pigment (not shared by substances of other colours) whose surface reflects a particular wavelength?
- Why don't other substances have that pigment?
NCERT textbooks don't have an answer. Nor can they, or other books, be expected to have answers to all 'why's. Nor is the 'Board examination' an occasion to show off all that you know. The question is: Why don't our books first concentrate on the most fundamental question -- "what"? Certainly, before one reasons a thing, the thing must first exist. Existence is not because of a reason; existence is a truth whether or not we understand why.
This question of existence brings us to the issue of definitions. Say, if the electric potential of a point is "the work done to move a unit positive charge from infinity to that point", the magnetic potential of a point is "the work done to move a unit north pole from infinity to that point". So, all that is needed by the student is to know that the word 'potential' means 'work', and then substitute 'positive charge' with 'north pole' to switch from electricity to magnetism. Similarly, 'intensity' means 'force'; so, electric intensity of a point is "the force required to move a unit positive charge from infinity to that point", while magnetic intensity is "the force required to move a unit north pole from infinity to that point".
This is to say that our school textbooks need better quality of sub-editing. Key words must be either highlighted or italicised. To rub the concept in, teachers must break up definitions and begin with the fundamental point. That is, instead of asking students to memorise a 21-word long definition, ask them to memorise, if they must, just three words -- "potential is work" or "intensity is force". Only later come the questions -- what kind of work, or what kind of force. To know how pertinent this demand is, one may just substitute a one-sentence-answer type question with a one-word-answer type. You will be amazed to know how very few students in the country know the literal meanings of jargons. But if they do, definitions can be phrased using one's own words without the need to memorise them from textbooks. And that eases off so much of exam-time pressure.
I am reminded of a classmate who was best known in my school for memorising anything - intelligible or otherwise. One day during the geography lesson he was asked to define "metamorphic rocks". Interestingly, the NCERT book had a description of such rocks but no definition. The last sentence of the descriptive paragraph read, "Such rocks are called metamorphic rocks." So when asked to define, the boy simply said, "Such rocks are called metamorphic rocks!"
One hopes, with such a short notice given for a changed pattern of CBSE question papers, panic-stricken students do not pick up contextual sentences from their books out of context as my friend had done.
To reason is undoubtedly important, but so is the rationale behind reasoning. It is noted with some unease that physics, chemistry and biology won't be the only subjects to have more questions on reasoning. HOTS will apply to political science, history and economics in Class XII and languages, social science, mathematics and science in Class X as well. Can the first three subjects have absolute reasoning? If not, won't some answers appear political? What if a student of economics writes an answer with a capitalist perspective, which is checked by a Leftist examiner, or vice versa? There are chances that it will mar his prospects in the rest of the paper, howsoever brilliantly handled. As for Class X, how will the CBSE increase the reasoning content in mathematics, a subject that is nothing but reason already?
In view of the grey areas emerging out of the sudden announcement of HOTS, it is advisable that the CBSE, showing its own higher order thinking skills, postpones the implementation of the policy by one year, by which time teachers and NCERT books get equipped for the purpose.