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Why should one examination make or break a child’s life?

Mar 04, 2012 Success, Sunday Nation

Another year, another set of Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education results. And another year in which parents, children and the media go into a seemingly uncontrollable frenzy about the significance of the results.

I have written about this peculiar phenomenon before, and no doubt will again. For I fail to understand why we have to hype the results of the public examination of young children to high heaven.

Can we honestly imagine, in today’s day and age, that the result of that one exam will make or break a child’s life? That if you get good grades you are on your way to assured success; and that if you mess up your life is gone? Once upon a time, in a less enlightened age, there may have been a modicum of truth in that statement. But I fail to see what the fuss is about in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world.

Let me address the various actors in this fevered drama. Parents, what do you think you’re doing? Why do you place such intense pressure on your children to perform well in public exams, and why do you ululate so unabashedly or grieve so unashamedly, depending on the result? Can you not see that the examinations process is designed to produce just a few winners, and that the chances of your child being in that group are statistically quite low? Why would you want your child marked ‘loser’ at such a tender age – most notably by you?

Employers: what is this unending obsession with ‘grades’ and ‘papers?’ It was thus when I was a boy; why is it still thus today? Have we not refined our thinking about talent and success in the intervening decades? Why do you still use a relatively arbitrary grade achieved on a single day by a young person as a cut-off? What results have decades of employing only the ‘A/B’ students given your organization? If childhood grades are so strongly correlated with future performance, please explain this: why do most of your organizations remain so ineffably mediocre?

The coming world will be unbelievably disruptive. It will require reinvention and reimagination of business models. The old assumptions and formulae will not hold. Creativity, freshness and boldness will be at a premium. So when you insist on hiring only the top-graders, who are you employing? Someone who has been able to apply his mind and dedicate herself to study, yes; but as management guru Tom Peters often points out, you’re also hiring someone who “buys the act” and has always “coloured between the lines.” An ‘A’ student is very unlikely to be the revolutionary mind or radical thinker that you may actually need.

Finally, let me address the actors that matter the most: the students. Kids, this thing is not as important as the world around you has led you to believe. If you achieved a high grade, well done; it’s likely that you are dedicated, orderly and can apply your intellect well. Those are good things. But getting a great grade is only a beginning, not an end. Many more attributes are going to be needed to succeed in life, and most of them are about character and attitude, not just intellect.

If you received a poor grade, on the other hand, worry not. It’s not the end of the world. Many of history’s most spectacular successes have also been the most emphatic school dropouts. You still have every chance of making it. This archaic ranking system belongs to a less enlightened age, and you should not fret over it too much. Pick yourself up, dedicate yourself afresh. Hard work, empathy and creativity can all make up for low grades. If the world doesn’t accept you, excel so hard in doing your own thing that the world is forced to blink and rethink.

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