Learning by taking risks

By Betsy Watkins

(Betsy Watkins is the cheerful and dynamic Principal of Ascend International School, Mumbai. We were honoured to have her grace our Std. VI Annual Day with her presence and an inspiring speech, the text of which is reproduced below.)

Last week I had the honour as serving as Chief Guest at the 6th standard’s Annual Day performance of Hana’s Suitcase.  Students delivered a powerful performance, inspired by the moving story of one small group’s determination to give life to the faceless name of a holocaust victim.  The audience was touched.  The performance was heartfelt.  The conclusion could only be greeted with quiet reflection.  We must remember to give voice to history, perform exhaustive research, and always act as the kind of citizens that strive to preserve human dignity and life.

The Annual Day performance marked my third visit to Shishuvan.  Each visit to the school has further impressed upon me the strength of students’ abilities to articulate their thoughts, engage in democratic process and ideals, and be active participants in their own learning.  These are attributes that are as important in today’s world as mastering mathematics and more than one language.  Unfortunately, these attributes are often overlooked in many models of schooling.

I wanted to share with students how unique it is to be part of a school that has high expectations of children at such an early age.  So, as Chief Guest, I told the story of how I grew into becoming the student that I am today—one that remains curious, asks questions, reflects, works hard, and embraces challenges.

My story begins with what I consider a simple fact: I performed well in school, but I was a terrible student.

To be fair, my mother would categorically disagree with this statement.  In fact, she has trophies, report cards, teacher comments, standardized test scores and class rankings that would support her disagreement.  But what one cannot see from a report card, ranking, percentile or test score—is that I did not care very much about learning.  One can also not see that I although I knew facts and formulas for writing essays or performing calculus, I had not learned to think.  I had no curiosity.  I was motivated almost exclusively by trophies and rankings.  I performed virtually no learning activity unless I felt that a top tier University would admire the addition to my curriculum vitae.  I was the student who perpetually wanted to know, “Will this be on the test?”  I was more interested in awards and recognition than the joy of learning.

I truly believe I did not learn how to learn until I went to University.

In an introductory humanities class, I was asked to generate a paper in response to Agamemnon.  I was perplexed.  What should I write a paper about?  I was baffled by the lack of parameters and I approached my professor to explain my confusion.  “Usually the instructor tells the students what she thinks and then we generate a paper using this premise.  That’s the way it works.”

The professor, who had clearly seen this response in many students, was patient but honest. “Unfortunately that is the way many schools train students, but you actually have to learn to think.  What do you notice about this book?  What is your premise?  Being a student is about thinking, not about repeating what someone else has already told you.”

This was the first time I had been asked to think.  This was the first time I had been asked to generate questions and not ready-made responses.  It was painful because I had no practice.  I re-wrote this paper six times before I received a mark I could take home to my parents.  I was excited, because for the first time I had really learned while writing a paper.  The process did not come easily, but this is where my joy for learning began—because it turns out that thinking is engaging!

My second transformation as a student was many years later, when I was a teacher.  When I first started teaching, I was not a risk-taker.  After many years of praise for correct responses and high scores, it is difficult for one to choose the challenging path in which you might learn more, but make many mistakes along the way.  As a teacher, I marvelled over students who learned deeply and rapidly.  I noticed a trend.  The students who learned the most were the ones who were most willing to take on a challenge—the students that were ready to take risks because they understood the value of making mistakes as part of the learning process.

Over the years, children have taught me that to learn big, you have to take big risks.  Learning to take risks is how I arrived in another country to help found an international school committed to meaningful learning.  When the Kasegaon Education Society came to me and asked if I would help create a school in which children would not only obtain knowledge and skills, but also learn to think and embrace challenges—I knew I had to say “yes.”  I had to say “yes,” because as an adult, I have become a much better student.  I am curious.  I do love learning.  I am willing to make mistakes and reflect on my process.  And I am always ready for a challenge!

I think students are lucky when they are engaged in learning which asks them to think and promotes the value of questions.  Educational environments which encourage children to persevere through obstacles and challenges promote an intrinsic love of learning.  These attributes are among the things that make places like Shishuvan and Ascend International School special.  These schools are built to be learning communities—for everyone involved—so that everyone can capture the joy that is a true part of learning.

The Fall of the Giraffes

By Bhavish Sanghvi

(Bhavish is a Std. IX student at Shishuvan.  He wrote this poem for the PEAS competition at St. Gregorios School, Chembur.)

With the galloping footsteps of the horse,

On the marshy grasslands,

Eyes full of anger and frustration,

The soldier with the gun in his hands,

Where the grassland lay in desolation,

Miles have passed by,

Hours have gone by,

“I forage thee, giraffe” says the soldier.

