December 4, 2010
My first memory of an exam was one in geography, which I failed when I was in the fifth grade: I had to fill out the map of France with the names of cities, seas, rivers and mountains and glue it on the examination paper. I glued it upside down and was given a Zero for that reason. Ever since that exam, I have fetishized the map of France, which I tenderly called the Hexagone.
My eldest son, in anticipation of his own exams in six years, asked me about my French Baccalaureate experience. It has been 22 years since I passed one of the most challenging examinations I can remember. I know I wrote about the Perestroika for Economics, I chose the topic of work/slavery for the Philosophy exam, and was so exuberant in my Rimbaud poetry commentary at the French oral exam, that they failed me.
My memories of my Phd comprehensives are less clear. Perhaps the contents of the French Baccalaureat are also the ones I remember with more precision. All the essentials for life, plus a rich dash of culture, are included in the French state exams.
Some school systems have suppressed examinations. The supporters believe that exams only incur stress and cramming. I stand on the opposite end of the spectrum: I believe exams are hurdles that confirm the passage to the next level. I just recently took art history exams at the University of Geneva, in order to attain half a degree! My children, like I did myself, take violin, ballet and martial art exams. No matter how casually they study Farsi, they learn from official text books in order to know that they have reached a certain level. My son is still struggling with the second grade book after four years of study!
Yet,I have a different approach then most when preparing for examinations. I believe that the actual preparation and studying is much more important than passing them. My son knows that. We build up together for the exam, starting ahead, understanding and debating the contents, talking about analysis and methodology. While grades are important and excellent ways to evaluate yourself or your child I make sure NEVER to dwell on average grades, only to congratulate for good grades.
I often use the analogy of the painting class my four year old took in Geneva. My son attended a studio, with rainbow paints and many size brushes and the session was open to all ages, even to adults. I never saw a single painting because the instructor didn't want parents to pass judgment, which I believe would only be positive. She didn't believe that creativity required positive interference.
In this same vein, my yoga instructor has never passed judgment on his students. Every session gets its corrections but no accolades. Its the process that matters, the enjoyment, the art. Worse day, better day. Those are mere details.
Exams are milestones. Important ones. But it is the effort that you have put in them that you remember, not the actual exam.