Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Only marks matter: What about perseverance and hard work?

As her 12th standard Board exam looms ahead, Indu awakens at night in a cold sweat. Though sleep-deprived, she is unable to fall into a restful sleep. During the day, she is jittery and unable to focus on her studies. Tension pervades her entire house. Her younger brother cannot call friends home as they might disturb Indu.

Her mother religiously wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to ensure that Indu has not slept through the alarm. Even her dad’s T.V. time is rationed, lest Indu is tempted. Her mother’s watchful gaze shadows Indu’s every movement: Why is she taking so long for a bath? Why does Indu get up to answer the phone? Why is she wasting time chatting with the tutor?

The atmosphere at school does little to alleviate Indu’s anxiety. Between mock exams and revision tests, students are chastised about their poor performance. Frenzied, frenetic friends shuttle between school and various tuition classes and have little time for each other. A teacher even threatens students that if they score below 60 per cent on the mock exam, they will not be allowed to appear for the Boards. Not surprisingly, Indu believes that the Std. XII exam is the be-all and end-all of life.

A do well-or-die scenario is thrust on adolescents, who are just beginning to make a foray into our competitive world. Not only are students repeatedly told that failure is the end of the road, but are also made to believe that anything less than 90 per cent is “just not good enough”.

No second chance

While it is natural to feel some amount of stress during exams; the intensity of fear that throttles students in India is alarming. Various cultural forces compel us to pressurise children. Foremost, as a culture, we are generally unforgiving of failure. One reason why Board exams assume a larger-than-life status is that children are made to believe that there are no second chances. This mindset that we have to succeed in the first shot pervades our educational system right from kindergarten.

Students are seldom given a second chance when they do poorly. The rigidity of our educational system is a reflection of our inflexible standards. If a child does not make the cut-off of 95 per cent, her lifelong passion of becoming a doctor may be thwarted. Admission criteria usually involve fixed scores — the Boards and possibly admission tests. The rest of the child’s academic history is paid scant regard. Colleges do not value extracurricular activities and focus solely on academic achievement. Attributes like perseverance and tenacity for hard work are not necessarily prized by educators.

Learning process

Another cultural trend, deeply embedded in our educational system, is a preoccupation with results without laying any emphasis on the process. Time and again, children are told that the only thing that matters is marks. The educational establishment does not question if children are actually learning while getting marks.

Consequently, students show little interest in learning something that is not in the syllabus. The most valuable lesson of a good education — acquiring the ability to learn for the sake of learning — is, unfortunately, not imparted to our children.

Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist, describes two types of mindsets with which we might approach any task. The fixed mindset views abilities or qualities as entrenched within an individual, and, thereby, fixed or determined for life. In contrast, the growth mindset involves viewing various abilities and qualities as mutable based on experience and effort. In India, parents and educators tend to subscribe to the fixed mindset. We view attributes like intelligence and athleticism as inherent. When a student does well, she is complimented for her intelligence. However, if the child fails, he is made to feel dejected that he is a “no-good”. People with the fixed mindset overplay talent and downplay effort. In contrast, those with the growth mindset value perseverance and hard work.

Appreciate effort

According to Dweck, it is possible for people to change their mindsets. Parents and educators should appreciate effort and improvement rather than bestow praise for sheer talent. Instead of rewarding success with comments like “You are so talented”, we need to reward the effort that children put in. Likewise, when a child fails to do well, we need to motivate him to try harder the next time. Dweck also noticed that children who are praised for their abilities as opposed to effort shy away from challenging tasks for fear of failure. Thus, we need to shift the locus of attribution so that students feel empowered to learn from failure. People with the growth mindset do not necessarily see failure as a permanent setback; rather, they embrace the lessons gleaned from it.

Martin Seligman, a pioneer of positive psychology, rightly says that it is not failure per se that is damaging, but rather our interpretation of it. By elevating Board exams as the pinnacle of a child’s school career, we view poor performance on them as catastrophic. Parents and educators need to ‘de-catastrophise’ this perception so that children see failure as a temporary setback and continue to persevere despite the odds.

Spirit of enquiry

We also need to point out to children that the journey is as, if not more, important than the destination. Schools and families should foster a spirit of enquiry that is not based solely on outcomes or what other people think. It is our obsession with outcomes that drives students to cheat on exams. What starts as a minor peccadillo on a school test may grow into a criminal offence if left unchecked.

Following the Enron scandal, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker on the “talent myth” that gripped corporate America. Besotted by the talent pool that corporations were attracting, they begun to see themselves as indispensable. Individuals with prestigious degrees were paid enormous sums for their ‘talent’. This culture pushed people into the fixed mindset. So what do such people do when times get tough and their image jeopardiaed? According to Gladwell, “They will not take the remedial course. They will not stand up to investors and the public and admit that they were wrong. They’d sooner lie.” These words could just as well apply to the Satyam fiasco.

There are no shortcuts to success. Seligman says, “Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good”. As scores of students across the country appear for their Boards in March, parents and teachers may temper fraught nerves with positive, flexible mindsets.