Soldier with a face like a burnt brinjal,

His eyes went here,

His eyes went there,

Utmost search for the giraffe,

He lay on the back of the horse,

A sight,

A sight of a long necked heavy animal.

His eyes fraught with satisfaction.

With his horse ahead,

Punching it on its head,

The animal swiftly ran to the giraffe,

With its power double than half.

Tension rose up,

Horrified was the giraffe.

Its back left leg was in half,

With pride and triumph

Getting down of the horse,

Aiming at the giraffe ,

The shot of death he fires,

The shot, giraffe happily admires,

Into the misery, the creature sank.

A scene that horrifies,

A scene that is so not nice.

Piqued and frightened are the other two.

Waiting to be victims too.

All three  of them lay,

On the marshy grassland, they stay,

Lie in peace, they may!

INNOCENT, aren’t they?


An Elvish Story

By Jai Sonwalkar

(Jai is the ‘Communications In-charge’ at Shishuvan and handles the blog and website among other things. She likes to tell stories to children. Although she has been an adult for quite some time now, she is fond of telling people what she’d like to be when she grows up, and her list is never-ending! Currently, she wants to be a fantasy story writer, and this is what she wrote as an English assignment for the Empowering English Course, for an exercise in fantasy writing.)

We were up there on the glowing Mystree, jumping from one luminescent bough to another – engaged in combat. The emerald moss on the boughs had made them slippery; one had to be adept to even stand on one of these babies. One slip and down you go – to the chasm of no return. Our spells and counter-spells to upend each other were ricocheting off the branches all around us. We were moving at hyper-speed to dodge them.

I sized him up for the umpteenth time – Drazah – my arch-nemesis. He was 2 elf-fingers taller and his pointed ears were bare while I wore elf-rings in mine. His slanting eyes had deep scarlet irises and I stared back with indigo. He had slimed his hair green while my mane looked and smelled like treacle. We were both wearing dark robes – mine decorated with the squadron badge.

I had been successfully foiling his devious plans since aeons and he was sorely mad at me. We Elves are an egoistic race. We never forget and seldom forgive.

“Be prepared to die, mortal” he hissed baring a row of pointed teeth. “No more than you” I snarled. I took a deep breath and spelled the first incantation –

“Durell-us and Wilde-ous,
let me speak,
turn this elf blind,
never can he peek”.

By Zork, I missed!

He cackled deafeningly. “Ythrow… spare me your nursery rhymes. I am much beyond your childish spells. Dodge this:

King and Gaiman,
Pray, take his life.
Let him bleed dry,
cut him like a knife”.

“NO!” I screamed. “We aren’t allowed to use death-spells, vile creature.” I whirled to duck his spell. “Aha! But I am an outlaw thanks to you, and an outlaw obeys no laws” and Drazah’s mirthless laughter echoed as I lost balance and plunged to the inky depths.

Representative democracy – a success or a farce?

By Prachi Ranadive

(Prachi teaches Geography to students of Std. IX and X. She also heads the subject department of Social Studies, and works with teachers of History and Geography across the school to help strengthen their curriculum planning, pedagogy and assessment practices.)

Who said dynasties were a feature of the past?  We often criticize the monarchy system of governance.  Practising heredity as a method of selecting people to power has especially come under the ire of political thinkers.

After independence, our political thinkers chose to follow representative democracy.  The essence of this system was in having effective and efficient leaders to run our government.  If they would have been alive, they would have deeply regretted the way how representative democracy functions today.  Politicians seem to have misunderstood democracy and consider politics as a hereditary affair.  There is an increasing trend of family members and, quite often, either the son or the daughter finally lands up in politics.

There seem to be three categories of members in political parties.  One set of members are people who are loyal to it for years and continue their allegiance to the party.  The second set of members are those who have some godfather or godmother to uplift their position in the party.  The third and the luckiest are the wards of existing politicians who get a direct entry at higher positions.  When elections approach, the card of heredity is the final trump!   I question all thinkers – Are we practising representative democracy in the true sense?  As a citizen, my choice of representative is often restrained.

I do understand that on no grounds can we challenge their candidature as they fulfill formal eligibility criteria.  I am also not denying the fact that they may be efficient and really deserving.  What I object to is the status and privileges they get at entry level as against a normal party member.  To a certain extent, the media also directly or indirectly give publicity to them.  Open ended discussions and debate on this concern will probably help to keep a check on misuse of power and create political awareness in the citizens.

The day I entered the world

By Dharmil Dedhia

(Dharmil is a budding poet who is in Std. VI at Shishuvan. He has written several poems, and here is one he decided to share with us.)

Next was my turn,

God took me,

He kept his hand on my head,

He started crying ‘cause I was going.


