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The conundrum called Education

First, What is the conundrum called Education?

I blinked in surprise when my Philosophy professor posed this question in our first ever class. I looked around and saw that most students were equally puzzled. I mean, everyone knows what education is right? What kind of a question is that to start a Master’s program?! But, by the end of those 2 hours, I realised I was mistaken.

That question was the perfect start to the whole program: What really is education? Is it a product, measured by the student achievement level? A service?  A process?

[Tweet “I am still in the process of defining what education is to me. On the other hand, I do know what it isn’t!”]

Charlotte Mason (1842 –1923) said, “Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life”. This definition rings true to most parents. Not many would dispute that every parent, whether deliberately or unintentionally, creates an environment where a child can learn and thrive.

In the 21st century, education has come to mean different things to different people. I’ve compiled a very brief list of the many definitions:.

 “Education involves essentially processes which intentionally transmit what is valuable in an intelligible and voluntary manner and which create in the learner a desire to achieve it, this been seen to have its place along with other things in life”- R.S. Peters

 “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel- Socrates.

 “There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an exam and finish with education. From the moment you were born to the moment you die, it is a process of learning”- Jiddu Krishnamoorthy.

On the one hand, I am still in the process of defining what education is to me.  On the other, I do know what it isn’t and know enough to resist succumbing to common misconceptions.

The first among them is…

The fallacy of academic super achievement.

A pattern of reasoning which dominates the current educational system is: My child gets 90%(or more) in annual exams every year and because marks are a good indicator of learning, s/he is getting a superlative education. Let me attempt to debunk this reasoning.

Firstly, although a test measures what one knows at a certain point in time, knowledge of a topic is highly dependent on how a test is constructed. In other words, what is the test actually testing?

Secondly, high marks need not necessarily lead to a person being educated. Because performing excellently on a test requires 2 conditions: test taking and study skills. If both the 2 conditions are not fulfilled, performance tanks.

Putting academic achievement into perspective.

Focussing excessively on high marks will possibly lead to academic burn out in your child. I say possibly because I accept that there are children who enjoy a competitive environment. I also acknowledge that there are just as many (if not more) students who have test anxiety and under perform. Most children seek validation of their learning and sometimes their personal worth from teachers, parents, and their test marks. You can probably see how this external validation seeking can be dangerous in the long run.

An assessment is meant to be a snapshot of a performance on a particular day.

As a parent, you are in an enviable position of influence over your child. (Don’t believe parents who claim to have no influence over their children!)

What do you focus on? What do you not focus on? Do you scold when your child gets low marks? Do you praise them when they get good marks? Do you ask “Who got the highest”? Do you expect your child to study every day? Do you answer all your child’s questions? How do you encourage curiosity? Do you question (or not) their teachers during a PTM?

Related: Changing the way your children learn!

Are you, the parent, through everyday micro interactions and with the child’s best intentions at heart, telling your child (ren) that a good or great performance in school (and college) is education?

That school and college is his/her fate is determined?

Almost all Indian parents from the so-called middle and upper classes are having similar conversations with their children. Is it any surprise that our current society is intensely competitive and performance focussed and where students commit suicide because they have failed or disappointed their parents?

What about the situation where the parent is not performance focussed but the school is?

When my daughter comes home with 10/10, I say “Looks like the test was easy for you” “I suppose the test content was not something you were familiar with”, when she comes with 5/10.

The premise behind those statements is to remind children (as well as ourselves) that an assessment is meant to be a snapshot of a performance on a particular day. The purpose of a test is to inform the teacher as well as student of how well the child is learning what she/he’s supposed to learn; to revise teaching strategies and change study habits.

Knowing what you know now, and assuming that most parents want to inculcate a lifelong love for learning in their children, how are you going to approach the all- consuming  ‘performance’ and ‘marks’ focus in society today? Maybe it begins by recognizing that education does not end at a poor performance on a test in school. This brings me to my second point…

‘Right’ schools are an illusion.

That’s right. Most schools with a certain student demographic base will do a satisfactory job of teaching your children.

So, why do parent place an undue importance on where the child goes to school? As long as the child is in a safe environment, teachers are more or less friendly, and the curriculum is engaging, one would think that schooling would not take too much of our mind space, right?


