What we lose in the race for marks

Sunanda Ali

I would like to begin with an anecdote. During a recent discussion in our staffroom, a teacher made an observation. He said that students after receiving their corrected test-papers came for their ‘milk-break’ in a very excited state, talking loudly as to ‘how many marks’ they had ‘got’. At lunch too, that day, he noticed that it was the main topic of conversation. This had disturbed him: that the marks overtook everything else; other things (the subject, interest in the concept, love of knowledge, pleasure in learning new skills) had no place in their minds. It was disillusioning (and maybe also illuminating) that despite the time, thought and effort spent on teaching students, the only thing which seemed to matter was a numeral, the marks. Other teachers expressed similar discomfort. (At this point, we did not get into the adverse effects of marks like competition and comparison, we were concerned only with the effect of marks on learning.)

The teachers in our school had discussed this situation sporadically earlier; this time we all agreed that we wanted to do something to change the situation. The upshot of it is that we all agreed to stop giving marks to the students, we decided that the teacher will maintain a record of the student’s summative achievement, but it would not be shared with the students. For this system to work however, we realized that we would have to do a few other things. We would have to discuss the test paper thoroughly in class with emphasis on the expected answers, and we would have to meet each student individually to give her a clear idea as to where she stands. About the other concern often reiterated – “If you don’t give marks, how will you motivate the students?” – we felt we would have clear answers. We would give a lot of attention to instilling interest in the subject, to relating the concepts to the students’ lives, to improving their learning skills. After a few more discussions, we ended on the note that we would see how this situation evolved, but that we had made a move in the right direction.

What has all this to do with success and failure, you may ask. The truth is that, at least in our country, success in academics is equated only with test scores. If a student has been doing well otherwise – has shown original thinking, capacity to go beyond the syllabus, and has contributed to class discussions with clarity and insight – she will still be considered a failure if her test scores are ‘poor’. Only the final figure, the marks are important. Parents, students and teachers see marks as the only indicator of ‘success’. Students’ attitude and behaviour also change when marks are their reward: a teacher observed that students know when their ‘internal assessments’ are due, and they are on their best behaviour so that the teacher gives them more marks.

Teachers also measure their own success by their students’ marks. They see themselves as having done their job well only if their students score good marks. There have been cases where teachers have resorted to malpractice so that their students get good marks so that the management would be happy with them. Schools compete to secure the top positions in board exams. Newspapers carry photographs of toppers and this serves as advertisements for their respective institutions.

How does this affect teachers? They are aware that they need to be seen as infallible, that they are seen as the guarantee to their students’ success, that they must never falter. Inspirational posters on how to use failure as stepping-stones to success are put up all over the walls, but teachers themselves can never fail. Cracks on their veneer of perfection are a threat to the whole edifice which will collapse like the proverbial house of cards. On the reputation of the teachers and their infallibility rests the reputation, nay, the very survival of the educational institution they work for. The teacher must be seen as knowing all the answers which must be ‘taught’ to the students which will ensure the students’ success in exams.

In all this, learning is forgotten. The sheer joy of discovery a student feels when she ‘gets’ something, the pleasure a teacher feels at opening windows to unending vistas of knowledge and all other joys of teaching and learning is hardly ever experienced in school where lessons are often a dreary process of ‘completing the syllabus’ and answering old question papers to ensure ‘good marks’.

Harking back to the beginning; how did we, as a body of teachers respond to the challenge? In deciding not to give marks to students, we confirmed, that to us, deep learning is important, that marks take away the focus from, and even prevent learning, and that we need to find better ways of communicating to students where they stand ‘vis-a- vis’ the expected level.

In schools, we need to establish an atmosphere where teachers can accept failure, where they are not frightened to be seen as fallible. The school (the staffroom especially) should be a place where teachers are nurtured, and the principal must see this as her most important priority. The present situation where, once teachers do their teacher-training, they are sent into the classroom, most often not adequately prepared for the actual situation and to all intents and purposes alone, must end. On-going professional training where continuous opportunities for learning are offered is the ideal scenario. Teachers need to feel that they can fail, they expect to fail and can accept failure, but are given ample opportunities to learn from their mistakes. When teachers exhibit this attitude, students too benefit in multiple ways.

When all the stakeholders make learning a focus, and a priority, then success and failure fall into place. We understand that these are constructs at opposite ends of a spectrum and that all of us are in the gap between these two opposites and are always capable of moving towards our desired goals. This can happen best in supportive, nonjudgmental environments. Our schools need to be this first. Other things will then follow.

• Raghavan, N. The Reflective Learner (A Thinking Teacher Publication) 2019.
• Sankaranarayanan Aruna, ‘Perceptions of Failure’. The Hindu. (22nd February 2009).

The author has been teaching for several years and is now the Principal of The Peepal Grove School, a co-educational ICSE-ISC school in Chittoor Distt, A.P. She can be reached at sunandaali5@gmail.com.

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