Olympiads: Are We Becoming Over-Ambitious Parents and Making Them a Prestige Issue?

Parents Are Becoming Over-Ambitious About Kids' Olympiads

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Now a day, children come home from school, gobble-up their lunches, and promptly swap their school bags for tuition bags, leaving the house for another couple hours of studying. Are we becoming over-ambitious and ruining our children’s childhood and future by burdening them with Olympiads?

Gone are the days when the typical post-school schedule of a primary school student involved gulping down lunch so he could quickly change out of his uniform and join his playmates for a fun-filled evening of playing ball till his legs ached and the mother’s throat went dry from trying to call him indoors. Now a day, children come home from school, gobble-up their lunches, and promptly swap their school bags for tuition bags, leaving the house for another couple hours of studying and burying their heads in books.

Numbers are large, competition is fierce, and we parents are coping with this by making it worse for our children. What else can we do? If our children have to survive this race, they have to have an edge, an upper hand compared to their peers. One of the ways many parents are trying to ensure this is by enrolling their children into competitive exams, the latest growing craze being that of Olympiads.

What Are Olympiads?

Olympiads are a kind of competitive exam, held across schools, to tap exceptional students with the best of potential, talent, aptitude, and IQ. These exams are conducted for three main reasons:

  • to challenge and motivate the brightest students from around the world
  • to urge more and more children to take up a career in pure science (with the view of improving the quality of research being carried out at national and international levels)
  • to assess the different methods of schooling around the world

The Original ‘International Science Olympiad’

The earliest of Olympiads we know about are a group of competitions collectively known as the International Science Olympiads. To be selected to compete in the International Science Olympiad, a student must first qualify in the National Science Olympiad, which is held across all schools in a country.

Typically each participating school first holds a screening round to select its best students, who are then sent to participate in the National Science Olympiad, following which they may stand a chance to compete internationally.

The International Science Olympiad consists of the following different individual Olympiads:

The 12 Different International Science Olympiads

The International Mathematics Olympiad The International Geography Olympiad
The International Physics Olympiad The International Linguistics Olympiad
The International Chemistry Olympiad The International Junior Science Olympiad
The International Biology Olympiad The International Earth Science Olympiad
The International Philosophy Olympiad The International Olympiad in Informatics
The International Astronomy Olympiad The International Olympiad on Astronomy & Astrophysics

Why Are Olympiads So Popular Among Parents?

Participating in and winning any kind of competition – be it a simple gully cricket match, or the World Cup – is one of the best feelings in the world. Competitions award merit, performance, excellence – quite literally, the best in a human being.

However, it takes a lot to be chosen as the best of the best. And so the chances of a student decrease as the number of participants increase. Think about it: what is the chance that a random student will turn out to be not only the brightest student of his school, but also his city, state, country, and probably one of the brightest students in the world?

It might hence be understandable that: a lot of pride is associated with a child qualifying at any of the Olympiad levels. Hence most parents now-a-days want their children to participate in Olympiads.

Olympiads are associated with a lot of pride for parents.
Source: https://www.indiablooms.com/life-details/E/206/kolkata-students-shine-in-science-olympiad-awards.html

Mother of 2 songs aged 6 and 8, Gunjan Chaudhari believes, “It’s good for them to know what competition is like at a young age.” Shail Kapur, who conducts private tuitions for English Olympiads, says, “It helps with comprehension skills, grammar and vocabulary.”

Along with that, other reasons why parents urge their children to participate in Olympiads are:

  • Parents view Olympiads as a ‘training ground’ for future competitive exams.
  • Qualifying in an Olympiad gives children extra benefit while applying for further studies. Many instituitions view qualifying Olympiads as a ‘good to have’ achievement of their prospective students; it is also believed that some preferentially extend admissions to such students.
  • Parents also think Olympiads promote such skills and abilities as critical thinking, analysing ability, etc.
  • Our current schooling pattern does not conduct any kind of exams until the last couple of years of schooling (since we are currently following the ‘continuous assessment’ pattern). This leaves parents clueless about their child’s true potential and aptitude for a very long time, and they view Olympiads as a chance to do just that.