There he dropped me,

Up from the sky to the world,

Bump! A woman caught me in her tummy,

Yup! She was my mother.


Nature So Bizarre – 1

In ‘Nature So Bizarre’, our new series on Biodiversity, Katie Bagli introduces us to the wonderful world of flora and fauna – believing that the more we know them the more we’d want to protect them. Here is the first post in this series.

(Katie has many hats that she dons at various times. When she is not leading nature trails as a BNHS Volunteer (since 9 years), she is reading books (authored and illustrated by her) to children at major book stores. She is also one of the founders of the NGO ‘Save Rani Baugh’ where she has gathered many supporters to save many precious trees from being axed in the name of re-development. She loves children and is always ready to visit Shishuvan as a resource person, author and nature lover.)


The Weaver Ants make their nests by attaching two or more leaves together with silk.  But these ants do not have silk glands.  How, then do they manage it?  They take the help of their own young ones who have silk glands.  While several worker ants hold the edges of two leaves together, one of the other workers holds a young larva in her mouth and moves it to and fro along the leaf edges, which get zipped together with silk threads produced by the larva.  Even ants make use of child labour!


Birds relish figs and after eating them they often fly a short distance and perch themselves on other trees.  Here they pass out the seeds through their droppings.  The seeds readily germinate on the tree itself as the birds’ digestive juices have softened up the seed coats.  Soon the roots of the new fig tree embrace the trunk and branches of its host tree preventing sunlight from reaching it.  Moreover, once the fig tree’s branches reach the ground they draw nutrients from the soil. Thus the host tree, deprived of the much needed sunlight and nutrients, soon dies and its trunk rots away.

The Strangler fig, having taken the life of its host tree, continues to stand without its victim, appearing like a cylindrical lattice work of branches hollowed out inside.


The Coconut Crabs or Robber Crabs are enormous, having a length of 30 cm, a width of 20 cm and weigh about 5 kg.  They are so called because they are known to climb up Coconut trees to ‘rob’ coconut s.  They manage to break open the shell by thrusting their large front claws into one of the three ‘eye holes’ and then extracting the tender kernel using their hind claws.  Besides coconuts, they also relish other fruits like chikoo, sago palm, jackfruit, etc.

These crabs are nocturnal and during the day they take shelter under the buttress roots of trees and inside the hollows of logs.


The Lammergier Vulture, whose habitat is the high altitudes of the Himalayas, has a very long wing span.  But what makes it stand out from other vultures is its black ‘beard’ just below its beak, for which reason it is commonly called Bearded Vulture.

While other vultures are feeding on carrion, the Lammergier waits by the side for them to finish.  He then carries off the bones to a great height and drops them on a rock so that they break open, and feasts on the marrow.  Thus, the Lammergier is also called ‘Bone Breaker’. 


Visitors to the seashore are often puzzled to hear a loud ‘pop’ rather like a pistol shot, accompanied by a jet of water.  This sound is actually produced by the Pistol Shrimp.  One of its claws is distinctly larger than the other.  This claw has a knob on the finger and a corresponding socket on the thumb.  Two smooth patches of skin on this claw which act as suckers hold the finger and thumb wide apart.  But sometimes when the shrimp exerts a great deal of force and thrusts the knob into the socket a gunshot -like sound is produced and a jet of water is ejected at great speed.  The shrimps use this sound to communicate with each other and frighten away enemies.


Shishuvan: An Alternative Solution

By Menaka Raman

(Menaka Raman is a former advertising professional and freelance writer. Her son Sachit is in Junior KG at Shishuvan. This article was first published here: http://www.kiducere.com/parents-speak/shishuvan-matunga-menaka-raman/)

It was in early 2010 that my husband and I put an end to the eternal NRI debate of “Should we move back to India or not?”. We packed the contents of our tiny suburban London two bed in to 70 boxes and set sail for India with our toddler son in tow.

While my husband settled down to corporate life in Mumbai, I thought my number one priority would be to find a place to live. I found out how ridiculous an idea that was at a dinner party we attended during our first week in the city.

“A flat? Sod that. You need to get your son admitted in school. Pronto.”

“But he’s only two” I feebly protested.

“Which means you’re already very, very late.”

“Call the schools now. Beg. Grovel. Lie. Go to their gates and refuse to leave. Visit them every day till they see you and register his name.”

The idea that I would have to stage some kind of dharna to get my son in to school put me off my crème brulee. But of course this was but the first of many such appetite killing conversations that I was to have over the weeks that followed regarding schools. I was told that interview coaching classes were a must and feeder nurseries were what I should be looking for. Some people just looked at me with pity writ across their face.

