Attaining As should not be seen as the ‛be-all and end-all’ of our education system; it should prepare us for other challenges too.
JUST about a week ago we were shocked by the news of the 17-year-old boy who hanged himself after allegedly being frustrated over his SPM Additional Mathematics paper.
Those of us who read or heard of the news could only imagine the heartbreak it would have meant for family members and for those who were close to him.
Expressions of sympathy and messages of condolences poured in from Malaysians who felt the tragedy keenly – the untimely and totally unnecessary loss of a life which was filled with so much potential and so many dreams to explore.
Several people in high positions also offered words of comfort to the grieving family and made comments about how examinations should not be considered the end of the road.
After all, scoring As should not be the chief objective of education.
And even as discussions centred on this sad event, people began to remember similar tragedies in the past, when students chose to end their lives after a bitter examination disappointment.
There were speculations of course of other factors that may have contributed to these young peoples’ decisions but the examination link was undeniable.
Almost everyone agreed that the importance placed on getting As in public examinations had become disproportionately inflated.
Too much pressure
Students were sometimes overwhelmed by the pressure to attain unrealistic academic goals set by teachers or parents. But some of us remembered that these were pretty much the same things that were said the last time something like this happened – when a student committed suicide because he or she couldn’t deal with the frustration over an examination.
Like what was happening now, there was a huge outpouring of sympathy and similar observations were made about how students shouldn’t be subject to so much examination pressure. Parents and teachers were reminded to be more understanding and supportive of students and help them to deal with the stress that comes with examination expectations.
For a while at least, with the chill of the recent tragedy in our minds, we do make an effort to go a bit easier on the ‘push for A’ campaigns that seem to lurk in every corner of the present local education scene.
And then after some time, everything goes back to the way it has been.
The Score A campaign is back in full force. Students are reminded that it is their examination results that are of supreme importance in their lives.
Fail to perform up to expectations on the examination and your life is doomed. Examples of people working in blue-collar jobs are held up for them.
Never mind if these blue-collar workers are performing a public service, are honest and hardworking, and leading happy lives with loving families.
Never mind if there are millions in the world who are successful and well-adjusted individuals despite never scoring a single A in their school examinations.
Teachers are implicitly reminded in almost every staff meeting that that although their professional code and job descriptions list out many educational objectives including the moulding of character, there is no greater goal than the examination results of their students.
Your competence as a teacher is measured primarily by the number of As your students achieve or by the percentage of passes in your subject.
Wherever we turn, there are banners, flyers and posters advertising workshops and tutorials on how to score As.
A major part of school programmes is reserved for special examination motivation courses and seminars centred around “examination question answering techniques and tips”.
It seems the energy and pulse of the whole school year is focused around examinations and especially major public examinations.
Is it any wonder then that students can centre their whole lives on examination performances? Or in some cases even orchestrate their own deaths around it.
The question that hovers above all the well-meaning remarks encouraging students to look beyond examinations is why now, why only now? Especially when at other times it is mostly about the As and examination “success”.
When the whole system seems to be drumming into our students that if they fail to make the grade, then they are doomed to a life of failure ... perhaps a life that is not even worth living.
Why do we have to wait for a tragedy like this to occur before instilling into our students the knowledge that examinations as important as they are, are not the be-all and end-all of their education?
The real world
But perhaps we don’t have a choice. Perhaps that is the way we know best to prepare our students for the real world – a world which measures success by a combination of paper qualifications and earning potential.
After all, it is part of the teacher’s job description, and a key educational objective to spur students towards academic excellence.
And really, isn’t it a mark of a good teacher to constantly remind their students of how stiff the competition is these days to get those coveted student scholarships?
That they have to be the “best of the best” and really stand out from the rest. All of which are good goals, really.
Fine and even noble aspirations, which may have motivated many students towards excellence.
But what about those who slip? Do we prepare our students for the possibility that they may not achieve the examination goals that they so badly want to achieve either due to personal slip-ups, or circumstances beyond their control?
Do we spend enough time talking to students about how to deal with other pressures that may or may not be directly linked to the examination?
What happens when there is a family tragedy around the time of the examination?
What happens if a student has a panic attack, gets involved in an accident or is suddenly diagnosed with an illness that prevents him from doing his best in the examination? Does that mean he is not capable of anything better?
None of us wish for such things to happen to any of our students, and we are glad that they seldom do.
Nevertheless, they do happen. And it should be part of the teacher’s duty to guide our students on how to deal with unexpected setbacks.
If the only thing we have done for our students is to prepare them for the exams after having spent so many hours in school, then we have done a poor job collectively as a school and as a nation.
It is true that the responsibility does not lie entirely with those in the education system.
Parents who are major stakeholders in their children’s education are at times to blame for the tremendous amount of pressure they put on their children – unrealistic expectations that sometimes lead to disastrous ends.
And at times, the best efforts by the country’s leaders to shift the focus of education away from examinations is thwarted by parents who feel that without examinations, their children are not going to learn or achieve anything.
But then again this is just a reflection of what education has come to signify – examination grades and little else besides.
Getting good grades in an examination is a wonderful thing, there is no doubt about that, and something that should definitely be aimed for.
But, we must remember that life itself consists of much more than examinations. An education should prepare our students for life beyond the examination hall.