Finally, it has been claimed that Olympiads can act as a great morale booster. According to Bangalore-based programmer Vikash Anil of Olympiad Helper, “Even when students don’t win, their confidence grows.”

Why Are SO Many Olympiads Coming Up?

While the intention of Olympiads may be quite honourable and noble, a lot of private sector companies are now exploiting parents’ sentiments in order to reap huge profits, and make money off young children giving up their play-time for practice time in order to ace these exams.

For the above discussed reasons, more and more parents are urging their children to appear in Olympiad exams each year. As a result, many private sector companies are starting their own ‘Olympiads’ and luring students and parents alike with such rewards as watches, tablets, prize money, and educational trips abroad.

So why do parents still want their children to appear for these private Olympiads? Because more number of Olympiads means more number of chances for their child to prove himself, and make his parents proud. And who doesn’t want to be the proud parent of a smart, intelligent young child?

The Vicious Circle

In order to further commercialise this opportunity and exploit this sentiment, most private Olympiads have their own unique syllabus for the exam. They then offer custom made practice books. As a result the training material for one such private Olympiad may not be good enough for another. So if you want your child to participate in 3 different private Olympiads, it means you might find yourself buying 3 different sets of training materials – which may include text books, workbooks, practice books, multimedia material, and lots of other things.

Finally, when these training materials alone don’t help, private tuitions come to the rescue, adding to the expense in terms of both money and time.

Olympiads Training Material Collage
Source: https://in.pinterest.com/

In spite of this, the number of students participating in these private Olympiads keeps on increasing each year. In fact, Kamal Kishore, CEO, The Silver Zone Foundation, has estimated that almost one million students participate in the Silver Zone Foundation’s Olympiad each year. He also added, “We even have students from abroad.”

In fact, so huge is the participation that Silver Zone Foundations makes 50% of its profits from book sales alone, and a huge chunk of the rest from exam registration fees.

Are So Many Olympiads Really a Good Idea?

There is no one straight answer to this question. Olympiads, in theory, sound like a brilliant idea. However, as parents, more and more of us are losing sight of why Olympiads are conducted in the first place. There are a number of serious considerations we are missing out on, and this is impacting our children.

Parents are making Olympiads a prestige issue

We have become so obsessed with ensuring that our kids excel in academics and ‘do us proud’ that we overlook how their childhood is becoming more stressful and high-pressure by the day. When we become overambitious as parents and turn Olympiads into a prestige issue, we basically rob our children of their best years and force them to shoulder larger than life dreams.

For example, the International Science Olympiad is held with the view of discovering the brightest students from across the globe – the ‘diamonds’. However, mining for diamonds is very different from artificially compressing carbon in a lab to convert it into a diamond, and that is pretty much what private Olympiads are forcing parents to do to their children. Olympiads are forcing us to pressurise our children, for the reward/pride of ‘owning a diamond’.

The Ill-Effects of Olympiads

  • Children are spending unreasonable number of hours studying.
  • They are being burdened with the pressure of performing well in these exams – a pressure that is often too high and unhealthy for their young minds and bodies.
  • They are also being introduced to peer pressure and ‘competition’ in a very negative and ugly light.
  • Olympiads in turn are completely negating the Education Board’s move of ‘continuous assessment’, which was made with the view of eliminating stress from the lives of young minds.

Whats worse is, the age at which children are being compelled to take these exams keep dropping with each passing year. Children as young as 5 or 6 years old are being sent away to tuitions right after school gets over. Many educationists are condemning this.

Kids as young as 5 and 6 are taking Olympiads
Source: https://jynewswire.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/tutoring-parents-in-tuition-needs-the-middleground-sg/

Mr. T. R. Subramanian, Director, TRS IIT Classes, thinks, “Class VIII upwards should be ideal. Many a time it is due to parental pressure that children in the primary classes take these exams. (…) A child should enjoy studying.” This goes hand-in-hand with the age set by the International Science Olympiads, which are conducted for high school students only.