I couldn’t believe that getting in to a school was that hard. That there wasn’t one school out there that didn’t want parents to register their fetuses and didn’t require three year olds to know what an asparagus was.

And so began my search for something else.

When I first started researching alternative schools in Mumbai, I remember being asked “Alternative? What does that mean?”, “Please, put him in a ‘normal’ school” and “What’s wrong with the kind of schools we went to as children?”

Ah, but I knew exactly what was wrong with the kind of school I went to. Dull classes where long passages on conduction waves, Moghul architecture and calculus were recited in seemingly never ending monotony. Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some things my very rigid education taught me. The importance of hard work and the mantra ‘practice makes perfect’ were all drilled in to me from an early age. But my schooling also taught me that there is only one correct answer and only one right way to solve a problem. That science and mathematics were more important than history and geography. And that doing well in exams was the most important thing. Everything else fell to the side at the altar of the mid term. No scope for creativity, free thinking or answers that lay outside the realm of the all important ‘syllabus’.

I wanted something different for our son. I wanted him to enjoy learning about the atom and relish e.e. Cummings with equal gusto. I wanted his curiosity to be encouraged not nipped in the bud. While I agree that many of these things can be inculcated at home, the more time one spends in school the more sway those hours have over a child’s brain. I wanted a school that would work with me in nurturing my child’s individuality.

But everywhere I went I met playgroup and nursery teachers who spoke about curriculum and study-play balance and an IB syllabus for toddlers. I was told about preparing children for school interviews and enabling them to face the stiff competition of modern day India. All I could think was “He is only two” and “Will I ever find the kind of school I’m looking for?”

Apparently I would. A chance conversation with a blog friend of mine lead me to the school my son would ultimately enrol in.

“There’s a fantastic school very close to where you’ve seen an apartment. Look up their website. The school’s name is Shishuvan and it’s in Matunga.”

As luck would have it, the school was having an open day for their Nursery admissions and my husband, son and I went to check it out.

I was surprised. Far from the dour office staff I had dealt with at other schools, at Shishuvan people were friendly, courteous and helpful. They actually smiled!

I liked the open door policy Shishuvan had. That we could walk in to their bright airy classrooms and ask their teachers questions.

Shishuvan believes that learning is a shared responsibility between students, teachers and parents. That it should be meaningful, relevant, and life-long for the learner and teacher. The school should feed the child’s innate curiosity, stimulate creativity and concern through actual hands-on, developmentally appropriate experience and reflection. And most importantly, that all children can learn and different students may demonstrate learning in different ways.

Central to Shishuvan’s philosophy is the idea that all of us: students, parents, teachers, administrative and support staff all hold an equal stake in the school. The great thing is the school’s philosophy and vision statement aren’t just words they use to fill the pages of their bright and cheerful website. They walk the talk. Frequent Parent-teacher meetings consist of small presentations on learning followed up by a forum in which parents can give suggestions, feedback and make complaints. Parent Sabha meetings deal with the issues raised effectively. Each and every sports day, school fair and annual day are followed up with surveys asking parents what they liked, didn’t like and what they think could have been done better. And in return, they ask for our a little bit of our time. Our time. We help make the backdrops for plays. We volunteer to man some of the stalls at the school fete. We accompany the class on excursions. I think it’s a more than fair deal.

The question I am most often asked regarding alternative schooling is whether my child will have that competitive edge. If he’ll be able to go head to head with the best of mainstream education in competitive exams and interviews. But if you’re taught from a young age that you are your own competition and that the only thing you need to beat is your own past performance then children will naturally shine. Having said that, alternative schooling isn’t for every one. The more relaxed pace of learning in pre-primary could give some sleepless nights over whether their children are ‘keeping up’ with their peers.

Not to say that they aren’t learning. Frequent field trips, audio visual, music and story sessions have taught my son a number of things this year. There’s a great deal of stress laid upon experiential learning. My son has fed cows, made chocolate laddoos and bought tomatoes from a subziwallah at a time when some schools are asking middle school parents to buy their children expensive tablets as learning aids. At a recent Parent-Teacher meeting, my son’s teacher said “We’ve been focusing on having fun this year.” I’m not complaining.

And neither is my son. Each and every day he comes home with paint stained feet and hands, glitter in his hair and a big smile on his face. His answer to my daily question of “How was school today” is an unwavering “FUN!” And I have a feeling that he’ll be giving me the same answer ten years from now.

My experience as Tetra Pak Ambassador 2012-13

By Tanay Patel

(Tanay is a student of Std. VIII. He serves as a Minister of IT and Communications in the Shishuvan Parliament.)

