Sunday, February 7, 2010

Who stole my grades

Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be derogatory for IIT students or those competitive examination champs. It is also not meant to be the reason d'etre for the Ministry of Human Resource Development to abolish grading systems. It is just a discourse of the conversations Abhishek and I had today afternoon after we were well fed and watered and raised a few questions.

Those were the best of times, those were the worst of times. Sounds clich├ęd. It was the summer of 2004. I was eagerly waiting for my IIT mains results. Having secured a whopping rank of 128 in IIT screening exams and being constantly fed a rich diet of praises from my teachers who felt sure I would break into the top 100, I was expecting a fair result. Although I had done badly in Maths examination owing to those SILLY mistakes(after all 2 + 2 is not equal to 5 in the decimal number system), I expected a rank within 1000. As has been my superstition, I always prefer to spend a lot of time in the toilet when examination results are discovered by my dad and announced to me, I spent around 3 hours in the toilet owing to the website being down with too much traffic. To my dismay, I found I had committed a lot more silly mistakes than I anticipated and ended up with a rank of 1785. I thought following a career in something I loved from an NIT was worthier than studying something in IIT that I did not like.

Back to today:
Today, Abhishek told me that once Dr. Zakir Hussain(a Professor at NIT Hamirpur) declared in class that all the students in NIT are mediocre ones. Well the previous flashback was an attempt to create credibility for my answer to this rather naive observation. If the mediocrity is being referred in terms of preparing for an examination, then yes the students are mediocre but if the mediocrity is being referred to a student's intelligence and general understanding level then it is not. If a student is to be judged for his intelligence and understanding level, then the platform to be provided has to be uniform. Let us say after a hard grind of 14 years of formal student we take up 2 students who are not informed that they will appear for an examination(not even what kind of examination) and then they are asked to answer the examination, that will give us an indication(albeit a rough one) into their intelligence and understanding level. The examination here has to be carefully calibrated here to measure what a student has understood rather than what a student has not understood and remembered. The whole point of deciding mediocrity based on examinations is as stupid as can be.

In this context, the current grading system in school education in India is questionable. Grading system is like a caste divide in education. Why do we need to allot grade A,B,C and so on ? Does it not reflect the inability of the educators as well as the family to educate/motivate students uniformly ? How does awarding a grade A to a student in class I beneficial in any aspect ? As per my understanding and limited research, the grading system was created to measure the performance levels of students which could be utliised by others for e.g. you appear for a GRE/GATE/CAT test so that based on the test students are evaluated on a supposedly common platform and accordingly rated but how does this help in the school system ? It creates animosity, cut throat competition, a race to the top for students. We humans have a primal instinct for trying to be better than one another. Which is why we love sports to see people warring(in a pacified way) against each other. This brings us to the glorification of those students who top in the board examinations(which in most cases is their ONLY claim to fame).

School education is an extension of the education that begins at home. Imagine your mother telling you, you got an B grade for the way you touched your grandparent's feet and you should do better to get an A the next time. Sounds ridiculous but then education which is supposed to be a conjugation of our natural curiosity with the cumulative human understanding of the world, if graded, should sound ridiculous too. School education is a medium for students to learn and understand the beautiful world all around rather than to be fascinated by marks. After all how does it matter if a student gets an A or a B in one examination. Examinations should be held on a continuous internal level in order to provide a feedback to the educator and the student as to which aspects of the subject a student knows well and which he doesn't. It should be an indicator for the educator to change his mode of teaching rather than to the parents to give a new watch to their children as reward. What graded education system is doing today is creating an atmosphere of intimidation, stress and mutual hostility rather than co-operation,mutual appreciation and enhanced curiosity. A child's curiosity and his unique abilities are not appreciated. What are we really trying to measure here ? We, Indians who had such an advanced education system ("Gurukul system without grades/marks") are not even appreciating the ancient heritage and wisdom. Somewhere over the years it has got lost in the mindless borrowing from other societies(from British education system) without realising why and in which context it was applicable there. Deciding a student's aptitude is important which is why I have not raised the question yet on the graded education in Universities since industry and academia use the grades for further calibration but that too has its loopholes(a matter for another blog post).

