High Performance Schooling

At the outset I want to mention that I mean no disrespect for my schoolmates or teachers from Sri Aurobindo Memorial School, where I spent twelve mostly wonderful years. It is just a thought as to whether it would have helped me later on in life had I been shifted out of there when I was in say primary school into what I would call as a “high performance school”.  Also, apologies at the outset if I were to sound boastful in this post. Unfortunately, there is no other way to get the point across.

Right from primary school, like say when I was in first standard, I was what can be described as a “high performer”. Yes, I was always first or second in class in terms of marks, but that is not so much of the issue here – there were a lot of people who did nearly as well and my marks were not so much of a differentiator. I’m talking more about being almost always significantly ahead of class.

For example, in first standard, they taught us addition in school. I remember being taught to do something like “two in the mind, four in the hand” and then count out the two in order to add two and four. By that time, however, I had already learnt addition at home and was pretty good at it. When called to the front of the class to solve one such problem for everyone, I just shouted the answer and ran back to my seat. I remember the teacher saying in a subsequent class that she would give me a “big sum” (which was 3-digit addition), and I solved that too in a jiffy.

Again in first standard, there was a spelling test. In all earlier such tests, I had done exceedingly well, getting only one or two words wrong at the max. I think by then I had already begun to read bits and pieces of the Deccan Herald which my grandfather subscribed to (my parents subscribed to Kannada Prabha, and I could read that quite well, as well). I was bored of getting everything right in every test. So I started writing wrong spellings on purpose. It was the only way to entertain myself.

This kind of stuff continued throughout schooling. I remember reading my neighbour’s 9th standard math textbooks when I was in 7th standards. History lessons never interested me because my grandfather had told me all those stories and I remembered. On several occasions in middle and high school, I would know that what the teacher was teaching was wrong, but would be too bored to point that out to her because it would lead to a pointless argument (to my credit, I did try a few times, and it was very hard for the teachers to back down. After a while I simply stopped trying).

One offshoot of this being ahead of class was that I would be constantly bored in class, and I would identify this as a potential cause of some behavioural issues I faced as a child. Being the teacher’s pet and a general geek (I was the first guy in class to wear spectacles) meant that I was a popular target for bullying and practical jokes. I would take advantage of my size (I was comfortably the biggest kid in class) and would respond by beating up people. My parents spent most of my middle school listening to complaints from teachers about my being a bully and violent type!

As I grew older and learnt the merits of non-violence, I managed to overcome this, but the more damaging effect of always being ahead of class was that I was never challenged, and hence I never developed the habit of working hard, and when I tried to (when I went to IIT), it was too late. While I didn’t particularly top or “max” every test and exam in school, I sailed through fairly comfortably and never really had to do anything like work hard till I finished my 10th standard.

Then, I went to National Public School, which had a reasonably rigorous criterion for admission into 11th standard, so in some sense it was a “high performance centre”. But the problem there was what I call as the “11th standard free-rider teacher problem”, the cause of which is the IIT-JEE. Let me explain. In 11th standard, in a school such as NPS, most kids go for JEE coaching. Consequently, some teachers assume that all kids go to JEE coaching, and thus slacken their level of involvement and quality of teaching in the classroom. Those that are going for “tuition” don’t mind/notice this drop in quality. The rest do, but are too small a minority to affect things in class.

So yes, I did feel challenged in 11th standard. But then I took a (probably wise, in hindsight) decision to not care at all about the class tests and exams, and instead look long-term – towards success in the board exam and IIT-JEE. Working at my own pace, without really pushing myself too hard, I did rather well in both of them (after having been mostly in the bottom half of my class at NPS, of course, but I didn’t care about that). And then I went to IIT, which is where the troubles began.

IIT, thanks to its (then) selection criteria, is truly a “high performance centre”, in if not anything but in the quality of the students it takes in. There is also a sharp jump in the level of tuition compared to school. You are truly challenged and considerable work is called for in order to stay abreast in class. Being in Computer Science also means you are flooded with rather intensive programming assignments. It is difficult to do well unless you are really willing to work hard, and that is where I failed to cope. I had never put in anything close to that level of involvement. Suddenly thrown into the deep end of the pool (in terms of working hard), I struggled, and the continuous nature of evaluation meant that there was no point in “focusing on big exams” here, like I had in high school. Every little exam and assignment contributed to your final CGPA. I graduated as the median of the class, and I’ve never recovered.