Most parents agonise over choosing a school. Firstly because of the enormity of school choice faced by our generation of parents. There are elite private schools charging over 14 lakhs a year, next layer is upper- mid range schools anywhere from Rs 3 to 10 lakhs. The mid-range will set you back by Rs 1-3 lakhs. Then come the chain schools or so-called public schools with fees in Rs 80,000-1 lakh range. The lower income group also has a choice of schools costing anywhere between Rs.1000 to Rs.30,000 annually.(My domestic help’s children go to one such Low fee private school)

Second, because parents are misinformed about the actual effect of schooling on a child’s future.  These parents are under the assumption that a good school leads to a better ‘quality’ education. (Recognise that both the italicised words are highly subjective and have multiple interpretations.)

Do schools make a difference?

But, most schools, assuming some uniformity in resources, have negligible impact on student achievement or learning outcomes. I’ll explain why…

Schools make no difference; families make the difference.”  – (Adam Gamoran, Daniel A Long, 2006)

In the mid-1960s, about the time when Dr. Kothari and his team of eminent academicians, scientists, economists (Kothari commission) were busy drawing up a report( The report was based on democratic principles of social justice, equality and opportunity and is most famous for recommending a ‘common school system’ to ensure a more egalitarian society)  on the education system in India on the behest of the then Education Minister- M.C. Chagla; The then U.S. Commissioner of education Harold Howe asked professor James Coleman from John Hopkins University to do the same. The aim of the study was to answer a question: “Which strategy was more likely to equalize educational opportunities for poor minority students-compensatory education or racial integration”

Family background is more powerful than which school the child goes to.

The report was titled Equality of Opportunity and findings of the almost 800 page report have been summed up insightfully in a single line quoted above.

The implications of the controversial Coleman Report( Controversial because, up until the Coleman report, the widely accepted belief to equalise educational opportunity was to pour resources into schools.) crushed the long held belief that school quality is tied to achievement. It demonstrated a strong correlation between the family background and student achievement.

Putting aside student achievement, the point I’m trying to make is that the family background is more powerful than which school the child goes to.

Related: Homeschooling: A Homeschooler Shares Her Journey

What did the report mean by family background? It could be interpreted as a complex system of values, beliefs, habits and practices. In short, the family ‘culture’.

Culture is a fluid concept, it is constantly in flux, reinforced and moulded every time humans interact.  In a family unit, the parents determine, reinforce or shape the family culture.

How does one change or shape culture?

What is the dominant culture in society and schooling at present? -An excessive focus on ‘marks’ and ‘performance’.  The aim of becoming a ‘rank holder’ encourages super achievement. Children get categorised into winners and losers.   I propose that it is time to reculture these binary notions.

Reculturation, as the prefix implies, is a process of re-establishing the culture in a unit. Be it a family, school, community or an organisation. Fullan (2001) calls it as ‘transforming the culture…changing the way we do things..”

And this reculturation can only come through changing my own belief system. It begins with me challenging those taken for granted, hegemonic norms in society about ‘achievement’ and ‘success’.  When what I believe goes through a paradigm shift, it has a ripple effect. Every single conversation with daughter, husband, family and friends undergoes a change. It is easy to underestimate the effect of changing one’s beliefs because it seems insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

Yet, Gandhi had it right. Be the change you wish to see.

Commence self-education. Recognise that every human has been conditioned into societal norms. Question one’s own and other’s assumptions and then make informed choices.


The education commission, Education and National Development, 1964-66, NCERT, Ministry of Education, Government of India.

Peters, R. S.  Education as initiation, 1964. in: R. D. Archambault (Ed.): Philosophical analysis and education

Coleman, James et al., Equality of Educational Opportunity, 1966, National Center for Educational Statistics, Washington, D.C.

McLoughlin Claire, Low Cost Private schools: Evidence, Approaches and Emerging Issues, 2013, EPS-PEAKS.

Fullan Michael, The New Meaning of Educational Change, 2001, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Gamoran Adam & Long Daniel A, Equality of Educational Opportunity: A 40 year retrospective, 2006, WCER, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

About the Author:

Preeti Konaje is an inquirer at heart. In her past avatars, Preeti has been a copywriter, baker, event manager, homeschooler and tutor. Now, we can add educator and teacher to that mix. She is currently pursuing the ‘Master of Education’ program from Azim Premji University.

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