In this regard moving from marks based system to a grade based system by the MHRD is a noble next step. Abolishing grade and pondering over an alternative system would be the logical and bold next step. The big question here is what would be the alternative. Maybe the time has come to ask this question to those whose minds have not been polluted as ours over this mad and false race of marks and achievement. The time has come to ask the questions in the Kindergarten classes where the mind is without fear and the mind is without all the clutter. The time has come to to nurture the mind in the same free environment when it was born.

Corollary: This post is one of the few to raise various questions on this aspect of education. It will be followed up with more insights in order to not make it look like a research paper. This is the first food for thought.


  1. Groundbreaking concept if seen juxtaposed against the 'Life is a race' theory, we, as a part of the system, so religiously, have been following.

    I've never been a victim of this grading/marking system, and that's perhaps why I never thought on these lines, but this post certainly reminds me of what we've forgotten long back.
    Isn't it
    Our nation was regarded as Vishva-Guru -- arguably the first nation to have an organised education system -- the well-structured GURUKUL system of education (boarding schools/institutions of today). That system, of which Astromomers, Mathematicians, Surgeons and Poets like Aryabhatta, Varahmihir, CHarak, Sushrut, Bhaskaracharya and Kalidas were products of, didn't have this Grade/Marks divide.

    Vivek's right when he says it creates an unnecessary divide - which is harmful in more than one ways.

    "In 2006, 5,857 students — or 16 a day — committed suicide across India due to exam stress. And these are just the official figures. "

    Perhaps it's dificult to sum up in a comment, perhaps, it does deserve a blog entry from me too.

    Great work Vivek.

  2. Hey, thanks a lot Abhishek. In fact, it is the discussion with you that lit up this thought. The problem with the topic is that it is so vast that it could not be summarized in a single blog post without making it dreary. Looking forward to your post.

  3. Simple question: What if not grades? Percentages? Or "Continuous Evaluation?"
    I agree that no system is good enough, but the deeper problem lies with the way education is treated in India rather than the way students are evaluated.
    The correct approach, I feel, is to start at the bottom than scratch the top, by changing something as irrelevant as grades.

  4. Well Aditya, I don't think grades are as irrelevant as you pointed them out to be. What exactly do you mean by "education is treated". The problem with the treatment with education is exactly what I pointed out, the incentive behind the education has become important to all and not the education.

  5. Brilliant post Vivek....just to continue with you i'll add a few points

    1)What does a student getting C grade mean -Student's reception was poor or teacher's transmission was poor?
    If a student gets failed,Educator is also equally responsible and he has to rework his pedagogy.

    2)Alternate system that i can propose is like we need to figure out what specifically a student needs to know at a particular age.

    Benzene,Maurays,Algebra,Gravitation and Samaas are something which i don't think he needs to know all at a time.

    Even if we need to tell him,it should be cursory and not 500 pages of compulsory reading.

    The problem i believe is we tend to specialise too early and that too in 1000 different directions.

    3)Industry has to come inline to education system or vice versa.
    At present its neither.

    I mean its just a 2%(or even less) of my total education(C/Java/OS/DS) that is determining what i do in life.

    I feel cheated for the way i memorised those chemistry formulaes.Organic used to give me shivers. WHY????

    4)Last point is take initiative and ensure our children don't get stuck in this quagmire.Figure out a plan for them as "India" as a term is quite abstract.We can't just go out and fix India.

    See what can you do different with your child,tell me ,i'll propogate it further.Spread it and hopefully we can see a better next Gen.

  6. I think for the first five years (10-12 Age) should be just languages and creative,music,trips,dance....Trekking,teambuilding...moral sciences...

    Boy this would be fun :)

  7. Nice Post Vivek.......infact you've done a gr8 insight work in this article......kudos to the efforts....i've done my bit in SRIJAN this time....hope to bring this revolution some efforts.