Are the near cent per cent marks a sign of higher intelligence or a profound systemic failure?
I’m afraid there is no readymade answer to this question. However, a sincere attempt can be made to diagnose the underlying pathological condition of exceptional academic performance from the perspectives of different stakeholders; namely, parents, institutions, future employers, and students.
Parents: In India, the sense of pride associated with raising an academically exceptional child is something difficult to express in words. It is the ultimate validation to prove their worth as successful parents. It is the most desired and institutionally validated certificate that helps parents in covering every other possible flaw in their parenting. Not only that, but it also gives them a false sense of assurance that their children will eventually become an overachiever in actual life.
Institutions: They are more interested in the success of academically bright students for the apparent reason that they end up becoming the mascot of the undisputed life success to attract unreasonably high tuition fees. As a result, they ostensibly end up propagating the attitude of “the dog eats dog” world. They are as interested in the overall development of their students as any poultry farmer may be interested in the overall health of his farm.
Future employers: They have complete faith in the system that works tirelessly to filter students based upon their academic performances. Conformity and compliance is something that is deeply imprinted on the psyche of the students who succeed in emerging as a top performer. As a result, the entire process of hiring becomes a formality to validate the result of standardized tests.
Students: The most critical stakeholder doesn’t have any say in this entire elaborate scheme of things. The exam-centric education system expects them to follow the long list of instructions from the other two stakeholders: parents and institutions. There is no way to challenge their undisputed authorities.
It is deplorable that children as young as 8-10 years have to go through the experience of exam-related stress. Exam-centric education causes extreme stress to students because tests are regarded as the only means to prove their worth. The examination system is a filtering process that believes in rejecting a significant majority to select a few for higher educations.
In a broader sense, the exam-centric system thrives on having stifling control over its students. As a consequence, it ends up wreaking havoc in the academic and social lives of students. Such education that holds examinations as its core component downplays the ultimate purpose of education: critical thinking.
An exam-centric education assigns student aptitude based only on test scores, often leading to the marginalisation, if not outright disregard, of lower-performing students.
If you are a student, your worth is defined by your scores, and not by your character. Both parents and teachers consider scores to be the only evaluating criteria for the students. Therefore, high scorers garner praise, whereas low and mediocre scores draw public shame.
This violates the foundational education policy objective of providing equal opportunities of learning to every student. The exam-oriented education centres around entrance tests and the demand for getting an entry to the prestigious medical or engineering colleges. To fulfill those demands, more often than not, teachers end up ignoring students’ creativity or ability to reason abstractly.
An exam-oriented education system not only increases a student’s burden but also restricts his/her ability to learn using techniques that a particular student finds most compelling.
A pile of ten or more books on the desk is a common sight inside any high secondary school classrooms, half of which are exercise books, which elucidates the pressure to pass the entrance examination. Further, most teachers, parents, and students believe admission to engineering or medical college is the only secure way to succeed in life.
More often than not, grading seems to have a negative effect on student self-confidence and self-esteem. According to a study undertaken by the University of Michigan, 80 per cent of students base their “self-worth on their academic success, leading to low self-esteem and other mental health issues.”
The students who receive a poor grade or fail the entrance examinations believe they have a few, if any, career prospects, a belief that ensues in creating a permanent scar on the motivational psyche of students. There is a possibility that even the students who manage to receive high grades might base their self-worth on continued high achievement creating high anxiety and stress in their lives.
Therefore it is not an exaggeration to state that as a primary cause of teen anxiety, examinations resulting in grading stand second to none.
Assigning grades label students as successes or failure; but labeling students is not the goal of education. Since the knowledge gained through the touch of a button has changed the dynamics of learning, we need to keep up and reassess how we educate our students.
And it is high time these different stakeholders start revisiting their roles and responsibilities to address the issue of systemic failure. Parents should take the lead here and stop attaching too much of significance to their children’s academic success. There is the whole spectrum of unexplored life waiting outside the periphery of academics. Children must be allowed to explore them.
As far as developing core competency is concerned, parents need to keep in mind that there are cross-functional skills that will always remain in demand. They are:
1) Interpersonal skills requiring an understanding of behavioral psychology and learning the art of persuasion; 2) Necessary technology skills, like knowing how to use word processing software and data interpretation tools.
These skills are unlikely to be rendered obsolete by technological innovation or economic disruptions. Having a strong base in these cross-functional skills is relevant across industries and job titles; it also gives an employee the capacity to pivot careers when needed.
Even in a changing workforce environment, having a strong foundation in these versatile cross-functional skills allow people to pivot successfully. Therefore, any unnecessary obsession with academic performance is something that should be avoided at all cost. Because in the long run, life is shaped by our judgments and choices, and not by our marks.
This is the complete text of my opinion piece published in the newspaper “the pioneer” “https://www.dailypioneer.com/2019/sunday-edition/chasing-mirage–quite-off-the-mark.html
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