I was brought up in two starkly different environments. The first was in England, up till I was nine years old. The most I really remember from school back then is spelling tests and activities that involved making up your own imaginary creature (I came up with Cottonpotamus – half-sheep, half hippo). What I wasn’t prepared for, when I moved back to India, was the focus on grades in school. I’d never been an outshining academic performer, but now, I began to get grades back on my papers, and experienced a sudden impact on my own opinion of myself. My self-perception depended on the marks of everyone else in class and their comparison to mine. This, unfortunately, was a trend that continued throughout most of primary and middle school, and in a few subjects, throughout high school as well.
When board exams in tenth grade came along, I remember trying to go through the textbooks cover to cover. I forced myself to continuously try understanding organic chemistry and to make timelines of every event in history. When my mother slammed a giant, 1000-page book of past board papers spanning the last decade, I was reluctant to use it. After finally conceding, and rummaging through the past papers the nights before, I came out of the exam hall pleased because all the questions that had been in the paper were from that very book.
Indian standardised tests are known for their predictability. Board exams are elasticised to fit around a country of students from different backgrounds, languages, quality of teaching and privilege, and are designed to even out the middle ground. They provide opportunities for students who don’t have the resources many other students do.
However, the culture that has, as a result, flourished in tenth and twelfth graders’ attitudes towards exams turns towards rewarding memorising mathematic equations and answering essay questions with pre-learned flashcards. After-school tuitions are a prevalent part of many Indian children’s lives, and often, parents feel nervous if their child is not in any extra classes, even if they have no need of it. From a system built to give all children a fighting chance, the exam system in India has become almost exclusionary; children who do not have the skills to remember a statement as the answer key of the exam states it, or easily forget the many names they are required to know for a history paper, are disadvantaged.
Exam culture has begun to affect an individual child’s very basis of self-evaluation. Using a child’s academic achievements to define their intelligence, in a country where intelligence equates to paths to success, children begin to attribute their own self-esteem and worth to a marking system designed around a specific system of studying, over a skill-focused, holistic educational model. The AIIMS cut-off for a general MBBS in 2019 was 98.75 to 99.00 percent, whilst a B.A. Psychology degree from Lady Shri Ram College for Women required at least an overall of 97 percent. 97 percent, from an exam system that rewards replicating tried-and-tested answers, over innovation, skill sets and social learning. Children train for competitive exams from the age of fourteen, for hours outside of regular school hours.
Though in the foreseeable future, the board exam system does not seem like it’s going anywhere, and higher marks are still going to be a distinguishing factor in many hiring processes, as individuals, we can begin to give children in schools today more options. Medicine, engineering, law are all wonderful career paths and can be a guarantee of a stable, traditionally high-income future, and it’s completely understandable that parents want the best possible lives for their children. But the world is moving at a faster pace than ever before, and different qualities are beginning to be rewarded; experimental ideas, learning how to market yourself, what can you bring to the world that’s new?
These qualities have nothing to do with the marks you get, and everything to do with the confidence you have in yourself, with the way you communicate with people, with observation skills, critical analysis, creativity. These are the things we need to start rewarding in children, these are the things we need to foster outside of traditional textbook learning. The importance of socialising, of nurturing new hobbies and skills, of the application of principles we learn in our classrooms.
When I was tutoring a science-inclined ninth grader in English Literature, he had no confidence in his essay writing abilities. I tried a different tactic. I showed him the essay as a sum of components and what each part was supposed to convey. He began understanding what the purpose of the essay question was in the exam. Slowly, his interest in English grew, and his test scores as a result.
A child’s individuality is an important thing to take into account as they grow. Many schools do not have the capacity to give a focused, individual approach to a single child in a class of multiple students. A child’s home life, therefore, should flourish with opportunities for self-development and exploration of different aspects of their personality. We need to find new ways of educating outside the textbook, motivate children to learn and understand the world around them, instead of focusing on what they need to do to achieve a short-term goal, with no retention of what they had studied to get to it.
With the world around us advancing creatively and technologically, we exist in the perfect time to show our children that they are more than their marks, that their value does not lie in a test score, or in academic efficiency. It’s a perfect time to show our children that we see them for their strengths, and not their weaknesses.
Sima Mehta - co-created with Deeksha Veerender