Thursday, June 3, 2010

High Achievers Who Failed To Achieve

I have related the story during my school days when I tried to advise my younger brother, Dennis, to study hard to achieve good grades. But he was such a lazy bum. He barely managed to pass form 5 with a grade 3. He was then able to secure a place in form 6 in Maktab Sabah, but decided not to continue studying. Instead he went on to work, changing from one job to another for many years after that. I can still remember our little debate about the value of education. Our nation was in recession back then, and his excuse was that many university graduates were without jobs anyway. So why bother to get the degrees?

In another debate I had with my dad, the playboy, I was amused by his excuse in defending Dennis' decision to quit school. He said if Dennis was not very keen in studies, then he had a better chance in the job market. Because by the time his friends get to the job market years later, Dennis would have been there much longer. He would then have had enough experience to compete! Besides, dad reckoned if everybody did well in his studies, why then there will be no one who would become the office clerks, office boys and lorry drivers!

Needless to say, of course I disagreed with dad's opinion—not that I was in the habit of agreeing with him much anyway. But then again, think about it, what would happen if everyone did well in school; would there be anybody left to be the garbage collector and rubber tapper?

Well, we've had an indirect opportunity to see a similar situation—though admittedly not exactly the same—in treasure hunting. Some very serious people go through so much pain to learn the game well, and after a while they become very good at it. They keep winning hunts. And then the new hunters start to complain to the organisers that they have no chance to win anything when these strong hunters are around. So the organisers set the hunts in such a way where most of the questions are relatively easy.

The end result is that even if the strong teams still win the hunts, the new teams will achieve very nearly the same scores as those of the strong teams. The new teams get a kick and false impression that they're "just a little bit" below the standard of the strong teams. But nothing could be further from the truth!

And then amongst the stronger teams, if they don't all get the perfect score, they will be tied with just a point or two from the perfect score. The kind of hunts where a single silly mistake can cause a fall of several rungs in the leader board. And the kind of hunts where winning won't really prove very much in terms of hunting superiority.

Malaysia, in its attempt to produce a large number of high academic achievers, had done a very good job of gradually declining the standard of education in the nation mainly via the culture of memorization. In my schooling days, scoring say 8As in the form 5 exams was a very big thing and apt to earn a space in the front page of the major newspapers; the kind of achievement which would almost automatically earn a government scholarship. Very, very few would manage that kind of results. Those were the days when "high achievers" really meant high achievers.

These days, scoring 8As in form 5 (SPM) is nice, but nothing to shout about. Now we're talking about 15As, 18As, even 20As in the SPM, until recently when the government suddenly realised that getting 20As is quite ridiculous and quite meaningless except perhaps for a space in the Malaysia's Book of Records. So there is now some sort of limit on the number of subjects one can sit for in the SPM exams.

I don't believe the modern-day kids are more than twice smarter than those kids of my days, even if they can get more than double the number of As in their exams. Too many kids are high academic achievers, much the same case as in the "newbie-hunter-friendly" hunts. It's like playing poker when there are too many aces in a deck of cards. When everyone can easily draw many of those aces, the one having a hand of 4 aces shall not have the confidence of winning. For he would realise that his opponents are very likely to have the same number of aces too.

So when we have too many high achievers in our schools—though not necessarily any indication of brainy students, in spite of the straight As—who are really the clever ones? Who really deserve the recognition as the great minds? Who really deserve to get the scholarships?

UPDATE (5 June 2010):

Ah! When I posted the above 2 days ago, at the back of my mind I was thinking it would've been good if I could provide some statistics to give a bit of context to the situation we're facing right now. So I am pleased to find that the Deputy Education Minister had provided us with some figures. It sort of confirms my point above.

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