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Schooling ? Is academic score the only indicator of ability?

This question has been tormenting my neighbours for many years now. Raja, the young boy in their family is now in his 11th standard and has, without fail, been a cause of concern to his parents all these years! There is no God who has not been at the receiving end of his mother’s fervent appeals to enable Raja scrape through the exams. And, she is literally reduced to a nervous wreck every time the results are due to be announced. Fortunately, Gods have been kind and Raja has not lost a year so far. For neighbours, it’s great fun to witness the high intensity, high decibel drama that is enacted particularly during the examination season; the TV cable is disconnected, the power supply to the desktop computer is pulled out and even we are requested not to switch on the TV or radio so that the boy has no distractions!

Don’t even for a moment rush to conclude that Raja is dumb. He is the darling of all the teachers at his school. He is the Head Boy and his HM is never tired to let everyone know that he has been the finest Head Boy that the school has seen in the last so many years. He plays at least three games and is the captain of only one team as he cannot lead all the teams! He is the match winner every time he is on the field. He is the best Boy Scout and is a star attraction as the leader of the school contingent at the annual march. Girls have to really try very hard to hide their oohs and aahs when he walks past wielding the baton with a style and aplomb that is his own.

If you thought he is only a good sportsman, you would be mistaken! He is a good musician and a vocalist at that. He has been undergoing music lessons for over twelve years and can hold any audience to captive attention with his mastery. He also excels in dramatics and has won several prizes for his school at the inter-school competitions.

At home, he could be the role model of mama’s boy! He is an extremely good cook and manages the kitchen with a relish. The vegetables, when he cuts them, would seem like the work of an experienced sculptor! Raja is adept at repairing the door or the geyser or, if given a chance, even the desktop! He has been observing others at these exercises and is extremely skillful in following them.

His father is a regular at the local Hare Krishna temple and Raja is the favourite of most of the senior Swamis and Gurus. His ability to recite a shloka or a prayer or to attend to the needs of the visiting seniors is exemplary. No wonder he is the most sought after shishya!

Now, all these virtues do not translate into high percentages in any of the academic subjects! And, there lies the root of anxiety and concern for Raja’s parents!!!

Let me also dispel all your doubts. The story is a real case and is not borne out of imagination or exaggeration. I am sure you would also be identifying many such Rajas from your family, neighbourhood and acquaintances. The issue is not unique nor is it uncommon. All his skills, learning inclination, leadership ability, task orientation, etc.. would not get him into an IIT or IIM! How will he then make a living?

The moot question then is “Is academic score the only indicator of an individual’s ability?” The allied question is also relevant – “could the parents or the school have supported him to further hone his gifts so that he becomes an accomplished personality in whatever be his chosen calling”?

The failure of the normal school system to respond to students like Raja is perhaps caused by the way they are modeled. As Peter Senge says there is an extraordinary variety in the way we learn which pose insurmountable hurdles for the assembly line school room. “Individual teachers .. cannot possibly accommodate the variety of learners with whom they are confronted. They end up in interminable struggles to maintain classroom order. They try as best as they can to make the same subject engaging for different learners… But they are trapped between the forces of a standardized curriculum and educational process on one hand and the variety of human beings sitting in front of them on the other. The tragic outcome is frustration on all sides: teachers who either give up or get burned out and a great many kids who either get cast aside or forced to learn in ways that significantly compromise their learning potential” (Page No.39 of ‘Schools that Learn’).

Further, he observes “the ‘one-size-fits-all’ classroom probably also accounts for why, for many students, motivation for school learning drops off within a few years of starting formal schooling … Our assembly line thinking forces us to treat the natural variety of human beings as somehow aberrant because they do not fit the needs of the machine” (Page 41).

As regards parents, Senge’ s words strike you with an emphatic impact. He says, parents do not “..necessarily fully recognize the weight placed on their children. They are dealing with their own stress levels in the high pressure workplaces of contemporary Western society. I have heard parents say that they approve of their children’s heavy workloads: “It’s preparing them to deal with the stress of the real world”. Metaphorically, the parents are carrying the same backpack themselves. They have to-do lists that they know they’ll never finish so they think it’s perfectly appropriate that their kids face the same kinds of pressures” (page 28).

Again, “parents have their own form of the deficit perspective; when their kid’s performance does not measure up, they conclude that they have failed as parents. Moreover, the experience of watching their kids struggle to perform often brings back the parents’ own performance anxiety from when they were in school. Their natural concern for their children gets mixed with their own internalized traumas from long ago. They relive their own school anxieties every time their kids take a test or bring home a report card” (page 36).

The regret is clear on page 42 “All human beings are born with unique gifts. The healthy functioning of any community depends on its capacity to develop each gift. When we hold a newborn we do not see a smart or dumb kid. We see the miracle of life creating itself. The loss of that awareness is the greatest toll exacted by our prevailing system of education, in and out of school”

But all is not lost. He holds a ray of light in page 35 “The time to develop inquiry and reflection skills, likewise, is when we are young, not after thirty years of institutional conditioning aimed at learning to impress people with how smart we are. It is a tragedy that, for most of us, school is not a place for deepening our sense of who we are and what we are committed to. If it were, think of the lasting impact it would have”

That, I guess, is the true purpose of a school.

Will the likes of Raja succeed in life?

Senge says in page 51 “Employers of tomorrow likely will place a much higher value on listening and communication skills, on collaborative learning capabilities, and on critical thinking and systems thinking skills – because most work is increasingly interdependent, dynamic and global”

NB: I have become a Peter Senge addict. The thoughts behind this blog and, indeed, most of the words are borrowed from him.

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About The Author


Ganesh - R



A corporate manager for over 40  years with an all round exposure. Have had the good fortune of great bosses who unfailingly took the risk of trying me out with  new functional responsibilities  that I was neither qualified to handle nor had any prior exposure. This served as an excellent opportunity for learning and  the exciting process continues even as I am ready to retire! 

 Have bid adieu to formal learning process long ago but the quest  continues.

"Human beings" interest me the most .. the curiosity at observing and learning from fellow beings appears to be a key  driver at this stage of life. Would like to spend the rest of the days in making a difference to them.

Other interests include gymming, music, etc..  

Blogging seems to be a god sent opportunity to laugh at oneself freely and without any pretensions. It also provides an excellent route to introspection albeit a bit loudly!

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