As part of project SEARCH (TERI and Tetra Pak) each school is asked to nominate  students for the role of the Tetra Pak Ambassador, while satisfying the criteria developed by TERI. TERI was formally established in 1974 with the purpose of tackling and dealing with the immense and acute problems that mankind is likely to face in the years ahead.

I am one of the 29 students from Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad chosen to be Tetra Pak ambassadors. I took part in the competition organised by TERI  and Tetra Pak in which we had to make a movie on how to make recycling tetra paks fun and how we preserve Antarctica. I made a movie and got selected as a Tetra Pak ambassador.

We were invited to Pune from the 9th to the 11th of September 2012. We went to a factory in Pune that makes tetra paks. We saw the whole process and the factory from inside. I was very lucky to get such an opportunity. We got to know the whole process of the making of the tetra paks. We also went for the T.R.A.S.H. festival in one of the schools in Pune where we had an interactive session with Sir Robert Swan, who is the first man in history to have walked the North and the South pole. He told us a lot about Antarctica and what he had done in order to preserve Antarctica. He told us that we are a part of the Antarctica treaty and we will be present during the signing of the treaty.

I had a lot of fun in Pune and made a lot of new friends from all over India. I am very happy to be one of the 29 Tetra Pak ambassadors and do something for Antarctica.

Watching my children grow at Shishuvan


By Archana Natraj

(Archana is a Shishuvan parent delighted about what her children are experiencing in school. Her daughter Janani Balaji is a student of Std. II and her son Ragavan Balaji is in Nursery.)

As a parent, we strive to make the right choices for our child. Time and again, I remind myself of Khalil Gibran’s famous verses

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

Being a Shishuvan parent has made me truly realise how much more I need to imbibe from these verses.

I started out screaming about the bright yellow and green uniform. “Not Smart”, ”Needs a Tie?” …then I hear my daughter proudly telling her friend..see my uniform, so bright and happy.. we are sunflowers! I realised how much we are still enslaved by the British. Instead of being proud that we are the only school that wears Khadi popularised by Gandhiji, we still remain in awe of the West and want to wear a tie to look polished and acceptable.

I look at my daughter’s English notebook and see her page of adjectives…stunning, favourite, glamorous she lists and looks for more with zest ..she is not put off by a writing exercise that asks her to list adjectives, Shishuvan has set her off on a learning adventure by asking her to describe her dear Barbie doll with the best adjectives she can find!
To learn the five senses, Shishuvan has not resorted to a teacher putting down a list..instead they joyously make popcorn ..simply SEE it grow, SMELL in its yumminess, HEAR it popping , TOUCH their creation and then TASTE it . What better way to play and learn!

I questioned the discipline in the school as I heard the roaring noise of screaming kids, until I stopped to listen and hear the thousands of questions that were pouring out of their curious minds, without any fear, fuelling a beautiful session of learning. While I see other Nursery kids from other schools crying in the morning as we await the school bus, my little boy jumps up with a ‘Yay, it’s time for school!’

Free play is fun for Ragavan

Slowly but surely, I have learnt to see it is often us as parents who are so rigid in our views that we may stifle our children’s soaring minds by trying to direct their flight . From telling her how we knew our multiplication tables at her age to marvelling at how they conducted a survey of trees, classified and put tally marks with ease doing multiple subjects at once.
From telling her how we participated in competitions and wrote exams, to seeing how much responsibility she had shouldered with ease in remembering her slots to perform at the school fair. She kept asking…Is it time for my play now, even as she was in the middle of playing fun games at a stall.. and I marvelled ..is this the same kid I have to tell “It’s time to get the bus” everyday?
From looking at the school from our days where we learnt many subjects and memorised content without any context, I see my kids learning every concept thoroughly and placed in context beautifully, in a no-stress, fun way. Then to add an icing to this cake, she is also being moulded as a responsible citizen and human being. She talks about the anti-bullying campaign to her cousins, describes the ‘Save the Tigers’ posters to our neighbour and the TetraPak Recycling we must do… as I look on in amazement.
As I get her report day card, I realise how I have grown from flipping to stop and look at her grades first. Now I slowly read the detailed story about my child at school written painstakingly by the teacher and I know Shishuvan really means it when it says ‘Every Child Counts’. Funnily enough, since I enrolled my kids at Shishuvan, the school’s magic has managed to reach out and been a teacher to me as well in many ways.

Thank You Shishuvan for standing your ground, in being different and believing in our children and letting them blossom in more ways than we have asked for.

Failure is not a full stop

By Chintan Girish Modi

(Chintan works as a resource person with high school students at Shishuvan. He conducts English and Personal Development sessions, enjoys bantering with students at lunchtime, and eagerly awaits field visits. He is a bit squeamish about posting his articles on the school blog but is posting this one at the insistence of a parent of a tenth grader. She feels that this one must reach to out as many parents as possible.)

