Imagine: Exam time and a pressure-cooked generation
Education which is not embedded in life is meaningless. It is high time we let go of this outdated belief that one exam will determine the rest of their lives. This is a huge burden for young shoulders to carry
Dr. Shelja Sen for Indian Express
By the end of January and the beginning of February, there is a subtle shift in homes across the country. There is a strange hush, with children becoming more and more muted, hustling from home to school, back again lugging their hefty school bags, then to tuition centres, and finally to return to nights of more studies. No holidays, hardly any outings, dance classes cancelled, cricket kits put away, as all children are told to “become serious”. After all, it is exam time for the pressure-cooked generation.
As I stand in my balcony gazing at the haunted park in front of my home, which otherwise is alive with laughter, shouting and banter of children, a sudden thought comes to my mind. This is how it would have been in older times when families prepared for war. The darkness, the unspoken fear as the youth were pulled out of their homes to go fight the enemy. And that is what it is right now; our education system is the enemy feeding on our youth, year after year.
I am getting carried away, you might think, but ours is a country that has the highest suicide rates in the world among the youth. A student kills himself or herself every hour; many others are crushed and wounded in the process.
A 17-year-old sitting for his Class 12 Boards told me, “I am being told all the time that this exam will decide everything for the rest of my life. And if I do not do well, my life is doomed.”
That is a huge burden for young shoulders to carry.
If I had my way (I am sure there are many who would agree with me), I would get rid of all exams and instead start apprenticeship for all students from senior school. Not the meaningless internships and voluntary service that many students do as part of their university applications but actual work experiences and skill building in different areas such as art, music, finance, research, agriculture, design, theatre etc. Where they learn to ask questions, think and connect dots. Where they learn to work in teams, regulate their feelings, be empathetic and compassionate. Where more than regurgitating facts, they learn life skills such as managing money and time, making healthy choices, being goal-oriented, being inclusive, environmentally conscious, understanding gender sensitivity, carrying out research, communicating and articulating their opinion. If these are happening, rest assured, education is taking place; if not, something else is happening but let’s not call it education.
Education which is not embedded in life is meaningless.
We carry demons from our childhood in the shape of voices of our parents and teachers reminding us that we are only worth our marks. The media, advertisements and the larger narrative feed that to us every day. It is difficult to stand up to this narrative as then ours becomes the lone voice in the clamour of ‘How will they get admission in a good college’. Going by the present cut-offs for a lot of the so-called ‘good colleges’, constant nagging by parents is not going to do the trick. And the change has to start with us, the parents. We have to step back and reflect on this erosive dominant discourse that is being recycled, generation after generation.
Let’s be creative
Rather than letting exam time be about scores, it could become more about equipping them with various effective learning and memorising skills that they might use for the rest of their lives. Try out visual aids like flip charts, easel-sized post-its, whiteboards, apps, flow-charts and mind-mapping. Brainstorm different concepts with them, use drama and role plays to help them get a deeper understanding of their subjects. Remember, it is not the number of hours of cramming but creative studying that is most effective.
Try out fun mnemonics that can make learning fun and easy (read Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer for some cool tricks). Just search online and you will find the funniest, craziest videos made by some creative teachers on subjects ranging from periodic tables to chemical reactions to world history.
When my son was sitting for his Class 12 Board exams, we were chatting about Sherlock Holmes and his ‘Mind Palace’. We decided that he would use mind palace to learn the entire world and Indian history spanning almost a century. Did it work? Of course it did, like magic, and he had so much fun creating it.
We all have dreams of our children doing well in life and getting high scores that will become their ticket to success and a lifetime of happiness. Many times we realise the irrationality of this idea and we try to tell our children, ‘We don’t care about marks at all, it is the effort that counts’. However, when the child does not do well despite all the hard work, we get really upset. This sends out confusing messages as the children see right through our hypocrisy. Think! Children who start school this year will be ready to start work in another, roughly, 25 five years. We do not know what the world will look like then and we have no idea about the kind of jobs humans will be doing and what jobs would be taken over by robots or the digital media. So it is high time we let go of this outdated belief that one exam will determine the rest of their lives. Tell me five people you know who changed our world for the better. How many of them scored top grades in school?
Extreme stress ends up having a negative impact on not just the emotional well-being of the child but also her cognitive ability. The high level of arousal of the limbic system (emotional part of the brain) and the cortisol levels (stress hormone) can hijack the prefrontal cortex which is so crucial in learning. Introduce your children to apps such as Calm or Headspace which can help them to meditate for even as short as five minutes a day. Be affirmative and recognise their effort. Make sure they do not stop doing things that make them happy – let them hang out with their friends, go for their dance class, play football, etc. If your child has severe anxiety of the exam day itself, then ask her to visualise every bit in advance — from the time she gets up in the morning, journey to school and finally sitting for the exam. Visualisation can work like magic and give her a huge boost of confidence.
Prioritise your relationship
Exam time can shred relationships and the strained relationships can wreak wounds that at times can last a lifetime. Therefore, don’t let the anxiety of ‘What will happen to him if he does not do well’, ‘If she does not do well in these exams then she has no future’ start defining your relationship with your child. Then, when that worry does show up, accept it, don’t fight it but just do not let it take the driving seat. Do not let the worthiness of the child be defined by that one number. No matter what.
(Shelja Sen is co-founder of Children First, a child & adolescent mental heath institute, and author of Imagine: No Child Left Invisible; All You Need is Love: The Art of Mindful Parenting; Reclaim Your Life: Going Beyond Silence, Shame and Stigma in Mental Health.)