opinion : Alwyn Lau

Why teachers should stop saying ‘must try harder’

Alwyn Lau

MARCH 13 ― I’ve stopped going to parent-teacher meetings. Key reasons: I’m tired as hell on weekends, there’s usually a long wait, the canteen coffee sucks, I’ve got other plans, etc. 

But the #1 reason I don’t go is because I’m psychic. I know, like night follows day, that the conversation is the same every time. Your kid is top in class? Good job and keep it up. Your kid is a total idiot? Must try harder. 

Given that, naturally, only 1 per cent of kids fall in the academic genius category, this means that 99 per cent of the time "must try harder" will be used so often you start to wonder if every teacher is really the same person. 

For once I want to hear a teacher say Mr Lau, your daughter’s got a way with deception and shortcuts and she’s bold as hell ― you should get her to join the CIA to put down insurgents in the Middle-East. 

Or, madam, I think your son is an absolute failure at Geography but he has the potential to be the youngest person to conquer Everest. 

Or, sir, your children are whizz kids who will make RM10 million over the next two years but they will never ever pass Bahasa. Deal with it.

Something like that. Anything but 'must try harder."

Don’t try harder just quit

A child who scores 51 in Maths can "try harder" for a million semesters and chances are – unless his teacher is smokin’ something even rock stars would find objectionable – he’ll make it to 60. At best. 

Due to "must try harder", our kids are made to slog and slog in order to attain what’s no more than marginal improvement. Whilst scoring a few points is not a bad thing in itself, the problem with the whole exercise is that nothing very much changes

The student is never going to excel in that subject if he doesn’t have a knack or passion for it or if his intelligence is wired for something else. 

His self-esteem isn’t going to soar over a few extra points (see Note 1) and given the way our education system rolls s/he will forget everything he studied the moment he steps out of the exam hall anyway. 

This is true for "top" students in a given subject, what more students who are told a billion times to "try harder and harder and harder" each time.

If I was the teacher I’d say, look bro, QUIT "trying harder." In fact, heck, stop giving two rabbits’ shit about Maths and simply ensure you score exactly 40 (and not a point more). 

Save those seven hours you’d normally (hate to) spend trying to up your marks to 61 and use them to watch Kong: Skull Island, or play DOTA or, better yet, focus on those subjects that’ll make you boss.

Okay, you suck at Maths – are you good in Science? Go rip the heart out of the Chemistry paper and feed it to the other students. Not good at Science? How about Languages? Go win the next Pulitzer. No skill with academic subjects? Are you good at Art or, heck, PE? Awesome. Go be the next Usain Bolt or Jackson Pollock. Don’t know who the second guy is? Won’t kill you to Google him.

Whatever it is, do NOT let your teacher or your parents or any authority figure tell you that you "must try harder" at something which will only leave you stressed or for goals which don’t make sense. 

Of course, getting through school makes sense (duh). Learning the basics (readin’, ‘rithmetic, ‘riting’) make sense (surely you don’t wish to go through life not knowing what 5 x 5 is), as does having an overall familiarity with the world (which is why, whatever I say here, you really should pay attention in class – there’s a difference between designing your own adventure in life and just being an irresponsible dumb-ass). 

A category mistake?

Still, the "must try harder" mentality – shoved down millions of kids each day – is downright counter-productive.

It’s like a bunch of people meeting for six hours, can’t achieve anything, so they decide to meet even longer. Oh, we can’t resolve our issues in half a day, so let’s "try harder" and meet over two days instead. Or like a parent who screams at her child, can’t make the kid change, so she "tries harder" and screams even more.

It’s almost a category mistake. Like asking if the colour purple has a car to fly Justin Bieber’s feelings to Jonker Street i.e. it’s involves an erroneous representation of reality.

There is simply no value in pushing a kid to strive to hit 60 marks in a subject that will require hours and hours to do only that. Should he hit that mark, the question is: So what? What has the student actually achieved other than waste precious hours on a subject he hates, which will likely have zero impact on his career and which does nothing to improve his academic records (if this is even a concern at all)?

Hitting a Pass is, of course, necessary. There’s a substantial diff between, say, getting the Bachelor's degree and not getting it. But who gives two shits about whether it’s 3rd Class or 2nd Lower, especially if bridging that gap is going to take the student one step closer to a mental breakdown? 

Look, if you’ve been getting 2nd Upper all this while and you’re pretty damn sure you can do a Lee Kuan Yew and hit that 1st Class then, for the love of Wolverine, GO AND KILL IT. 

But if you know you can’t play the academic game very well, but your folks already paid for your education, then don’t murder your mind: Do enough to get the basic degree, go educate yourself in something you love (and do so informally, which is the way to get educated anyway), quickly get a job and buy your parents a buffet dinner at the Sheraton as a big "Thank You."

Bottomline: We gotta tell our kids to stop running the academic rat race if it doesn’t work for them.

Is that too "rad" or outrageous? Is the status quo too tough to break?

Well. Just try harder.

Note 1: If a student "tries harder" and, as a result, jumps from 54 to 85 (in whatever subject) and continues to excel on a regular basis, that’s awesome. It’s also, alas, rarer than a green tiger. In such cases, I’m convinced that it’s because the student did not "try harder" at all but, instead, hacked his subject.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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