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Metaphoric microcephaly caused by MCQ exams

Zika virus is capturing global attention lately because of microcephaly it appears to be causing in infants. As we have robust populations of aedes aegypti mosquito thriving in our densely populated cities, zika is bound to produce newsworthy headlines this season in India too.

But, before zika does its veni, vidi and vici in India, microcephaly phenomenon linked with it reminds me of another epidemic season that is already here; because, just like zika, this epidemic causes even more serious microcephaly, albeit metaphoric one.

Every year, around this time of the year, a generation of young brains is struck by a man-made malaise we call competitive examination system of India. Once the epidemic of NEET, JEE etc. passes through a generation, just like zika virus, it too ends up causing wide-spread neurological damages, as it has shown diabolic capability of wiping out ability to think from human brains.

I often feel that brain-destruction caused by these Multiple Choice Question (MCQ) based exams is not just a national loss. It is a loss for entire human race, as it degrades almost one-fifth of intellectual wealth of the species. As the pathogenic strain driving this national malaise causing global losses to human race is MCQ, we need to understand its pathology in human brain.

If I look at questions from NEET, an examination that decides who should be saving your life if you fall ill, they would typically read like “Polymorphic cell organelle is (a) Glyoxysome (b) Peroxisome (c) Lysosome (d) Golgi complex” or “The percentage of formed elements in the blood is (a) 45 (b) 50 (c) 60 (d) 70”.

The most appalling aspect of the “education” enshrined in these questions is that one can score full marks without having any idea of what cell organelle or formed elements are.

As fate of a student is controlled by how well he/she is able to regurgitate random data strings like these, it requires no deep study to understand that MCQ-based exams have promoted rote-learning and helped mushrooming of coaching classes that have excelled in butchering knowledge into small bits and pieces of random data that students are trained to swallow and vomit out on demand.

So, what nation gets at the end of the day are sorry remnants of human brains that have their reasoning ability atrophied because of being out of use for long. With little ability to do anything de novo, many of the brightest of them end up as slave-brains that cherish amplifying power of first world by playing second fiddle to innovators of west, while we remain a poor third world country.

Unfortunately, what I have stated above is now almost a boring cliché that you are not going to get impressed by. Every policy-maker in India knows what rote, MCQs and coaching classes are doing to our education. So, why are we not fixing things?

To answer this, we need to get into the root of what our examinations are try to do, as it contains a bigger wisdom on what needs to be fixed with our nation.

As we have been a nation of many and few, i.e. many people and few opportunities, our policy-makers have a tough problem of devising a way to find out which couple of hundred students out of lakhs that appear for the examinations deserve to get admission.

As descriptive questions can lead to subjective and thus unfair grading, our examiners are forced to design exams that focus on achieving objectivity; but, unfortunately, the tools they created have become true weapons of mass (brain) destruction.

A student in India starts his/her education by learning the first lesson on how to succeed from his parents and teachers, and that is of the need of answering word-to-word. MCQ-based exams are just an extrapolation of the same word-to-word rote-learning principle used by exam-setters assigned the task of designing a system that can define people in black and white.

While the objective exam rationale has factors that justify our preference for it over subjective exams that have potential to lead to massive corruption in the hands of greedy teachers, we now need to do a serious cost-benefit analysis, because they seem to have annihilated learning completely.

Our objective exams may have worked in reducing disputes and smoothened the entry process in our academies, but the price we have paid for this is now becoming unaffordable, because the by-product of the process is brains reduced to rote-machines.

What our examination system has done to us gets more petrifying when we add the emerging world situation to the picture. As the world is galloping ahead with technological advancements driven by innovations where remembering information is becoming completely redundant in a google-connected world, Indian education system is like a tantō we are sharpening for committing hara-kiri.

We, the second largest nation on Earth, can’t remain a silent observer to what is happening around us. We have no option but to change the way we test knowledge, as that is the only way that will actually lead to a real change in our result-oriented education system.

The deeper truth is, it is not just our education system, every system in India has been designed to defeat corruption, as we have looked at human greed driven manipulations to be the greatest threat for the nation; but, the practical reality is, our policies aimed at defeating evil have caused bigger problems.

About time we make a change and give goodness a chance. We need a paradigm shift in how we make policies. Let us stop wasting our energies in curbing badness hidden in every humans, and start trusting each other. Few will cheat, but it is possible that many won’t.

Let us try and build an India around encouraging positivity instead of fighting negativity. As, there is a great possibility that there is no other choice.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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