The havoc wrought by exams

Pradita Nambiar

It was a Friday. The parent decided to work with her son on the Hindi lessons done at school. But the boy did not find his notebook in his bag. He was very anxious and worried because his exams were beginning the following Monday. The mother advised the son to talk to his teacher on Monday about the loss. On Monday, the teacher asked the other children in the class if anybody had seen the notebook. No one had. When the boy reached home that day and reported this to his mother, she enquired about the entire sequence of events that led to the book missing. She concluded that the book probably got mixed up with the books of either of the two children who sat at the same desk as her son.

She went to school on Tuesday and met the class teacher. She was meeting her for the first time. Her son had joined the school only this year. She got, from the class teacher, phone numbers of the two children so that she could request the parents to help in looking through their children’s books. The parents assured her that they would check and if they found the book would send it with their children.

On Wednesday she decided to meet the principal and bring this incident to her notice. The principal asked her a few questions, “How is your child in Hindi?”, “Does he write his notes regularly?” The mother replied that the boy did take down notes but he made many mistakes when writing. The principal immediately asked, “Then why will anybody want to steal his book?” The parent was shocked. Did the principal mean that if his book was error-free there was a valid reason to steal the book? The principal then said that as the exams were going on there was very little she could do about the issue now. The parent should take the notebook of another child, photocopy it and manage this exam. The principal would deal with this issue after the vacation.

paper A couple of parents whom I met and discussed this issue with told me that this happens frequently before exams. It appeared that parents and teachers simply accepted as a matter of fact that children take other children’s notebooks before exams. (I hate to call this act stealing!). But I wasn’t happy to let this be. Something was nagging me. I asked myself a number of questions. What is it about exams that drives children to do these things? Do parents and teachers as a community still have faith in children? Are we (teachers, parents, and children) all on the same side? Or do the children believe that all teachers and parents are their adversaries? What is it that we need to do to help children grow up in a fulfilling and enriching environment?

We all like to believe that exams help us adults to find out how much the children have learnt so that we can help them learn better. But our obsession with rote learning and high scores has resulted in exams becoming a heavy burden on the children. All that we do today is to feed children with information and ask them to regurgitate that information in the exams. No wonder then that children go around looking for notebooks of other children so that they can cram all the information that the examiner wants to trap (oops! test) them for.

Exams are based on the premise that there is no room for mistakes and that all the answers are known. Children should be made aware that there are areas which are yet to be explored.

Even if we were to assume that we truly want to know how much our children learn, let’s try various other methods to stimulate learning and work towards eliminating exams. Teachers should create experiences for children, which will help them understand life around them better. For e.g., the children can learn the lengths and directions of shadows during the day by engaging in shadow play. The children can also build a sun dial and mark the shadows. Questions and exercises at the end of a text that encourage children to reflect on issues instead of simply reproducing information will also go a long way in helping children learn, develop critical thinking, and sensitivity.

Learning is a continuous process and a search that each child has to embark on for himself. The system of exams in schools breeds the culture of threatening children into doing what we want them to do. The results of these exams make us reward/penalize the children based on the results. All this leads to an atmosphere of fear and the desire to succeed at any cost. We also notice that even the children who have good scores sometimes cheat as they are convinced that success in exams is paramount and that it justifies cheating.

Increasingly, schools are using children as objects for their own purposes to make profits. Most schools have notice boards at the entrance proudly displaying the high scores of their students. They use the performance of the children to improve their reputation and thereby increase the number of intake during the year. These learning factories spend very little effort on developing the character, intellect, and potential of the children.

Most of us foolishly believe that schools are the only source of learning for children and schools too have taken on this task to fulfill their own needs of gaining reputation and money. But they are failing miserably as they have taken on more than they can chew. We need integrated communities, and parents and teachers need to know that opportunity to learn exists everywhere (I would say more outside of the school than inside!)

To conclude my story, the child got his book back. His notebook got mixed up with the books of his neighbour in class. Teachers and parents need to keep faith in the eagerness and ability of children to learn. Let us widen the gulf between the worlds of the adults and children. Children learn by a continuous process of revelation just as much as I do as an adult. Exams do more harm than good to this process.

The author is managing a preschool in Coimbatore. She can be reached at pradita_n@yahoo.com.