A few weeks ago, I watched Nagesh Kukunoor’s film Rockford with my eighth graders at Shishuvan and friend-colleague Sini Nair who has close to a decade of experience in teaching and counselling, and joined our school recently to teach English. During the open-ended discussion after the film, it was apparent that one of the themes which had resonated strongly with our students was that of overcoming failure.

A poster of the film ‘Rockford’

The chief protagonist in the film is a boy named Rajesh at a boarding school. Soon after he fails his first Physical Education test at the school, he meets Johnny Mathew, a friendly and helpful assistant gym teacher who tells him that he too had failed the same test when he was a student. Rajesh is surprised, and says, “You now have muscles, Sir.” Johnny replies, “Time and hardwork!”

At the end of this conversation, Johnny invites Rajesh to his house, and shares a list of exercises and his special regimen. While Rajesh does feel encouraged, he still has some doubts regarding his own abilities. Johnny does not want to hear any of Rajesh’s whining. He says, “Don’t recognize failure. It’s simple. Then there’s no failure. Just treat it as a minor setback, a mere hurdle that you are going to jump over.”

Stills from ‘Rockford’ courtesy http://dunkdaft.blogspot.in/2009/01/rockford-nagesh-kukunoor-1999.html

I wonder how many schools have such conversations, how many Rajeshs are able to find such a Johnny to talk to. I am reminded instead of parents who tell their children, “Why did you score only 99 on 100 in that math test? You could have got full marks. Where did you lose that one mark? You need to focus on your studies and avoid making such silly mistakes!” I am reminded of teachers who tell their students, “You are good for nothing. All you do is sit in my class, talk endlessly with your friends and write rubbish in your papers. You deserve what you’ve got!”

While this may appear to be an exaggeration, the snatches of conversation quoted above are all too common in India. There is a huge amount of hype around academic performance measured in the form of marks or grades.

Zachary LeClair who teaches at an international School in Mumbai, remarks, “Cultures all over the world have come to rely on assessments and tests as the primary marker of a student’s worth and achievement. We don’t have assessments that score you on how good a friend you are, or how good at working in a team you are, but we’re certainly good at assessing a student’s grip on trigonometry. Until we loosen ourselves from this ‘culture of assessment’, both failure and success will be viewed through this narrow and very academic lens.”

Unfortunately, students and parents do lose sleep over these markers of success, and the situation gets worse as children grow older. The competition only gets tougher, and with college admissions, every single mark matters a great deal. In such a situation, it is important to reflect on how we tend to view failure and the people we think of as having failed. While grading test papers, when we come across one that gets a very low grade, what are the thoughts that bubble up in our minds?

Here are a few comments that I recall from my interactions in the staffroom — “I feel sorry for her. She has a learning disability. This is the best she can do.” Or “He is always distracted in class. He has lost all interest in studying. I am fed up with him.” Or “She can do much better than this. She is just too lazy. I don’t know what to do with her.” Or “I feel sad when I read a paper like this. It’s a personal thing for me. I wonder what they are learning in my class. I don’t know if I’m teaching them well enough.”

I am merely listing comments here, not analyzing or judging them. I feel each one comes from a place of genuine care and concern, also from a sense of importance attached to academic performance in determining how well a student is doing.

We as teachers feel bad when students do not meet expectations. Some of us are disappointed; some of us feel implicated in the student’s failure. It is important to state here that we are discussing failure not only in terms of getting an F grade or a mark that is below the minimum required to ‘pass’ a test, but also in terms of performing at a level that the teacher feels is much lower than what the student seems capable of. In addition to the teacher, the student feels bad, the parents too. Let’s say, in most cases.

What after this? Does this ‘feeling bad’ lead to any meaningful reflection on our part or conversation with the student that might help him/her? How many of us think about the various reasons that might be responsible for the student losing interest in a particular subject? Could his/her sagging interest levels be related to our teaching methods? Why does the student seem distracted all the time? Is he/she struggling with personal problems that we are unaware of? Why is the student being lazy and not performing up to his/her capacity? Could this be related to the fact that we as teachers are not challenging him/her enough to think outside his/her comfort zone? Is it really the student’s fault when the curriculum and the test favours assimilation and reproduction of facts instead of applying concepts learnt to real-life situations that are meaningful to the student?

These are very important questions to think about. Perhaps the most unsettling and significant one is – Is it alright if the student and his/her parents do not place much importance on academic performance, and are more interested in his/her enjoying whatever he/she participates in particularly extracurricular activities? This is a tantalizing one to answer. Yes, I think it is alright. Who am I to decide for that child and that family what their priorities ought to be? They may not want to raise their child keeping a future IITian or IIM graduate in mind. Fair enough! In fact, if I had a child, I most probably would have made the same parenting choice.

