Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Competing to learn ? Learning to Compete ?

Have just been reading this post, "Of Not Being First..or Of Being Last?"
at R's Mom's blog .

And it brought back some memories of 29-30 years ago.

The son was in kindergarten, was unaware of anything called exams, although the kids were evaluated and reports were written.  Those were the days when kindergaarten sports meant, you ran races, and if your best friend looked like he  was behind, you stopped for him to catch up, then ran ahead together; and to hell with breasting the tape.

Annual days had prizes for folks standing first, second  and third  in things, like spelling, drawing, paper tearing, beads etc.  But  the kids themselves didn't become aware of this "competition" unless the parents insisted on doing the terrible deed.

First standard was the fountainhead of the eternal rat race.  Mothers coming at lunchtime wringing their hands because their child refused to write stuff in his books from the blackboard. Large remarks saying "Incomplete" (in red) , in the classwork book, because the child didn't write/copy down stuff. Overt open praise in class for those who wrote out everything, combined with pointing out those who did not.And the omnipresent unit tests. where you sank under the weight of Subtractions with Carry, Living and Non living things, Shivaji,Dadabhai Naoroji, Raja Ram Mohan Roy , the British, the Moghuls, Oxygen etc etc.

The son never learnt by rote, so the only way to make learning fun, was to give him a fun quiz on stuff, when you left for work in the afternoon. He had to finish it and then the evening was his to play as much as he wanted with his friends, ride tricycles and so on. I used to casually glance through the text book, and write a quiz sheet, which was presented to him with much importance.

That year we went to the US for a summer assignment, and the two countries' summers being at different times, took some of his books along , so he could keep in touch with stuff. His cousins in the US were in kindergaarten too,  and things were greatly different. There was a lot of hands on learning, lots of craft work that taught you stuff , and really no competition of any kind.

The only competition was what I initiated at home. One of the cousins refused to drink up her her milk. So I would answer these fake calls from what was called the Mickey Mouse Club, asking if the milk was being drunk, as it was a requirement for membership. She would suddenly go alert, lift the mug, and listen in on the side, as the milk got slowly imbibed. Once in a while, I would praise her on the phone saying they could call in 5 minutes and the milk would be over. When it was time for us to leave after a month, I bought all the children puzzles and globes(of the universe), and said these were sent by  the Mickey Mouse people, and we had an awards evening.

I never knew the success of this till the same cousin, a new mother herself now, was heard complaining recently to my son on the phone, about her daughter who refused to drink milk,   and she thought the Mickey Mouse Club stuff needed to be activated.

There was really no element of competition in school there, which my son attended for a few weeks with his cousins.  We managed to look up some stuff in his school books which we had taken along, and once a week or twice we would do the quiz stuff.

Back after the trip, his school here resumed, and he was able to catch up with stuff he had missed. They soon had the dreaded Unit tests.  Which were much like the quizzes we did for fun. The son's English had unconsciously improved simply because he was forced to communicate with other kids his age in the US when playing, and it gave him sort of confidence. He did well, and  for some reason, stood first.

A few evenings later, a gentleman colleague, involved in technological education at the highest level,  stopped us as we were going shopping for vegetables.

" Excuse me, I wanted to ask you something ..."   giving us a challenging look.

"Sure. Go ahead " . We. Wondering.

" Your son. He stood first .Who "takes" his daily studies ?  "  And he glances alternately at each of us.  

No one in the house gave those quizzes any importance. It was just something he had to do before he could go out and play. We just smiled and laughed the question away. In an Institute involved with the highest levels of learning, you didn't agonize over technicalities of first standard studies.

Turned out, that the gentleman's daughter, the son's classmate , had kind of slogged for these tests, not come first, and it was hurting. Possibly, not the little girl, but the parents.

That was our introduction to competition from primary school onwards, kids misleading other kids about grades and marks,  keeping track of each others totals , grades and so on.  While we expected our son to study and do well, beating someone else at the game was not the objective.  It still isn't.  

Sometimes,  people in their tunnel vision effort, lose overall perspective. I once went to congratulate a fellow who had successfully passed a hughly competitive, fairly difficult,  National entrance test to some of India's best known colleges. The entire family appeared to be in mourning because his rank had slipped over into four digits from three digits. 

Those who sailed through the rivers of competition  desperate to beat others and come first, were often bereft of friends. They were possibly also the originators of the currently common gesture (of winning) where you pump your fist and move your hand like you are pulling a high wall mounted flush , in the old style bathrooms, and shout a hissing "Yesssss!".  

A healthy interest in how someone else was doing, was also there when I went to school, 50 years ago. Our parents also wanted us to do well.  But there was no rubbing in of your success  in other lives, and you quietly got on with things.

It is amazing, that today's parents, who right from the child's first day at school , agonize so much over ranks, first, second, numbers, and so on,  sometimes safely forget the concept  when faced with queues in daily life.........:-))


  1. Tunnel vision. How beautifully you put it.

  2. Nice post....Can relate to this...and reminds me of my school days when my mum got such remarks for not sending me for any tutions even in year 10th and 12th :D.. I never understoof what all the fuss was about..

  3. what a beautiful post!!! this is something i am facing now, and in fact, just yesterday, was having a conversation with a fellow parent about competitive exams.. and i am not talking about the iits or any other such exams, but exams for kids aged 9 and 10!! while i dont mind samhith taking a few if he really wants to, i try not to get him into too many of them... and i really cant believe that there are so many of them happening!!

  4. Thank you for this...because now I know, what I am doing is not wrong at all..yes I guess,I am getting a bit overboard at the age of 4, but I am definitely on the right track..

    LOL on the Mickey Mouse club, I am sure going to try that.....

  5. I loved that bit on 'Mickey Mouse' club :-) Will use it someday I guess! ;-)

    Yeah it's sad how children don't have childhood anymore. It's a rat race from almost the day they are born :-( It's so unfair..

  6. We have yet to understand that even if we win the rat race ,we are still rats !

  7. What a beautiful post that brings out the necessity of enjoying one's lessons instead of trying to top the list in class! I used to brush off parents who asked me about the rank of my children and let them have fun studying. While the older one loved to study and go to school, the younger one hated both. I let him be till suddenly one day when he was 13, he got interested in them and never looked back :)

    Ads and the media are creating all these impossible notions of being the best. Someone, please rein in the media before they destroy everything good.