Testing times

This article is published in the February issue of the Education magazine, Educare.

Testing times

Unrealistic expectations drive students to drastic steps, including suicide

March 2006 reported four suicides related to the board exams in New Delhi in a very short time span. In March 2005, six students took their lives a fortnight before the board exams, 300 others reportedly attempted to commit suicide and 70 per cent of the students were reported to be suffering from stress and anxiety. In Surat, two out of three girls who attempted suicide died. In March 2004, two Calcutta based students committed suicide within a span of a week because of being unable to bear the stress of exams.
Year after year, one gets to read news like this in the month of March. One wonders whether the battle against the board exams has been able to march forward or not. NCERT has recommended steps like provision for retaking the exam in a short span, using words other than “fail” to reduce stigma and avoid complete demoralisation, reform the examination system and remodel the question paper to test creativity and application of mind, have flexible time during the exams, use grading system instead of marks, have counsellors interact with students, teachers and parents, provide for one teacher
from each school to be given short term training for stress related problems etc.

While all these steps are very welcome, one wonders if they strike at the root of the problem. The fear of the boards is largely a fear of not doing well in life because in the ultimate analysis, the exam is a means to an end. Just as cricketers require match practice to simulate real match situations in addition to net practice for the real matches, education of practical life situations is a must as the exams come more in the category of net practice. One article on board exam suicides spoke of the need for emotional intelligence, but in my view, there should be more education on how practical life functions because that is the real thing. It may sound fancy to say that there is more to life than exams but what it means in reality is that some foolish perceptions related to the exams and practical life should also be reviewed by the students, parents, teachers and society at large.

From the life success perspective, the perception that the whole future of the student hinges on one exam is like saying that the entire batting hinges on the opening batsmen in cricket. In an article in India Today some years back, this is what the then vice chancellor, Delhi University, Deepak Nayyar had to say, “It’s like the Last Chance Saloon, there is no second choice. Class XII is looked upon as the end of the world. Some of the greatest innovative successes in the world have happened because people followed their heart, pursued their passion and brought about something new the formal education of which was obviously non-existent at that time. I gave the example of Henri Ford in my previous writeup. In the modern world, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, the google founders all come in that category. All three left formal education to pursue their dream.

This should also serve as a lesson for those parents who try to impose their dreams on their child. Everybody cannot follow their heart like the above gentlemen but giving over importance to formal education is also not correct. You may prove to be good at the real thing. I also read about a couple of Nobel prize winners explaining how formal education would have been a liability instead of an asset in their case because lack of structured thinking facilitated creative ideas. This maybe an exception rather than the rule but puts things in perspective because ultimately, creative ideas in any field lead to grand success.
Nayyar further added, “It would be terrible in the world if everyone stood first or everyone was outstanding.” I met one such super achiever in management whom I consider my best boss. After getting three double promotions and rising to become CEO from assistant manager in just one year, he outclassed the chairman and went on to set up a big project consultancy business within a span of few years and further diversified into hotels and BPOs. Since there were four others from the same institute, it would have created a lot of office politics and friction had he not been obviously outstanding and his leadership straightaway accepted by the others. It is a good thing that providence does not make people equally talented as otherwise, if people continuously try to outdo one another, nothing concrete could be achieved.

That apart, there are some practical constraints to be kept in mind even if one’s child becomes a super achiever. The same boss mentioned above, who had the all round excellence gave equal partnerships to all partners when he started his business though he could have easily got the lion’s share. In his own words this was because “he could not be at all places at all times”. He achieved more in three years than people do in ten because of this wisdom in addition to business smartness. Everybody may not be able to follow this example but certain realities of practical life have to be taken into account before setting individual goals. I met one gentleman on the Tennis court who claimed to be a super achiever in sports; he said that he was good at all racquet games and was selected for his school in all three- Table Tennis, Badminton and Lawn Tennis but he had to drop Table Tennis as its tournaments were clashing with the other two. In his autobiography A double life, former Lintas chairman Alyque Padamsee explains the practical problems on perusing two careers throughout life. Even within the right career, it is better if one is in the right sub-vocation. Charles Dickens found no success as a playwright despite great effort. Author of innumerable children’s books, Enid Blyton admitted that if she had to write an article she would find it difficult. Our own VVS Laxman enjoys an awesome reputation against the best cricket team in the world, Australia but is overlooked for one- day cricket and has not played a single world cup.

