Saturday, March 23, 2013

Learning By Making Mistakes

Once upon a time many years ago, I used to play chess competitively. Many hours were spent analysing chess positions; sleepless nights hovering over a chess board thinking of the many, many possible moves in the hope of finding chess novelties. Many more hours were spent studying famous games played by chess grandmasters and trying to fathom their thought process.

But a major part of the learning process is focused on analysing one's own games, especially those of losses. The reason is quite simple—there must have been mistakes made somewhere in those games, and who knows, if one is able to find those mistakes, maybe it is possible to find solutions for a better move(s) in future games. And even if one is unable to find a brilliant alternative move(s), perhaps one is then able to at least avoid making those same mistakes in future games.

"One of the best ways of learning in life is by making mistakes."

That is a powerful sentence I had overheard during a family debate when I was still a teenager a long time ago, and it has remained in my mind up to now. Over the years, I've improvised on that sentence by adding: "provided that the person who is making those mistakes does not repeat them!"

You see, strange as it may seem, mistakes, as are many other things in life, have the habit of repeating themselves over and over again without the person who makes those mistakes even realising it! Thankfully, however, many of these mistakes have only short-term repercussions, perhaps soon to be forgotten. But some of them have far-reaching consequences, maybe something that would haunt the person for the rest of his or her life!

My brother, Dennis—when he was a boy—did very well in his Primary 6 exams despite many people thinking he'd do badly. I think most of those who thought he'd do badly had that impression because Dennis wasn't such a hard-working boy; he wasn't very disciplined when it came to his studies. Well, he proved them all wrong! Then the same thing happened during his Form 3 exams. Many people thought he'd do badly, but again he proved them all wrong!

After his Form 3 exams, armed with excellent results, Dennis went to the science stream. Now the thing about Form 4 is that there is somewhat a sudden "leap" in terms of standard—"Science" is separated to 3 branches, i.e. Biology, Physics and Chemistry; whereas "Mathematics" is separated to 2 branches, i.e. Modern Maths and Additional (Pure) Maths. I consider this as a major "leap" in the level of difficulty when compared to that of Form 3, but I suppose it's a natural progression of the education system. 

Because of the sudden "leap" above, the first few months of Form 4 becomes very important. That is the time when the student should evolve—so to speak—to adjust his mindset so that he can cope with the "new subjects". In fact, it is imperative that the student is always on his toes during early Form 4 so that he is not left behind when the boat leaves the harbour, seemingly in a jiffy!

But fate would have it that Dennis took the wrong boat. Because he was one of the best students in the entire school, he was chosen to join a diving expedition organized by the British government which sent a group of its teenaged students to dive the coral reefs here in Sabah for the filming of a TV documentary. Only 4 students from Dennis' school were offered the slots. It was in fact an opportunity of a lifetime! Well, to make the long story short, Dennis accepted the offer (with my dad's consent), and while his classmates were struggling to adapt to the science stream, he went deepsea-diving all over Sabah. By the time he came back to class a little over a month later, he was totally lost. He had an overwhelming workload in Maths, Biology, Physics and Chemistry to digest apart from trying to catch up with the ongoing lessons. It proved too tough, especially for someone who's not so hardworking in his studies. He eventually ended up with a Grade 3 in SPM the following year, and the rest, as they say, is history. He's been switching jobs several times over the years, and today drives a taxi for a living. If only he could foresee all those years ago what a month of deepsea-diving could do to his life!

If Dennis could turn back the clock to the first day of Form 4 again, do you think he would do it any differently?

History has a strange habit of repeating itself.

Dennis' eldest son, Mohd Aqil, also has similar traits as his daddy. I saw Dennis in Aqil since many years ago, and I regularly reminded Dennis to be careful with his son. But I had to do it very diplomatically, as his wife, Shidah, resents negative comments about her sons. I know some of my readers would accuse me of going beyond my authority as an elder brother, but what am I supposed to do when I'm seeing history repeating itself before my very eyes?

However, the tragedy is that Aqil did very well in Primary 6 despite my concerns. His mommy was understandably overjoyed to prove Uncle Kong wrong. Then came the Form 3 exams, and again I was proven wrong when Aqil achieved excellent results.

Then came the stunning part of the story. Just as Aqil started his first few days in Form 4 science class, he received an offer from his grandparents (his mommy's parents) for a few weeks' holidays to West Malaysia including to the theme park in Genting Highland. Apparently, it was an offer that's not to be missed.

Well, I don't know what you think of this story, but I saw this whole thing basically the same as about 30 years ago. It's almost like a dream to me—de javu, if you like. I had a serious talk with Dennis about this matter, hinting to him if he felt, like, perhaps he had seen this whole episode before?

So anyway, Aqil went for his few weeks' holidays, came back to resume From 4 science, absolutely lost for the most part, and eventually obtained 4 As when his SPM results were announced a few days ago. You might wonder what were the subjects that got As? They were Bahasa Malaysia, Modern Maths, Sejarah and Geografi. None of his science subjects scored A. Now in an education system like what we have in Malaysia where it is very common to get at least 7 or 8 As in SPM, 4 As is just terrible, really, especially since not even one of his science subjects got the A.

A classic example that proves that some people will never learn from their mistakes.


Anonymous said...

History is just a story,what lies ahead in the future is how we want it to be,it is about how want we want to make it happen,Aqil is your nephew and you too can help him avoid how history repeat itself. He is still young and nothing is impossible and nothing is too late. You must encourage your nephew or else at the end of the day, u too made a mistake not once but twice. Elders must always encourage the young ones when they dont do too well,look at the bright side,see what is he good at and where his interest lies. Dont give up on him :-)

Cornelius said...

Thank you, Anonymous friend, for your comment.

Hindsight, as they say, is twenty-twenty. About 30 years ago, I had a chance to help Dennis. I should've relentlessly advise him to study hard in school. Heck, I should've pulled him by his hair, maybe beat him up to force him to study. But he already made up his mind, you see. There was very little else I could do.

Now I should do the same with Aqil. But here's the thing about being an uncle - there is little I can do if the parents don't really agree with me. You see, there is this thing which I call "parental blindness". The parents, especially the mother, does not like others to give negative comments about her children. And the slightest suggestion that there is a problem with Aqil can result in very serious repercussions. In her eyes, there is just absolutely nothing wrong with her children. But this is not surprising... it is very natural for most parents, even if they don't want to admit it. Dennis, too, will get into trouble because his siblings are trying too much to butt in the bringing up of her children. So, the reality is that actually I can't help Aqil. If there is anyone who can help, it must be either Dennis or Shidah. Not likely to happen though.

I'm not giving up hope on the kid, of course, but if an approach has been proven to result in failure before, it's apt to lead to failure again now.