Do we teach them to fish on the high seas or do we teach them to pick the dead fish?
A few days ago I was watching the “Top Achievers Award 2012” live on TV. I had mixed feelings. I was mentally disturbed and had wanted to write about it. Alas, my mind was disturbed with that and many other things, hence the delay.
What is the Award? You might ask.
It is the recognition given to high scores attained by student at the secondary school examination in the Maldives. Our students sit for some subjects from "Cambridge International General Certificate Education (IGCSE)". Dhivehi and Islam are the only subjects administered locally. A student is required to sit for English, Mathematics, Islam, Dhivehi & two specified subjects based on the chosen stream (Physics/Chemistry, History/Geography, Commerce/Accounting) and 2 other optional subjects.
8456 students from the Maldives sat for this examination, 31 students achieved the top 10 awards in the World category, and 426 students are among the top 10 of the country. With equal points, 22 students in the 10th place, 30 in the 9th place, 54 in the 8th place, 9 in the 7th place, 53 in the 6th place, 40 in the fifth place, 76 in the 4th place, 18 in the 3rd place, 87 in the second place, and 37 in the 1st place.
I was proud to watch them. Five of our very own Maldivian students received the 1st place in the World for 5 subjects. They got it with full marks.
Now, imagine that. You sit for an exam and get 100%. We are talking about subjects like English, Travel & Tourism, and Business Studies. It’s an exam for God’s sake! You get 100%, not missing out even a half mark anywhere on the paper. WOW! is all I can say! I have been an assessor for so many students for their written assignments and research reports that they do at their own pace in the comfort of their home with open books and access to all the sources. And yet, I have not seen anyone scoring over 95%. So, how is it possible for a student to sit and do an exam and manage to secure every single mark assigned? For something like Mathematics one would have to know all the formulas and be meticulous to avoid simple mistakes that ordinary humans tend to do. For a subject like language where creative pieces are to be written on a set topic … it would require endless practice to master the art of structuring, grammar, spelling, as well as having enough knowledge on a varied number of topics to do that.
I am proud! Believe me I am. But there is a huge BUT! Only 46% of the students passed in at least 5 subjects – this is from an average of 8 subjects.
Two of my distant relatives were among the top 5 Award achievers. A colleague’s daughter was also among them. One of them was in the 2nd place with 87 other students. Now, I want to set aside the pride and talk about what bothers me. What these students (maybe not all) go through to achieve that level of perfection worries me.
One of them grew up in front of my eyes. Sometimes not too close, sometimes up-close. She is 17, and for her entire life all I have seen her do is study, study, and study a bit more. She is holed in her room for the entire time she is home, she comes out for meals, hardly says a word to anyone. The only place she goes out to is school and then for private tuition at a classmate’s place. Her mother worries endlessly if her daughter gets anything except 100% in any of the assessments. The mother does everything for the child - washes her clothes, serves her meals, cleans after her, and makes sure every little educational need is met in terms of past papers, access to marking criteria, private tuition for all the subjects, etc. When we talk about tuition – the fees are exorbitant. She spends MVR 500.00 on each subject per month. I wonder why we need schools! Tuition should be enough.
So, my question is - how well is she prepared to face the world when it comes to her to be the voice of her generation?
Maybe this is not how every single student among the high achievers was. But I believe this would be true for many among them. And it is a sad thought. I saw her during her exams. I was the one who rode her to the exam venue and picked her up when the exam was over, at the mother’s request. She has never ever walked on her own to school or to tuition. She is a nervous wreck in front of people. Her voice hardly comes out. Her hands shake so badly before going to any exam and on days she cries – of course only her mother witnesses this. And believe me, she is brought up to be as meek as a mouse. That rubs me the wrong way. Who knows what turmoil she harbors in her mind, while she tries to please her mother in the absence of a father figure.
And then to make things worse, they (and I) sit through a 4 hour ceremony lasting from 9pm to 1:00am to see her up on stage receiving the token award for the 10 years of study. This for me was like sour icing on an already not so good cake. The time for celebration was made a drag. That’s beside the point though.
I want to talk about the study curricular and the objective of schooling. Don’t we want the school to be a place that teaches our children to get ready to face the corporate world; the school to be a place that teaches them how to live in our community, how to build the community, how to co-habit? We want them to be equipped to face the absurdities of life. We want them to be emotionally stable, empathetic, intelligent people who can apply knowledge.
We don’t want to produce robots with a fantastic memory to absorb a given text, and then reproduce the same thing verbatim when a question has been asked – a question that has been practiced over and over again by going through the papers from the past 10 to 15 years. That’s now how reality works.
These high achievers are the cohorts who are mostly likely to get the responsible jobs at the Civil Services. Because of the way recruitment are conducted, their grades in these examinations have a high weightage. But imagine the state of affairs if most of them are like my relative! How well are they going to cope? Our tiny nation is going through so many new challenges. How well equipped are our students to handle this?
Anyway, that’s just my take on the purpose of education and the general mentality of our parents to want their children to be among the top achievers, at all cost. Of course I would love to see my son among them, even if among the 10th place – it will make me proud. But I want him to be a balanced person – and in that respect I don’t care what grades he get as long as he manages to succeed in life.