IIM wasn’t that hard compared to IIT, but again I didn’t work too hard in courses I didn’t get too interested in, and barely graduated in the top quartile, an under-achievement given my comfort levels in most subjects.  And my lack of ability to work hard doggedly has cost me much in my corporate career also. Some tasks that most people consider “routine” have turned out to be insanely hard for me, and in some places I haven’t been able to cope with the workload. I have a problem working long hours with concentration. I’m good at problem solving but lack that “sheer fight” which is sometimes necessary to push things through.

And now, looking back, I think it has to do with my primary education. As Malcolm Gladwell says in his “10000 hours” essay in The Outliers, working hard is also a talent. And my comfort levels in school meant that I never had to develop on that front. It was all too easy, and I never had to work hard then. And then when I actually had to, I have been inadequate.

It makes me wonder if it might have made some sense for me to have been shifted to some sort of “high performance” school when I was found to be much ahead of class in primary school. Again, there would have been a problem in identification since being ahead of class is not necessarily correlated with performance in exams, but assuming I had been thus “identified”, what if I had been sent to say a special school where I had been challenged even as a kid? Where I never felt “oh this teacher doesn’t know anything, so no use listening to her” or “I know this is the wrong answer but I know this is what the examiner demands so I’ll write this”? Where I had been pushed to work hard in a meaningful fashion? I don’t know if I would’ve still been good at entrance exams and gone to the colleges I went to, but I have a sneaking feeling I would have been able to cope with life much better in that case. What do you think?

5 thoughts on “High Performance Schooling”

  1. This is really the curse of the “school year”, an arbitrarily defined period of time after which bunches of differently-abled students move on to the next stage of study.

    This is one reason why I think online models of education hold such promise, particularly at primary and middle school levels. They allow kids to go at their own pace – the slow ones take their time, and the smart ones move on to tougher areas without being slowed down themselves. So, at all points in time, each student is at a point in his learning where he is being “challenged”, in all his subjects. Whether this inculcates “grit” is debatable, but it certainly prevents disinterest from setting in. (of course, the content also needs to be designed in an engaging manner, like the work of the Khan Academy)

    Also, the comparison pool for each student would then not merely be his physical classmates (an arbitrary collection of students who happen to be growing up in the same area), but really the entire “universe” of students.

  2. This is such an insightful post! I feel exactly the same after reading this. Although I hadn’t realized this before, now that you’ve said it, it makes complete sense! I studied for 10 years in an “average school” and then went to PSBB in chennai which you can call a ‘high performance school’. The only difference between you and I is perhaps that I didn’t even cope up enough to make it to IIT – which I think was not because I lacked the brain power, but because I also needed some fight which I was too lazy to put. (I wasn’t up to the genius mark that you seem to be to get in without needing to work hard.)

    And yes, this inability to work hard continues to plague my corporate career as well despite getting an international MBA etc.

  3. Well, even at the school level, there are “national” competitions meant to sufficiently challenge the brightest kids (the science and math Olympiads and what not) so that they get to pit themselves against the “world” at an early age. Maybe your teachers should have motivated you more for these competitions?

    Also, I disagree with putting slower kids in a different class. For example, I would love to have you in my class – how else would I find inspiration 😉 ??

  4. You went on to study CS at IITM after XIIth. Very few students manage to achieve that, no matter how good the school they went to. So I believe you were gifted, and it doesn’t matter which school you went to: even in the so called high performance schools you may have faced initial hiccups, but afterwards you would have settled down and followed the same routine.
    And yes, being gifted might be a curse, as Malcom Gaadwell mentions in Outliers. It’s not the guys with highest IQ that succeed the most, but the most persistent ones.

  5. This is a nice discussion. I had been wondering about my lethargic ways off-late.

    I too hail from Sri Aurobindo Memorial School, which is one of the reasons other than the well written topics why I have been following your blog.

    While I agree that there were times when I found that some teachers not competitive enough in knowledge ( I too apologise for sounding arrogant there ), I don’t think that just changing the school would be a solution for better performance for all.

    Looking at your case I am inclined to believe that it may have helped you to change schools so that you too could start grinding yourself like the others who do, but from what I see from your blog, you are a smart, creative and ’round the obstacle worker rather than follow brute force attack. I think it is the teacer’s job to channel each student’s path onwards from where he/she stands. So, if a student does appear know more in some subjects than the teacher, the teacher may check whether the student is right and find ways to challenge him/her further. On the other side of the spectrum if someone is lagging behind they mostly do try to get them upto the mark, either by coaching or by intimidating them :).

    Another point that was not discussed here much was our parents role in our education.

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