Rashmi enjoyed Math till she came to 6th standard. Then she encountered a very competent but strict mathematics teacher who was intolerant of minor errors and ‘silly mistakes.’ Every time Rashmi was trying to learn a new sum and struggling with it, she would inevitably slip up somewhere and the final answer would be wrong. Upon review, it would appear that she did the calculation 80% right, but the mistake she would make in one or two steps would lead to error, reprimand, even shame in front of the class. Rashmi lost interest in mathematics and even started hating it and eventually, her marks in the subject also dipped to record lows. Even her long-term dream of becoming a pilot or an astrophysicist disappeared as she felt she would not be able to cope with the calculations involved.
Prone to demotivation
There are many such children who start off very enthusiastically with stars in their eyes. They want to struggle and get success but when the report card does not reflect their hard work, their motivation is lost. Some of them lose interest in a particular subject and a few others lose interest in academics altogether. This may even lead to restlessness, distractions and discipline issues since they become a disturbance to the teacher.
I agree that in the real world these children will be accepted, rewarded and promoted only based on their final outcome — but there is a lot of time for that. A soldier’s performance is measured on how well he or she faces the enemy but in their training, they need to be taught to go through obstacles, be quick on their feet, respond to orders and learn how to handle their guns. Then they are prepared to win a war. Board exams and entrance exams demand perfect answers, but to reach the point of penning down the perfect answers, a student needs to be trained. They need to work with consistency and make persistent efforts. This requires maintaining motivation, correcting oneself by introspection and making marginal progress at every step.
Very often, I have seen report cards of students with the teacher’s remark, “Can Do Better!”. Yes, they definitely can, but we need to show them how to do better. Just passing a casual remark and expecting them to start working is unrealistic. Innumerable parents add to the discomfort of their child by calling them ‘intelligent but lazy’. They probably say ‘intelligent’ because they know that intelligence is inherited through the genes and indirectly they are paying themselves a compliment. A wise person once rightly said, “We teach children how to walk, but we do not show them the direction.”
One of the reasons why children do not progress to their full potential is because they are not told how their long and boring academics is going to help them in life. Vague statements like, “You know how high the competition is. Unless you are a topper you will not reach anywhere” actually de-motivate a child. Comparing them with others further pulls them down. Instead, show them how each subject they are studying is beneficial in the form of life-skills to lead a confident and successful life.
Let us take a simple example: Rashmi is learning long-division for the first time. There are five steps to the final answer. She puts in all her concentration and gets three steps right. She flounders in the other two steps and obviously the answer turns out wrong. She gets a big red ‘X’ on her notebook and is told to do the sum once again. This time she tries harder and gets four steps right. Does the teacher acknowledge that within minutes he has been able to go from 60% right to 80% right? Obviously not. Another scolding and there goes Rashmi’s desire to attempt a third time.
There are many occasions where children take an interest in what is being taught, try their own methodology, explore beyond the routine and come out with some results which they feel are their own creation. But these are never rewarded because they are “out of the syllabus.” Agreed that learning by rote gets marks in exams, but exams will get over in a child’s life within a few years, and then has to face the exams of life for the next 50-70 years. We must cheer students when they are attempting to learn something new, the same way we cheer athletes who are striving to run faster to the finish line.
It is an established fact that all of us need positive strokes, compliments, praise and reinforcement in anything that we do. Even as ‘mature’ adults we do not work to our full capacity if we do not get appreciation and rewards from our superiors. Children also need a gentle, continuous and genuine push in order to perform. While competition has indeed increased, opportunities have also increased. It is no longer necessary for a student to crack the highly competitive exams for a secure future. If we keep identifying specific areas of excellence in a child, encourage them to keep competing with themselves, and move in the direction they find exciting, every child can grow up and become a successful individual.
Don’t kill talents
There are occasions when a student proudly shows off a cup or medal he won in inter-school competition and the teacher reminds him that he has not done his homework or has missed a unit test. This narrow approach can only produce zombies and robots. On the other hand, the future lies with the child who has his own thinking, motivation, creativity and confidence. Let us not kill these talents.
I often ask teachers when I do Faculty Development Programs to spontaneously pick up the pen in their left hand and write out a paragraph fast. Most of them struggle, take time, and the end result is an almost indecipherable scribble. I point out that the poor outcome is only because they are doing something for the first time; if they continue writing the same paragraph fifty times, they will be able to write faster and far more legibly. The same applies to students – when they are learning something new, they should be allowed to make mistakes, have a shoddy outcome, take time – as long as they are genuinely making the effort.
Most adults can recall a favourite teacher from their student days. When asked what made them nostalgic and grateful about that teacher they often say “They believed in me, allowed me to question, and always encouraged me to move on.” This is what every student needs. Someone who shows faith and confidence in the child’s potential and hidden talent, someone who gives unconditional support and allows the child to blossom in any direction that he or she chooses.
Remember the adage: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.
(The writer is founder, Banjara Academy, Bengaluru)