Failure, then, is not an absolute. It is clearly a matter of perception. Academic expectations and cut-offs, however objective they might seem, are based on a prioritization of skills, knowledge and values. If a student gets a ‘D’ grade on an English test, and gets the same grade over three consecutive tests, one would tend to assume that the student is terrible at English. However, that may not necessarily be true.

Most school examinations in India require students to answer in writing. The situation gets even more complex when we ask open-ended questions that require them to think beyond familiar texts and exercise their critical thinking skills. When a student writes an answer that we think of as unsatisfactory, we rarely consider the fact that he/she may have a rich imaginative response to offer but his/her written expression may not be able to match the depth of his/her imagination. It may not even be a case of being limited by one’s vocabulary in English. The student may have dyslexia, or simply feel more at home expressing those thoughts in speech rather than in writing.

If all written examinations were scrapped, and students were tested on conceptual understanding and application only through oral examinations and personal interviews, would there be a marked difference in the academic performance of students? This is worth thinking about.

If we take the case of a literature paper instead of a language skills paper, and find a student scoring 90 on 100, we may want to study the questions to gain an understanding of what the student is being tested on. Usually, the student is being asked to state which character in a prescribed play uttered a particular line, whom it was addressed to, and in what context. Else, the student may be asked to explain the significance of a specific word and its implications in a given scene, or the use of literary devices and the writer’s intention behind employing them. Banks of such questions, accompanied by model answers, are easily available for rote-learning.

It is no secret that students usually fetch more marks in papers on literary appreciation of prescribed texts than in papers that test their ability to write essays, or comprehend prose and poetry excerpts that are unfamiliar to them. Success in a literature paper at the school level involves, to a great extent, being prepared to spout expected answers to anticipated questions. Failure may not really mean an inability to make sense of Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’ in the context of the student’s own life and relationships. Failure may simply mean an inability to offer what the ‘answer key’ demanded as a response to a particular question. This, to my mind, is most arbitrary and undesirable.

Why do teachers set such question papers? Don’t they want students to think rather than memorize? For one, they are limited by the format of the test determined by the education board they are affiliated to. Even if the students are not required to appear for public exams to be taken by all schools affiliated to a particular board, it is widely observed that schools start preparing their students for public exams at least two or three years in advance. Most schools want to boast of high achievers and merit rankers. This is brand-building.

As Zachary recalls from his experiences in the United States, “If a student is ‘failing’ in a certain teacher’s class, oftentimes some of this ‘failure’ will be transferred onto the teacher. Why couldn’t the teacher serve them better, the parents, administration or other teachers might ask. Also, a teacher is responsible for the culture of their classroom, as well as test scores. If the social dynamic of the room is chaotic, or if test scores suffer across the board for the students in the room, oftentimes it is the teacher that bears the blame for ‘failing’ these students as well.”

If we applied this logic to the Indian situation, it is clear why schools love to have students score insanely high marks. It gives them a good name. Many schools ask under-performing students to leave before they appear for public exams in order to eliminate any threat to their possibility of securing a cent-percent result, which means that all students pass, and the school has no ‘failures’. Clearly, schools themselves are afraid of failure. How will they offer any succour to students? How will they grow Johnnys to support Rajeshs?

Sushree Mishra

Sushree Mishra, a California-based educator, shares, “The No Child Left Behind Act defines success in most of the elementary schools I have worked with in the US. If the students perform well on the standardized tests at the end of the year, then the school has achieved success. If not, it is perceived as a failure. The funding of the school depends heavily on the school’s success. In some of the teachers’ opinion, no or less funding has vast ripple effects, a risk schools cannot afford. Hence even if they don’t want to, they define success in terms of marks and grades students secure in the annual standardized tests.”

Zachary testifies to this experience. He says, “By using students’ test scores as the single metric that assures teachers their continued employment at the school, teachers have little reason to focus on areas external to the strictly academic realm. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, public school classrooms became more and more focused on ‘teaching to the test’, as teacher friends of mine in the States call it. Teachers would receive the year’s summative tests at the beginning of their school year and construct their syllabuses completely around aiding their students in scoring as high as possible on this singular exam, with the carrots of further benefits, higher salaries, and extra money for the classroom promised to them if their students performed well.”

He adds, “If administrations provide no incentive for teachers to take risks, to try new strategies, to expand their sense of the curricula that they have been handed, then there should be no expectations that teachers themselves would try to expand the already very rigid boundaries they work within.”

