Our exam culture is failing the test of modern times
For the past week or so, Mumbai seemed surprisingly free of traffic. The other day, it took me no more than 35 minutes to reach Jai Hind College in Churchgate from Bandra (via the sea link, of course!). The trip would have been shorter but for some ill-luck with a series of red traffic lights from Haji Ali.
I can’t remember this possible even four to five decades back when vehicles were far fewer and road travel in Bombay wasn’t the excruciating ordeal it has become, despite the plentiful flyovers and the sea link.
My driver, who knows everything about everything, had an explanation for the reduced traffic too. “This is examination time, so many parents have taken holidays to teach or assist their children.” I can’t guarantee the truth-value of the driver’s assessment, except, as mentioned, he usually knows everything about everything. And yes, examination season is indeed on us, what with the SSC papers beginning today.
Exams didn’t enthuse me through school. Though they have played no direct role in my life for decades now, memories of my student days, when I would be on edge for weeks before writing papers, occasionally pop up.
These memories are benign and no longer create the tension they did when I was a student. But every year, I know of several youngsters and their parents/guardians going through great stress in this period — many exhibiting psychosomatic disorders — and I wonder if exams are really worth it.
One can’t outright dismiss their value or they wouldn’t have been part of the educational system anywhere in the world (though in the West it doesn’t quite carry the same weight as in Asia), but clearly, there are pros and cons.
Those who argue on behalf of exams say that they inculcate a disciplined approach to studying; instigate a competitive streak in youngsters that is useful in future life; and result in awards and rewards that help boost confidence.
Those against exams say they create needless anxiety; can lead to a loss in confidence (if results are below expectation); create an unhealthy and hierarchical comparative matrix between students; and reflect superficial knowledge assessed by teachers with straitjacketed, blinkered thinking that does not necessarily reflect intelligence.
These are two opposite and strong positions. From personal and derived experience – as well as speaking to sundry educationists and social scientists – I am inclined to side with the second.
A formal examination system encourages mugging and rote studying, which in turn stymies creative thinking. The emphasis is simply too much on marks and ranks, not on overall learning.
Such a system may suit certain types of personalities – or mould youngsters into these – rather than being expansive and inclusive enough to enhance the skills of everybody in the system.
At the Board exam levels (10th or 12th), the system encourages a coaching class culture which, apart from narrowing the learning process into a single-point agenda, also creates an economic class distinction between those who can afford such teaching and those who can’t.
There is discounting need for meritocracy, which is crucial for specialised education. But at the school level, including the Board exams, the examination method to determine the ‘worth’ of students needs to be re-examined and perhaps revamped. It is ridiculous that a youngsters -- 6, 10 or 16 years of age -- can be `failed’?
And any system that makes students even with 90% or 95% marks seem like losers when seeking admission to college, or makes scoring these marks the be-all and end-all of academic effort through school, has to be insane and needs to be corrected. It is unfair on youngsters as they go through their formative years; makes nervous wrecks of anxious parents; and makes institutions with reputations to guard, the snobbish and stand-offish. After all that, there is still no guarantee on the quality of education acquired.
The biggest drawback is that this system teaches students to chase marks instead of ‘learning’.
My driver says that while exams, marks and degrees have their importance, what ultimately matters is what you learn from the “school or university of life’’. Since he knows everything about everything, he has the final word.