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Perfection comes in many hues, sizes and shapes. But what about learning? Should it be crammed into a one-size-fits-all mould? Over the years, well-recognised institutions have not only questioned the idea but have also found ways to tailor education to a person’s abilities; teaching subjects using various practices that don’t depend on rote or literal memorisation. That said, some processes lie in the time-bound vessels of antiquity that should have been buried a long time ago. Except that these are sometimes effective; students who can navigate a system crammed with rote learning, as many Asian countries have been found guilty of, deliver results over and over again in the real world. So, its proponents wonder - is really so wrong?

Slowly, in light of all the stress it has put on young shoulders – those burdens that many have found impossible to bear, India is mulling a different type of learning. The National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 draft that awaits implementation is proposing a scrapping of ‘those dreaded exams’; the one-time-checklist of what a child has learned through the year. Indian Express, one of the country’s leading dailies, reported that the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) in India is considering a new plan – one without exams from 2021.

The polar response the discussion is garnering is expected; it is a time of change, of development – and perhaps – of evolution. While educators look to a more result-oriented style of teaching that tests a person’s understanding rather that recollection prowess, some students wonder if there’s any point to taking school work seriously if there’s no credible point at which you can prove your superiority in a subject.

Rafia Zafar Ali

“Exams are a medium to assess the teaching and learning of the students,” says Rafia Zafar Ali, Director/Principal Leaders Private School, Sharjah. “They are crucial for improving focus, critical reasoning and motivation to work hard to achieve their target. Exams instill discipline, time management, problem solving and the ability to train the mind to become life-long learners.” And that’s why the system has stuck around for so long.

“However exams without forward planning does put immense pressure on the children to compete and this is further heightened by the parental and societal expectations to excel and prove their self-worth.

“[An] exam-free environment can be stimulating for students who might derive their motivation in sports, creativity and innovation without the stress to pass or fail while also discovering their individual interests and talents,” she says.

Deepika Thapar Singh

For Deepika Thapar Singh, CEO-Principal, Credence High School,Dubai, the new NEP is a welcome idea. "I am sure when the NEP is declared after ratifications and consultations between various stakeholders all aspects would be clearly defined and would definitely be pathbreaking. I am really looking forward to seeing a brighter future for education," she says.

So what’s the future of school going to look like?

“Education in the future will need to move away from exams and grades as the sole indicators of success. We need to develop different assessment patterns that look at skills and values needed to empower the students to be innovative and creative, and adept at risk taking and problem solving,” says Gauri Ishwaran, former Principal of Sanskriti, Delhi.

Gauri Ishwaran

“Teachers need to move to the role of facilitators; there will be a paradigm shift in assessments, and it will thus be more exciting and dynamic,” adds the Padma Shri – the fourth highest civilian award in India - winner.

Rashmi Nandkeolyar, Principal and Director of DPS Dubai, believes the school of the future will mirror real life. “Schools of the future will mimic real life by teaching students skills with hands-on experiences. Thus, there will be sophisticated mechanisms in place to gauge the progress of every child who is excitedly engaged in thinking, doing, innovating and collaborating, without the anxiety of memorisation for a one-off high stakes examination.”

Rashmi Nandkeolyar

Teresa Varman, Principal and CEO of GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah, writes in an interview with Gulf News that the new system places students at the heart of the system. “[It] paves the way for better outcomes by prioritising their learning and interests over examination scores.”

[It] paves the way for better outcomes by prioritising their learning and interests over examination scores.

- Teresa Varman, Principal and CEO of GEMS Millennium School, Sharjah

Pramod Mahajan, Principal, Sharjah Indian School, is a supporter of the new, to-be system of teaching as well. He explains: “Decide success criterion, rubrics and futuristic thought process to help the learners as per their pace, speed, taste, liking, capabilities; by naturing the inherent talent within the learners.” And it is exactly this that the new exam-less system is making a bid for.

Pramod Mahajan

What do students think of it?

This is a bit murky. For now, Indian students are well aware of the expectations both schools and parents have – it’s mostly about academic genius. For some, the current system appeals for it sparks a competitive spirit and a winning edge. For others, exams are a time of nail-biting, sleepless anxiety. Here’s what UAE-based students think of the issue.

“The initiative from MHRD to remove exams would definitely bring a lot of smiles amongst students. It would be progression towards an education system that rids the obsession with the number of marks in an exam and focus on developing student potential and the value our education contributes to modern society,” says tenth grader Abhinandan Nair, from DPS Dubai.

