By Abdinasir Mohamed
Sunday March 1, 2020
In our contemporary school settings, it is common for principals and head/teachers to push children for maximum ‘attainment’ in inter/national exams. After all, their fit for purpose is judged solely by results. It is equally not surprising for many parents to push children to do ‘well’ in exams, as universities and employers vie for top scorers. HR recruiters and admission officers are on the hunt for those found in the top percentile of exam results. Hence, it is commonplace for those who score highly to receive multiple offers from top Ivy League colleges. It is no wonder that most parents want their children in this trendy category. However, as educators and parents focus on this seemingly ‘divinely ordained’ order of education, some forget to appreciate that the talents of many children lie outside the perimeter of the traditional exams.
In my position as the principal of one of the leading schools around, a school that over the years has performed very well in international exams, I interact with hundreds of children from all over the world; I watch them as they go about their daily routine of learning. For example, some come to class with all their learning aids, while others notice that their subject notebooks are missing only after the teacher starts giving out notes. Some pay full attention and participate actively; whereas others seem to want to take part but are distracted by the crowd around them. In any class in any school, the makeup of children is a classical example of a motley crew; and the idea that ‘one size fits all’ may have lasted its course.The startling differences in children’s academic experiences (cultural, curriculum), environment (family values and stability, economic, educational background), as well as personality, undoubtedly play a significant role in their attitudes to learning and development of their social skills. For many parents, a child is a child, and once enrolled into school, the expectations are very clear but at times unrealistic: the children must score highly in exams, as the scores are the ultimate yardstick for their school attainment.
For those children who take their learning seriously and put in their every best effort, their scores are generally high; and both schools and parents like to take pride in their successes. As for the ones who score low, and yet show little interest in improving their results, there are not many squabbles as to why they score below the mean. It is usually the parents who openly remind them ‘no pain no gain’ in an apparent indicator of an underlying belief in a just-world.
On the other hand, there is another third category whose efforts are seldom appreciated. They study hard, ask questions, research and scour the net for new ideas and ways of revising and practising even more. They are driven by their purpose in class, and perhaps the fear of failing exams, or rather wanting to score highly in exams. They work as hard as possible in class and outside of the class. They know what they have to cover, and why they have to cover. They are relentless in their efforts to learn, stay focused, seek, and get extra support whenever they feel they need. During pupil-parent-teacher meetings, all agree that such children try their best to prepare for exams, even though their scores still fall below the mean.
Unfortunately and so often, many parents and educators miss a very important point, particularly with regard to the last category: limiting the judgment of children’s success to just exam scores masks much of their potential. As much as children’s academic skills matter, so do their other life skills: how quickly they make friends as they join the school, how they support each other in selfless ways, reason with each other, work together in small, and sometimes, large groups (relative to the school population), share the little they have i.e. pens, calculators, snacks et cetera. The skills to understand, engage and empathise with fellow humans should be highly valued, and one will always be incomplete without a full package of these life skills.
Observant parents and school leaders notice the value of children’s life skills, particularly during recess hours. I ponder over children’s interactions, kindness, their ability to solve problems individually, in groups, their ability to empathise with others, care for each other and show respect to one another. I am amazed by their respectful engagement in-group discussions and highly polished persuasive skills all in a civilised manner. I am amazed more by their story-telling abilities regardless of their exam scores. Drawing from these personal experiences, I am fully convinced that children grow in ways that are unique to each one of them; and if supported with understanding and fair judgement, they are all capable of reaching the pinnacle of their dreams regardless of their scores.
Unfortunately, I, occasionally, experience barrages of supposedly encouraging, but otherwise killer comments ‘… go sit outside, if you can’t pass, you will do the chores for me, …’ said to girls who have done everything in their ability to prepare for exams but scored slightly below the mean! Such comments undo much of children’s immeasurable efforts as well as that of schools. Nevertheless, educators will have to continue supporting children because there is more to children’s success than just exam results.
Attempts to reason with some parents, with regard to children whose scores are low, often end unsuccessfully. They demand a child, who has done all that they could but fell slightly below the mean, to do the ‘same’ as everyone else. As a result, they end up making decisions that rather than building the child kill the child’s self-esteem and confidence such as denying them the opportunity to try final exams due to the fear of spending money when the scores fall below what they regard as ideal.
Whereas these international exams are indeed expensive as they involve hundreds of dollars, children’s self-esteem and self-confidence should come first, because once lost, it is hard to get them back on. We also forget to ask whether we, parents and educators, prepared children enough, provided them with all the resources they needed, created the necessary home conditions for them to flourish and gave them sufficient moral support during their formative years. Are we even open to self-critique?
Ultimately, exams have been around for centuries, and probably will for the foreseeable future. However, they should not be regarded as the only indicator of children’s success. For those who do well in exams, parents and schools should support them. However, we must not forget the human in every child, especially those who do not score highly as they have multitudes of other skills. They too should be supported to discover where their strengths lie and grow in a safe and stimulating environment. Parents and educators should understand and accept that education is for all, not just for the privileged and the exam-wizards as exam scores are no longer the only Holy Grail.