The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, cleared by the union cabinet of the Indian government on 29 July, ushers in new hope in reforming the Indian education system. From highly disciplinary education, it attempts to promote multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary education. Thus, it prepares the next generation to solve problems, rather than only hold and carry knowledge.

The NEP may remind one of a Bengali poem by Sukumar Ray called Jinoner Hisheb (Accounts of Life), where a knowledge-loaded Bengali gentleman was about to sink with the boat while crossing the river amid a storm. Despite being erudite, he lacked the basic skill of life, swimming.

During his journey he continuously mocked the boatman for not being able to answer questions asked by him. When the boat was about to sink, the boatman bantered that all his knowledge was useless.

The quest for a more meaningful education system is longstanding. Rabindranath Tagore, in his 1919 paper Ashantosher Karon (Cause of Dissatisfaction), expressed that our burden of education does not provide us the willpower, strength and courage needed to reform the education system. We keep on making process changes on the old cast.

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Holistic education, multidisciplinary studies and critical thinking are some of the pillars of the NEP 2020. It emphasises on a problem-solving approach, and encourages the development of social, ethical, and emotional capacities. It suggests an integrated and cooperative approach at every stage of learning, from pre-school to higher education, by identifying a specific set of skills and values across domains.

It suggests an experiential and competency-based learning and education system. It also asserts that the assessment tools have to be aligned with the learning outcomes and capabilities. 

Implementation of policy is as important as the policy itself. In this regard, we need to question ourselves, whether we are prepared to show enough courage. Adopting a new form of education system is a time-consuming process. Teachers, students and administrators have to sync with the suggested system gradually.

But, if we get a chance to change at least one part of the system to respond to the need of the hour, then we should not hesitate to make an overhaul.   

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, schools and higher education institutions have been gasping for survival. There are challenges on every front, ranging from imparting education to evaluation. The old system of classroom teaching, mostly through lectures, is difficult to continue seamlessly.

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There are attempts by schools and institutes of higher education to replicate the same classroom teaching online. The problems of online education are varied. It is not accessible by most and its effectiveness to impart knowledge is not very encouraging. We should have immediately transformed our education system and embraced a more experiential learning pedagogy.

However, what used to get practiced as experiential learning before the pandemic is even cut shorted to almost non-existence due to suspension of classroom activities and fieldwork. Our education system should have immediately innovated a process to learn from the pandemic itself, rather than attempting to wriggle out of it.

The pandemic exposes us to novel ideas and knowledge about science, society and management, which we should have leveraged by now. 

The evaluation system still tries to mimic the old system of testing memory. The students are given multiple choice questions to be answered online. The descriptive questions are to be written down on paper and then the scanned document needs to be sent to the teacher. Some higher education institutes have accepted electronic answer-sheet.

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To maintain the integrity of the evaluation system, several monitoring mechanisms have beens adopted. The students are made to appear in the examinations in front of web-cameras and they are directed to send answers within a stipulated time. Students who can afford an internet connection, often fail to submit within the time limit due to technical glitches. Moreover, students can also copy the answers from the internet.

Thus, the whole system of evaluation, which to a large extent tests memory, fails miserably. 

Some universities have attempted to take examination in the classrooms. But there are dissentients against the arrangements as even with best arrangements, students are not fully secured against contraction. We should have molded the evaluation pattern to test students’ ability to solve practical problems and respond to emerging situations by providing novel solutions.

Take-home assignments could have been given to them. Although this may appear to be less rigorous, it may prove to me more fruitful for all practical purposes. This alternative approach may even solve some of the controversies related to conducting competitive examination for professional courses. Thus, the evaluation process can be made more in line with the learning outcomes and capabilities. 

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The NEP 2020 most aptly suggests us to ‘break down harmful silos’ of disciplinary education system in higher education. Cross-disciplinary research and teaching is one of the core components considered for higher education. However, till date, interdisciplinary courses and research are perceived as dilution of the disciplinary education system.

There are many Indian institutes that have encouraged interdisciplinary research. But the graduates of the doctoral programmes have often found difficulty in getting teaching jobs as the they are not anchored to any discipline in particular. The same problem of lack of courage and imagination to adopt a more useful system appears as an impediment here as well.

Interdisciplinary research and education can only equip us for problem solving. Without it, there would always be a wedge between academicians and practitioners, which is making the former irrelevant for the latter. 

It is an opportunity for us to act on the NEP 2020 and get rid of the shackles of overburdened, impractical and mindlessly competitive education system. According to Tagore, education is not something to be carried, but to be made our carrier. It should be internalised in the body as blood, flesh, health and strength.

Why are we still shying away from showing our strength and courage? Our social, political and economic systems are fraught with multiple problems, and crying for indigenous solutions. Courageous imagination and subsequent strong actions can only solve some of the most simple but intractable problems of the nation. 

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Featured image (representational): Students at a school in India | Image by Akshaya Patra Foundation from Pixabay