Sushree has also worked briefly with The Teacher Foundation (TTF) in Bangalore. She shares, “In addition to test scores, TTF views success in schools in terms of qualitative rather than quantitative factors. For instance, factors like the rise in confidence of students, the ease of interaction with teachers, comparison of a child’s learning as compared to his/her previous performance (rather than comparing it with others), the improvement in the quality of teaching, rise in teachers’ confidence, and an ethic of caring were some of the qualitative factors used to evaluate the performance of schools.”

Now this certainly appears to be a more holistic set of parameters. When the success of a school is measured on these counts, it is inevitable that students too begin to be assessed more holistically, not on academic performance alone. While the good news is that one does come across schools that send home qualitative report cards describing the student’s interests, strengths, achievements and areas for further work, such schools are few and far between. Even such schools often face flak from parents for not focusing on what they think is most important in today’s cut-throat competitive scenario – marks and grades.

              Sini Nair

As Sini states, “Knowingly or unknowingly parents try to live and fulfill their unfulfilled desires and dreams through their children. This has an impact on children. Peers and their achievements are always looked upon as a threat and make children insecure because they see insecurity in various ways at home and around themselves all the time. There are set parameters in everybody’s mind which decide whether one is a success or not. Individual latent abilities are hardly tapped, and everybody has a herd mentality. All parents need to train their children to dissociate from numbers which act as benchmarks of success and pay attention to sharpen their skills.”

Vidushi Chaudhry, a special educator and partner at Mindsprings Enrichment Centre in Mumbai, shares a powerful story. In a recent article titled ‘Managing or Exploring Possibilities’ (http://www.shishuvan.com/wp/?p=148), she writes about a child she calls R who she first began working with when he was eight. She says, “School was a huge struggle for him. He hated writing, it was hard for him and his work was covered with smudges. His best effort would produce illegible writing. He would willingly trade his soul with the devil to avoid reading. His report card was littered with Fs and everyone loved to complain about R. He couldn’t sit still; he distracted others, he was impossible to manage.”

I think Vidushi might agree with what Sini says about tapping the latent abilities of individuals, and helping them blossom instead of being miserable about not measuring up to the usual standards. Vidushi writes, “What R’s critics failed to see (often) were his skills. R has a wealth of thoughts and ideas that are indicative of his curious, seeking spirit. He can express himself more clearly and cogently than most of his peers orally. He is a standup comic and often has the rest of my students in splits with his antics. Socially, he is a leader. And spiritually, he is an inspiration. His resilience is extraordinary. He will work harder than everyone else without complaint.”

Vidushi Chaudhry

Such respect for a child, and such deep faith in his potential, is difficult to come by though I would like to believe that the teaching profession does have its share of Johnnys and Vidushis. In fact, such Johnnys and Vidushis might not even make a big deal of what they are doing. They may simply say, “I am just doing my job.” She writes about how ‘failing’ day after day in his academics had made R averse to taking risks. He needed to build confidence in himself. Vidushi and her colleagues worked with R, and praised all his attempts.

Using R as an example of children who struggle with serious learning issues, she writes, “As parents and educators, we often become so engrossed in the problems of the child and managing and coping. We become engrossed in learning the sum or spelling or grades that we forget that this child has the ability to create value in the world. He has something to offer. When the paradigm shifted for me, as a special educator, I realized I was operating from a limited approach. When we think of managing a disease or problem, we are on the defensive whereas expecting great health/things is a positive approach. A world of potential is lost in those who don’t perform to their capabilities and this is true of both learning difficulties and life.”

It is going to be increasingly difficult yet absolutely important for us to rethink notions of success and failure, especially since schools in India will see a massive change in the composition of their classrooms post the Right to Education Act. Not only would we have children from varying socio-economic groups sit together in the same classroom but also children with different kinds of disabilities such as visual impairment, hearing impairment, cerebral palsy, autism. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan is working to implement this, and is being supported by organizations that specialize in working with children having different disabilities. Will it be possible to have uniform expectations of everyone? Will the education system be fair to everyone when the current curriculum and assessment practices clearly favour certain kinds of skills, knowledge and abilities? These questions merit serious thinking and research.

I find great value in what Zachary says, “As the adults in charge of the system, we like to think that students are the ones who are responsible for most of the ‘failing’, of the missing of the marks we’ve set for them, but more often than not the missing of these marks is a shared responsibility, and does not rest solely on the shoulders of the student. Classroom teachers, the administration, and parents all play a vital role in the ‘success’of a student, so why do we separate them out from the conversation when a student begins to ‘fail’? This is not to put the microscope on any one party but rather to impress that when a student is struggling, it should be the responsibility of all parties involved to think about what they can do.”

(This article was first published in the October 2012 issue of Teacher Plus, a magazine for educators. It can be read here: http://www.teacherplus.org/cover-story/failure-is-not-a-full-stop)