Cultivating Confidence and Joy

to Slay The Mammoth of Competitive Exams

In a world where the definition of success is changing faster than a social media update, the onus on parents and educators to ensure children don’t succumb to the rat race is far higher than ever before. Earlier, the measure of success was confined to school assemblies, newsletters, and school magazines. Sometimes, an exceptional performance was reported in local newspapers and that was the pinnacle of achievement for a child.

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This may be the first step in ensuring that students are confident and learning is fun. The trouble today is that parents and teachers want their child to run the rat race, little realizing they are only creating the best rat.

Those days are long gone, and children today compete for likes, designations, status updates, etc. Take a step back and think what the pressure must be like to outdo each other and more importantly, outdo an infinite pool that cannot be identified. The begging question then is, should educators add to the pressure or understand the already stressed life of a high school child?

Adding to this potent mix, there are other stress factors such as tuitions, extra-curricular activities, peer pressure, expectations of parents, the reputation of the child in the community and then to top it all the mammoth of competitive exams. Recently, there was a news article that discussed IIT preparation from Class V for students in Delhi. Then there was news about admissions being booked right after the mother’s pregnancy is confirmed. If this doesn’t appall you, or you are one of those, who believe that in a global world, a child should start early, then unfortunately, you may be looking at a child who has succeeded with achievements but failed in life.

The rapid rise in feelings of insecurity, depression, body consciousness, lack of confidence, etc. among school children is not only a concern but a silent epidemic and now more than ever, as educators, we need to question ourselves as to the true meaning of education. Are we to train our children at being excellent in rote learning and spilling that information at lightning speed in an exam? Or is it more important that they understand and question what is being taught?

Unfortunately, the epidemic is a result of several systematic failures. Firstly, our education system does not recognize or create any room for individualistic differences. It tests each student on the same parameter of the ability to rote learn concepts without any iota of understanding what it is. Students skilled at the game become the cherry eyed pupils of the teachers who then ensure that it is only those pupils who speak at events, take part in dramatics, sing and dance, etc. in short, if you can memorize, and repeat you are an excellent student. This is the beginning of killing the confidence of a child who may not be so skilled at the game of rote learning but has several other skill sets that don’t find a place in our education system. This feeling of not being enough or not being good enough gradually grows over time, and when it comes to the board examinations, that student walks in knowing he or she is not going to excel. It’s the same feeling when taking a competitive exam as well.

The solution is not to overhaul our education system from the ground up, though that would have been ideal, but create more room for discussions, activities, and evaluation parameters that permit recognition of skill sets, acumen and other factors beyond the memory game. To take an example, I am reminded of my Economics teacher in school. He was generally regarded as the most fun teacher, despite being well over 60 years. One would assume that fun teachers are a myth or such teachers are those who do not restrict students in anything, mark liberally, and are often absent from classrooms. He was not one of them. He would walk into class and tell the students to close their notebooks. Jovially, he would remark, “if you understand what I am about to say, why take notes, if not, what use are the notes anyway.” Right after that, he would discuss the cricket match on the previous night, some explosive news in the newspaper that morning, the events happening in school, the problems in the cities to which the students belonged. Little did the students realize, the class was over, and even though we learned no chapters in economics, my economics teacher had ensured that every student participated, communicated his/her ideas and most importantly, he knew each child individually. He had understood the needs, problems, and way of thinking of each of the 60 students he taught.

The next day, he would come to class and teach economics. You would be surprised to see the class participation and the clarity of concept each student had when the class was over. Till today, the concepts he taught back then are crystal clear. He taught us much more than economics. He taught us why it is important to have your own opinion, be aware of current events, think about the problems of other people, and go beyond the books to find solutions. While we were never tested on those skills during schools, we were prepared for life. More surprisingly, we were even better prepared for competitive exams. He knowingly created an interest in current events, history, general knowledge, and we were unknowingly prepared. To put it in brief, our knowledge was never compared or tested, especially against each other and without any stress, crazy hours of hard work or coaching, our economics teacher ensured that the mammoth we were soon going to meet could be slain with our bare hands. It is this kind of teaching that needs to be encouraged, consciously practiced, and adopted within the school curriculum. Students today have enough and more pressure from outside the walls of their homes and schools. Society today has made them more ambitious than ever and therefore the role of teachers and educators needs to shift from mere instructions providers to mentors who are given a chance to engage with students on a personal level and guide, listen, advise, not only with respect to the course curriculum but with respect to life in general.

This may be the first step in ensuring that students are confident and learning is fun. The trouble today is that parents and teachers want their child to run the rat race, little realizing they are only creating the best rat. Parents want to be proud of their children and expect teachers to ensure they get their share of pride. Schools and teachers are, therefore, under pressure to deliver on those expectations. The real damage due to these great expectations is the child who is left with little time to be herself or himself. The child does not have the time to be a brother, a sister, a friend, a cousin, a person who likes videogames or tv or music or sports. The child is always just a student running from school to tuitions and from tuitions to coaching classes, and then we wonder why are students more depressed?

As people responsible for the future of children is it not incumbent on us to ensure that they succeed without sacrificing their childhood. That their success stories are not built over depression, stress, and insecurities. It is time teachers understood that they no longer need to motivate students to be successful. Peer pressure and social media are enough for that. Teachers today need to be a friend and guide who mentor, inspire, and understand the pressure the students are under. If our students are not confident about themselves, no matter what we teach, they will always feel it is too much for them. Even coaching centers can only develop skill sets, or at best polish them, but real education should mean the ability to speak one’s mind, learn things apart from the syllabus, and be more alive to things happening around the students.

Competitive exams are based on IQ patterns but without other kinds of intelligence such as cultural, social, etc. students are doomed to fail such exams because they would only know what they have mugged up, whereas competitive exams ask a little about everything. If we truly want our students to succeed, we should follow the advice of William Martin in his poem titled ‘Do Not Ask Your Children to Strive’.

“Do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives. Such striving may seem admirable, but it is the way of foolishness. Help them instead to find the wonder and the marvel of an ordinary life. Show them the joy of tasting tomatoes, apples and pears. Show them how to cry when pets and people die. Show them the infinite pleasure in the touch of a hand and make the ordinary come alive for them. the extraordinary will take care of itself.”

Competitive exams are based on IQ patterns but without other kinds of intelligence such as cultural, social, etc. students are doomed to fail such exams because they would only know what they have mugged up, whereas competitive exams ask a little about everything. If we truly want our students to succeed, we should follow the advice of William Martin in his poem titled ‘Do Not Ask Your Children to Strive’.

Ajar Rab is a lawyer by profession and partner at Rab & Rab Associates LLP, Dehradun, Uttarakhand’s first law firm. Apart from practice, he shares a great passion for teaching and has been training CLAT aspirants in legal reasoning and methodology for nearly a decade at various coaching centres and schools including Welham Girls, the Doon School etc.

He is a Visiting Professor at National Law School of India University, Bangalore and National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata as well as the author of a book on real estate law. His work on commercial law and arbitration is published regularly in various reputed national and international journals. He also coaches teams for international moot courts and other competitions.

Ajar is a master’s thesis supervisor at Bucerius Law School, Germany, where he is also pursuing his doctorate in international arbitration.