This reminds me of some parents’ obsession of making “all rounders” of their children.
A six year child’s schedule was mentioned in an article on raising superkids: 9-2 school, 3.30-4.30 tuition, 5-6 Lawn Tennis classes, 6-7 Guitar class, homework upto 9, after which thankfully he retires to bed. He also attends special three-hour maths classes during weekends. This hardly leaves any scope for childhood experiences or knowing the child’s innate potential. Practical life looks more for well-rounded teams and well-rounded individuals with specified niches, instead of super all rounders. In cricket, genuinely good all rounders as a percentage of total cricketers is very low. Only Imran Khan has the unique record of being very good all rounder and a great captain. Some years ago, Rahul Dravid mentioned in an interview how young people try to start as all rounders but when they come across a tough wicket, they realise that bowling is not their cup of tea. When one thinks of India’s great all rounders, only Kapil Dev and Vinoo Mankad come to mind. Recently, even after getting a test hundred, Irfaan Pathan said that he had the makings of a consistent good all rounder only in the long run. It is better to be a well-rounded person knowing your niche rather than an all marauding super all rounder. Jack of all, master of none does not mean anything in today’s world.

Instead of striving for all round excellence, it is better make an inventory of one’s talents and interests and focus on that. In my August 2007 article Livelihood, a lively way, I have given several examples how very well qualified people also choose a completely different career because that is where their passion lies. Sometimes, the new careers lack both status and money compared to the previous ones. There are 11 similar articles on my blog- http://mypyp.wordpress.com/.

Since a majority of examples are American, the views of an Indian, Virendra Kapoor, who is on the HR committee of CII, are worth noting. This is what he has written in his wonderful book, Passion Quotient: The Greatest Secret of Success. “I met one fellow who had done his electrical engineering and today he is a top criminal lawyer. I asked him how did this happen. In very simple words he said that after graduating from IIT, he worked for a good MNC for three years, was earning a good pay packed but was not really enjoying his job. So he did his LLB and then LLM and has been practicing law for more than fifteen years. You therefore see chartered accountants as successful film directors, mathematics professors turning into great actors or doctors becoming top cops.”

One has to know correctly where one’s talents and interest lie and follow that wholeheartedly, instead of being obsessed with degrees. This is what Gita Piramal has to say on one super achiever in real life, the late Dhirubhai Ambani in her book Business Maharahas. “Ambani’s single mindedness is legendary and he is proud of it. In his own words, ‘I am not a director in other companies. I am not actively participating in any associations or anything else. My whole thinking, one hundred percent of my time, from morning till evening, is about how to do better and better at Reliance. No art previews, no theatre, no films and he rarely used to switch his CD player.” Contrary to this, my father, a CA who turned around a sick company, had this to say of his would-be partner constantly attending mourning functions because of his vast social network, “How can one function if one attends so many functions. If he continues like this, he may have to mourn for his own company one day.”

Apart from the perception of super achievement, a lot many exam related fears are there because of fear of degrees and qualifications. One reads about students killing themselves for not getting a degree of a top institute of their choice. Dhirubhai’s views on that are worth noting. Though they got the best people for technical jobs, on the management side Piramal writes, “The Ambanis don’t rely on paper qualifications. On the contrary, whoever shows initiative gets the job. Reliance’s first marketing manger used to sell petroleum products. Its knitting manager used to be an auto parts salesman.”

The objective of this article is not to undermine formal education but to convey that practical life can be a great leveller and therefore, blind fear or obsession of qualifications does not help in the long run. In the same India Today article it is stated that the problem is that Indian schools teach to produce outstanding students and the uniformity doesn’t accept the average students but puts them through the same obstacles as the high performers do. This can be a problem because the same teaching process need not suit everyone. I heard the great Jimmy Connors say in a video cassette on Tennis, “There is no right or wrong way to play Tennis. It is a matter of what suits you.” Even in cricket Virendra Sehwag and MS Dhoni have succeeded despite having totally unconventional techniques. Dhirubhai Ambani’s success was also more because of unconventional, out of the box thinking than anything else.

Many people who do not do so well academically display pretty practical intelligence in real life. The analyst in a theoretical course need not excel in real life. Prasanna Raman, a software engineer in Bangalore invented a video analysis system for the Indian cricket team and gradually became the technical head of the National cricket academy and computer analyst for the under 19 time. The cricketer or manager, on the other hand need not be a good analyst. Some, like our current captain Anil Kumble maybe good at both-as player and student of the game. Some may decide that their real talent and passion lies somewhere else. Here too, practical life maybe a great leveller. Society should also stop judging people in terms of degrees alone and look for the individual beyond the qualification. What he can actually do well in a sustained manner in practical life is more important that what his degree reveals.

The current education system caters more to the auditory and visual learner (learning through seeing and listening respectively) than the kinesthetic or tactile learners who learn better with a more hands-on approach. Training institutions are proliferating currently who can perhaps provide practical training through workshops to those who may want to learn through a more hands on approach alongside their jobs rather than a purely theoretical course. Practical life is quite different from student life and runs more on this principle by the great Chinese philosopher, Confucius “Tell me and I will Forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.”

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