Board exam hysteria: Teaching our kids how to fail

This month, millions of Indian families, including my own, will be getting mildly hysterical as exams descend on us like a guillotine. Memory pills are flying off the shelves, coaching classes are full and parents are staying up all night cramming with their kids. In the midst of this frenetic pursuit of success, I had a heretic thought: should we be preparing our children for the possibility of failure, not just success? After all, given the crushing competition, the odds are that many of our children will fail – be it at topping their class or getting into that A-list college.

Failure is taboo in India, but elsewhere, educators are beginning to think of it as normal, even healthy. A recent New York Times story focused on an elite Manhattan school which found that students who excelled academically in school did not always do well in college.Instead, the ones who succeeded in college were those who showed grit, persistence and character, enabling them to keep going after failing many times. A top London girl's school, Wimbledon High, has actually introduced Failure Week to help girls demystify failure. "I want to suggest to girls that it is acceptable and normal not to succeed at times," said headmistress Heather Hanbury.

Of course, to Indian parents, all this can seem like so much idealistic Western rubbish. Failing in Manhattan or Manchester is a very different thing from failing your board exams in Madurai. In a country without social security, housing or health services, not making it into a good college spells a life of penury for most middle class people. The ironic fact is that people who talk about the value of failure are usually huge successes: film stars, rock legends, bestselling authors. We may watch Three Idiots and applaud its daring trio, but most of us secretly hope that our kids don’t become penniless photographers or musicians.

 Board exam hysteria: Teaching our kids how to fail

What we really need is a revamp of the entire education system, a check on arbitrary cut -off rates and many more colleges. AFP Photo

Perhaps the hardest part of parenting is to see your kids fail because none of us wants to accept that our kids may be average.

But the cost of this obsession with success is a nation filled with one-track automatons obsessed with passing exams — often to the point of committing suicide when they don't – with little capacity for creativity or innovation. “You know why start-ups succeed in America and fail so badly in India? Because they are not afraid of failure, and we are afraid of nothing else," says a frustrated Indian American entrepreneur recently.

India is said to "have an examination system but not an education system... When will young people stop taking exams and do something worthwhile?" said CN Rao, the head of the Scientific Advisory Council, in a letter urging the Prime Minister to replace multiple admission tests with a single common entrance exam. Last week, in a perfect demonstration of his own claim, Professor Rao was forced to apologise after a student of his copied "a few sentences", in a paper co-authored by him.

The fear of failure is not all bad, as Tracy Groom, who visited India to teach at a New Delhi School, points out the difference. "When an American student fails an exam or class, his teacher is condemned for failing to successfully teach, but a failing Indian student is reprimanded for not studying hard enough," writes Groom. "The Indian excels because he must; the American often does not because he can sidestep responsibility and, consequently, learns the unfortunate lesson that hard work is not essential to succeed."

So is there a way to balance the two systems, and keep children keen and motivated, not stressed and obsessed? There are some encouraging signs of progress. The CBSE reforms, introducing an optional board exam for Class X students and grades rather than marks, are a good start. The CBSE also recently announced plans for vocational training in IT, hospitality, finance and other fields for Class 10 students who can’t and don’t want to be doctors and engineers. IIT Bombay has just launched a scheme that allows deferred placements for fresh grads who want to launch start-ups, but are scared they may fail and therefore take the no-risk route of taking the first job they get.

This week, I tried out a new 24-hour helpline (1860-266-2345) run by the Vandrewala Foundation which helps students and parents dealing with exam stress. Along with the usual advice on diet and sleep, the counsellor urged me to take my child to a career counsellor after the exams. "Students and parents need to know that there are plenty of good colleges that you can get into with only 80% marks. There's just all this unnecessary media hype about the IITs and the IIMs; there’s so much else they can do,” she said.

But all this, of course, is nowhere near enough to create real change. What we really need is a revamp of the entire education system, a check on arbitrary cut-off rates and many more colleges. But since that won’t happen in a hurry, we need to prepare our children to understand that even if they fail, they are not failures. Said the counsellor on the helpline, "The most important thing is that children need to know that you are on their side. Reassure them. Just because they don’t get 96 percent, doesn’t mean they are losers.” 

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Mar 01, 2012 15:15:47 IST