Are we considering how children react to failure at Olympiads?

The claim that Olympiads actually make children ‘more confident’ cannot be readily accepted. While a lot of good outcomes are possible from Olympiads, it is also true that all students will not react positively, or rather constructively, to ‘failing’ at Olympiads.

Some students take criticism on the face of it: they will realise that the critique has been made on their work and not on them, and will be able to internalise it and respond in a positive way. They will show an improvement in their performance; they may even show elevated levels of focus and determination.

However, this kind of behaviour reflects an innate maturity that not all children are born with. Most children react negatively to criticism. For most people, it takes experience and age to develop the maturity required to understand that a critique is not to be taken personally.

WATCH: Exam & Performance Pressure: An Open Letter To Parents

While the former category of students can be motivated by criticism, the later will only sink further into self-doubt, self-loathing, and deep feelings of inadequacy. Same is the case with disappointment, disillusionment, and all other negative feelings and emotions attached to ‘failure’. Not every child is going to come out feeling confident for having attempted the exam; more number of students are going to come out feeling miserable for having failed the exam.

Are we looking at the bigger picture of how Olympiads impact students from different backgrounds?

Not only that, these private Olympiads are also taking a toll on the different education boards, compelling them to raise their standards of education. As most Olympiad-participating students hail from urban areas, changes are being made to elevate the standards of schooling in government and rural schools, in order to create equal opportunity. In turn, more and more students are being urged to give up their ‘childhood’ and appear for the exams each year, which is as depressing as it is cruel.

However, the biggest hurdle in this approach is the fact that due to their limited financial resources, government school can rarely afford good teachers and teaching aids/materials that are required to teach a higher quality of syllabus. In turn, instead of bridging the gap, this approach is only making the gap wider – without proper teachers and/or teaching aids, students in government schools cannot learn and perform to the best of their abilities, and as a result perform more poorly in exams than before, because the syllabus is tougher still.

Are we choosing the right Olympiads for our children?

And finally, let’s not forget that these private Olympiads are not even close to the original Olympiads! In the words of Anwesh Mazumdar, national coordinator, Science Olympiads, “(Olympiads should) pursue nobler goals of intellectual inquiry.” In fact, Mazumdar is of the opinion that these private exams should not be called ‘Olympiads’ at all. “The International Mathematical Olympiad is the real deal, but Science Olympiad Foundation, a private organisation, has an exam called the International Mathematics Olympiad. Parents are misled and even the international organisers are concerned.”

What You Can Do As a Parent

Being a parent in today’s dynamic, commercial and material world is not easy. If nothing else can count as ‘proof’ that Kaliyuga has arrived, the commercialisation of education and knowledge sure can and should. It is indeed a pity that we are chasing ‘recognition’, rather than ‘excellence’ and ‘merit’ for our children.

However, you still can save your child from the rat race by choosing whether or not you allow him to be a part of it in the first place. Here are some essential pointers to keep in mind when considering Olympiads for your children and/or preparing them for the same:

  • Encourage your child on his pursuit of knowledge, but do not attach sentiments of ‘pride’ to this pursuit. Knowledge should be pursued for its sake, and not for any other ulterior motive.
  • Ask your child if he would want to participate in such an exam. If he shows willingness to do so, make sure you don’t turn it into an ego-battle for him.
  • How your child reacts to ‘failing’ at these exams will depend largely on how you react to it in the first place. Be more accepting, understanding, and forgiving of your child’s failures, in exams, sports, or life.
  • Focus more on the learnings of an experience, rather than its outcome.
  • Taking the above diamond-carbon analogy forward, try and realise: your child is gifted, has potential, and will be successful in life, irrespective of whether he is a diamond or carbon. Diamonds may be precious, but carbon is priceless too: carbon gives us food, fuel, and so many more things. There is no such thing as a ‘good’, or a ‘poor’ child. Realise this, embrace this, and empower yourself and your child with this knowledge.

As a parting thought we would like to leave you with this Einstein quote:

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein



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