The Pursuit for A’s – An effort that is just not worth the trouble

As our Malaysian education strives to produce excellent, quality students, it is most unfortunate that many students, parents and even teachers themselves have been deceived into believing that excellent equals getting lots of As in their exams. That is untrue and it causes unnecessary burden and stress on the shoulders of the children. Children as young as kindergarteners are expected to be able to do Standard One work when they have not even got their alphabet or numbers correct yet. This chase for A’s during exams is a sad fact and in this critique, we shall see how it affect students and the society that revolves around them.

The student is at the very core of the whole system, the student is the one who matters most because the pressure is on them to excel and get as many A’s as possible. Failure is never an option. Therefore, with such pressure, it is obvious and it is common sense that it will result in mental and physical health problems. The desire to excel is a tremendous strain for a lot of students, more so when the A’s become a deciding factor as to which school and which class they will be streamed into.

As a result, when students feel they could not perform well, they suffer from stress, depression, nervous breakdowns, difficulty sleeping, lack of appetite, loss of weight and become prone to illness. This will only result in them being admitted or warded at hospitals and visits to psychiatrists or psychologists who would probably administer anti-depressants for these children.

However, sometimes it is no use. When the results of their examinations come out and they discover that they have fallen short of the expectations of people and theirs, they will become distraught and disappointed. They will begin to think that they are an utter failure, even when they managed 10A’s out 11 subjects. Some will not be able to take the pressure or disappointment; therefore, they lose hope and chose to commit suicide.

Tell me then, is it worth losing the life of a child simply because of the failure to get straight A’s? 

So, who is the reason to blame for this unnecessary pressure placed on the students? I must categorically say that the blame has to be shared by the parents, teachers and the government. Parents, of course, are the main parties – the teachers and the government are just basically catering to the whims of the parents who made demands. Parents are forever concerned with the academic success and future of their children. They hope that their children will one day become successful and rich people in the future – and this will mean ensuring that their children be the best of the best. Even worse is when cultural pressure comes into play – and the Chinese are the most obvious in this case. There is even a term in Chinese to describe these parents – which is kiasu – meaning, “scared to lose”. In this context, parents are afraid that their child will lose out to others if they do not get perfect results.

Therefore, these parents will do whatever that is necessary to ensure that their child remain ahead of the others, often at the expense of the child’s childhood. A child’s is not suppose to revolve around books, exams, tuitions and more homework – there are so much more out there for the child to experience that can never be fully explained or taught in books. Alas, many parents failed to realise this – to them, playtime is a waste of time which can be put into better use – studying. When the child refuses or in order to encourage the child to do better, the parents turn to bribery, coercion, promises and rewards to tempt, motivate and persuade the students into doing better.

This is certainly not a very good example the parents are showing to the child. These children will only grow up to learn that success must always come with rewards and that to do something, one must see what one gets in return. In the end, it is not the child who benefits from these rewards, but the shops and businesses that the parents pay to get the rewards.

This paper chase also disrupts relationships among students and their friends. Some children, as a result of their parents’ influence, will become more competitive than others and will always want to outdo others. This will result in intense rivalry where the consequences are not always positive. Then, there are students who become jealous and will harbour hatred and contempt for these smart individuals and spread rumours that they are “big-headed”, “boastful” or “show-offs”. Competition is good and healthy for the children, but only to a certain extent. There is always the danger of becoming too competitive that students cannot handle the pressure.

This competition also stems from parents and teachers tendency to compare one child to another and make snide jibes at others. How would a child feel if you say “You better work hard and get a lot of A’s or else you will end up like that good-for-nothing boy from the last class”?  Or “why can’t you get a lot of A’s like your cousin who is in the top class every year?” It makes you feel small, hurt and scared when people say this, right? To the child, the feeling is even more hurtful because children naturally want to please others, especially their parents. And when parents say such remarks about them, it will make them feel as if they are losers and disappointments to their parents. Thus, either they will sacrifice everything to work hard or worse, sacrifice their lives.  

Teachers play a most important role when it comes to educating children. However, nowadays, the true meaning of “educating” becomes lost in the chase for A’s and more A’s. Teachers become mere work givers – giving out more and more homework and worksheets everyday in class. The teachers rarely teach nowadays – when exam time nears, all they need to do is get the students to drill students on past year question papers and teach them how to memorise the important things and discard the less important things – in other words, spot the questions that might possibly be asked in that year.

The curriculum is at fault here – the way it is structured, especially the mode of assessment, simply emphasises on how much the students can regurgitate and recover from memory the facts that have been given (note that I did not say taught or learnt). All assessments are exam-based. No assessment based on practice or experience. The A is simply rewarded when a student get 80% to 100% of the answers correct, sometimes even lower. This is simply an incorrect way of judging how well a student performs at the end of their academic year. The government, therefore, also come into play as they are the policymakers who decide what to teach, how to teach and how to assess.

The curriculum must not be so exam-oriented to the extent that other skills and abilities are ignored or neglected. A well-rounded and balanced curriculum that incorporates experiential learning and progressive learning skills are certainly needed here in Malaysia as an alternative to this exam-oriented system.

The media too, plays an important role in disseminating information about quality education and success. When the press harps and glorifies students who get straight A’s, accompanied with pictures of joyous and ecstatic faces, they are actually telling the masses that these are “great” and “successful” people in the future. Instead, they should continue to feature stories and create awareness that the pursuit for A’s and A’s are not of any importance but what they actually learnt that counts. The Star should be commended for publishing a series of letters to the editor discussing that A’s are not as important as everyone thinks it is.

Last, but not the least, the fact that many corporate institutions look at how well a student performs when awarding scholarships is another reason why students strive hard to achieve more A’s. These companies and institutions would mostly recruit those that achieve straight A’s in their exam as they thought that it is a reflection of the quality of the individual.

That could not have been more wrong.

How many A’s a student get does guarantee how skilled or qualify he or she is at something. Instead, what the companies should have looked at should be their knowledge and experience and their family background when either recruiting students for work or awarding scholarships. Scholarships should not just be awarded to those who get A’s but those who actually deserves the A’s because they really are knowledgeable and skilled, unlike the ones who have shallow understanding but can still score a lot of A’s.

The conclusion that can be drawn from my explanation here is that this trend will continue on unless the perception of scoring straight A’s in exams equals guaranteed success in the future is abolished from the mindset of the people. We need more progressive parents who are aware of this and we certainly need to have a revamp of our education system so that it is less exam-oriented.

I guess it is up to us who are the new generation to make a change for the betterment of tomorrow’s generation.


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