Abhinandan Nair

What would school look if there weren’t exams? For Shivani Nadkarni, from Our Own English High School, this isn’t a particularly appealing solution. “Life does require daily stress which helps people to work towards their goals and achieve it . Without exams there will be no targets to achieve and further no motivation to continue studying. In my opinion, exams should not be completely scarped out rather just spaced out uniformly to give the child enough time to study the exam,” she says.

Shivani Nadkarni

Sanika Jayesh, from JSS private School, concurs. “Exams are a measure of our strengths and weaknesses. According to me, there weren't exams, the students won't be able to find out where they actually stand and won't be able to improve on their weaknesses. Without exams, students won't pay attention in class as they won't be tested on how much they understood, it may even lead to illiteracy as there is no pressure on the students to study.”

“We continue to let students and society at large believe that a greater number of A’s is an indication of success. It has become a measure of potential and self-worth,” says Abhirami Karuppanchetty, Class 11, The Indian High School.

Sanika Jayesh

“Scrapping exams will not be a disruptive change but an incremental one. No examination in schools to me means, more time and opportunities to develop application skills, deeper learning including social and emotional learning. More time can be invested in preparing students for their future. This initiative would reduce stress and anxiety among the students and ensure emotional well-being,” she said.

Karuppanchetty does add a caveat. “Every class should have some sort of real world or project component to it.” And if this is scrapped, it’s going to make for an unimpressive change.

What the doctors said

The questions that echo in the trenches are these: Is getting rid of exams for school students a good idea? or will it cause them to become adults who crumble at the first signs of stress?

Dr Mrabet Jihene, Assistant professor and Director of the Office of counselling and disability at the American University in Emirates, says she likes the idea of getting rid of exams for school students.

Dr Mrabet Jihene

She says: “I think that getting rid of exams for school students would be a great idea. We noticed that exams are becoming very stressful and very challenging for students. Some of them are even developing panic attacks just before the exam week, some are also experiencing blackout just after reading the exam questions.

"All these preparations before [an] exam is leading to [them to] engage in wrong behaviors like sleeping deprivation, eating disorders, cheating during exams and sometimes even using some drugs stimulants to boost their cognitive capacities."

"The problem that we are facing nowadays is because of our conception about knowledge; we are emphasising [the] memorising process and not analytical skills. The parents are also playing a central role in increasing the pressure of their kids. They are linking the value of their kids or provided love and attention to a mark on an exam. Examination is no longer a way to assess if the student incorporated the new information and linked it to the previous knowledge already existing but it became a way to give a social value to the student.

"The learning process should be revised in order to provide students with better opportunities to enjoy the acquisition of new information and to express critical thinking. Students shouldn't be evaluated on their ability to retain information but on their capacity to use information wisely and to build relationships with different areas of learning.

"Persons that could create a difference, that would think outside the box, that would take risks and enjoy producing something new. This spirit should be taught from school, we shouldn't stick on traditional pattern of behaviors because we are afraid of change... we need to be the ones provoking it.

"We shouldn't be afraid of student crumbling at the first signs of stress... we are dealing with stress every day, in every situation... stress is a part of our daily, routine tasks. As we are growing we will develop strategies to face it or to cope with it. The problem that we may face if we link stress to exams is that we will entertain the fear of failure and we may come up with persons that are so afraid to fail to the extent that they may provoke their own failure just seeking for the feeling of control over their life.”

Dr Mehnaz Zafar, Psychiatrist at the Ministry of Health and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, says:

Dr Mehnaz Zafar

“Exams are considered as a major challenge during student life but it’s crucial to understand the underlying process that intimidates the students. Stress is variable concept and it's a complex interaction of our perception to stressful environment and our coping mechanisms which makes us react to stress differently.

"Our brain is wired to fight or flight responses which also affect our immune system and internal homeostasis. Stress is healthy and improves performance unless it is severe, chronic or paired with faulty coping. Thus it is imperative that the educational processes are directed at strengthening the cognitive, emotional and intellectual aspects of an individual's personality and can be carefully tailored to differential needs of children while promoting inclusion, mutual respect and tolerance.

"Challenges and hardships are an integral part of existence and invariably shape a person. The key is to modulate free expression of inner vulnerabilities and early recognition of emotional problems while fostering trust and providing support."