Vega Schools are pleased to welcome Padma Shri Awardee Gowri Ishwaran as our Leadership Board member. Mrs Ishwaran is one of the most influential educators in India. She has been the Founder Principal of Sanskriti School, New Delhi and is currently the Vice Chairman of The Global Education and Leadership Foundation. She is also on the Advisory Board of the Shiv Nadar Foundation ,a real mentor,and someone that educators, principals and teachers alike, like to follow and learn from.Her mission is to mentor and nurture young people to evolve into ethical leaders of tomorrow, and be the change makers that the world so desperately needs.

Here in this conversation with Sandy Hooda, Co-Founder, Vega Schools, Gowri decodes the all important question:  ‘WHAT IS THE CORRELATION BETWEEN EXAMS AND SUCCESS IN LIFE?’

Sandy Hooda (S): A warm welcome to Mrs. Gowri Ishwaran, wish you a very warm welcome to the Vega Schools’ Leadership Board. We are delighted to have you. You are probably one of the most influential educators in India. You are a Padma Shri Awardee. You were the Founder Principal of the Sanskriti School which has such a wonderful reputation, across the country really. You are also an Advisor to the Shiv Nadar Foundation and I think above everything else, you are a real mentor, and someone that educators, principals and teachers alike like to follow and learn from. So we are really delighted to have you.

Gowri Ishwaran (GI): You are too kind, really. 

S: And today, we are going to be talking about a really important subject that most parents think about and wonder where the real truth lies? And the subject is, “What is the correlation between exams and success in life?” 

Question and Answers with Gowri Ishwaran

Q.1) You have taught a large number of learners and have been responsible as a principal for scores more. As you observed your students go from education to careers, what are the things you felt led to their success in life? 

It would be great if you could help us decode some of these things.

GI: The first thing I would like to say is that I have never correlated success with grades and marks. After all, what do grades imply? They just imply what the content is, that you have learnt. But it is a question of how you learn that content. In India, by and large, it has been rote learning. So, the kind of content you develop through rote learning, it doesn’t really give you any indication of the level of understanding. So therefore I have never looked at grades as an indicator of success. And secondly to succeed in life you don’t always have to be an ‘A-lister’ where marks are concerned, you have to be an ‘A-lister’ in other fields as well. And to succeed, just the content knowledge is not enough. It is how you communicate, how you deliver, what your thoughts are and most important of all, “Are you happy doing what you are doing?” It’s not easy to find success if you are not happy with what you are doing, if you don’t have a passion for what you are doing. So success has many factors attached and it is a false impression we have in our country that it is when it is 100% or 99%, it is only then that you will succeed. 

S: Yes that is very insightful. This is something that really does confuse and flummox a lot of parents – should I focus on all-round development for my child, should i introduce my child to a variety of things or should I let my child focus on one thing, that is, studies or a particular vocation? Many years ago there was this concept of ‘tiger moms’…

GI: Let me tell you, ‘tiger moms’ have not disappeared, not in our country! Not just ‘tiger moms’, I think I find a lot of ‘tiger dads’ I tell you.

S: Or ‘helicopter parents’ and other such terms. I remember when this famous  book on ‘tiger moms’ came out and people actually talked about them in a very positive way and it’s only since the past few years that there has been a push back. People are saying no there has got to be more to a child’s life than just mercilessly expecting them to perform in a very narrow scope. 

So, nothing speaks better than real-life examples. There is theory and then there is practice.

Q.2) Could you share some examples of your students you consider successful and the things that led to success? What is the correlation between exams and success in life? 

How their career and growth tracts evolved. 

GI: When it comes to high achievers, where marks and grades are concerned, I would not say in a blanket manner that none of them do well. There are some of them that do well, but then they have other qualities and talents as well. What I was trying to emphasise was that success is not achieved only through marks. There are children who are academically inclined and will get good marks and there are other children who are not academically inclined but have other talents. So you have to actually  judge a child by the kind of ability or talent that he or she has. Students who have done very well for themselves, who have been academically bright and risen to the top of their career have always been very innovative and creative, even in school. 

I will share one example with you. In CBSE, once upon a time, they would make you write a paragraph of 50 words, things like ‘How to make tea’. Quite ridiculous actually. So in class I had given a topic ‘A Circus Show’ and there was this one kid who came up with this story about how he took his brother out one day, to the parliament and the brother was very puzzled as to why he was brought there as he had thought they were going to a circus and he replied, “Well, look down there, that’s the circus and we are still surviving. That’s magic. What could be better?” Now that boy, look at the creativity in him.And I am not surprised that he has risen to the top of his profession today. 

There are other students who have struggled and worked and mugged, who have done okay in life. But they haven’t lived up to the ‘promise of 99 percenters’ so to say. They’ve just plodded along. Children who gave me nightmares, by getting 8/100 etc. But I always had a policy of not holding back children from the Board exam. I knew that the CBSE didn’t really like to fail children, so I was fairly confident that they would get through. Once they cross the barrier of the class 12 exam, I am sure they will find something to do. 

An amazing example is of two sisters who were constantly in my room because the teachers could never understand why they never got double digit marks. So I had a pact with them, I said to them, “Look I don’t expect you to get 80-90 percent marks. Forget it, not so important. Just get through the exam”, which they did. Today the two sisters are amongst the most successful wedding planners in the city and they are earning ten times the amount that any ‘A lister’ is earning. So that was creativity and innovation. And they were great communicators and they were great salespersons. So that was their talent.

Another incident I remember is when we were admitting children to our first grade 11, and so many people told me, “Be careful, take the best. If you don’t get good results in the 12th the school will sink.” etc. So there was this lady who came in and I had the marks of her son, dismal marks to put in lightly. So I thought, I just will have to say no to her. But before I could open my mouth, the mother told me “Well if you say no, I don’t mind because I know my son is useless.” And  that hurt me so much that I decided that I am going to admit that kid. How can a mother say that her child is useless? So we took him on and we learnt that he had a learning disability and we helped him get through the 12th. But again, an extremely creative child. And the mother did take my advice and sent him to university and put him into graphics and this boy is a millionaire today. 

Success therefore cannot be equated only with marks. The important thing, from the marks context is, are you hard-working? Are you persevering? Do you have the stomach for taking risks? Are you willing to stick your neck out? You know these are the qualities that eventually determine whether you are a success or not. And to have confidence in what you are doing is important. You always have confidence, if you are passionate about something. We have to teach our children that failure is a part of life. I used to tell my kids that if anyone comes and tells you, “I’ve never failed in my life”, he/she would be the biggest liar on the planet, because none of us go through life without failing somewhere or the other. But that’s how we learn and that’s why they say ‘failures are stepping stones to success’. So along with their academic progress in school, children need to be nurtured in these fields as well. It depends on the talent they have. There may be somebody who is going to be a great painter who may get only 25% in his maths, but he is a great artist. Or they are good in dance or writing. So every child is born with a talent. Unfortunately we stamped that out and we only look at what marks he/she has got. And the worst thing with parents is that they say “Oh our neighbour’s child got 25 ½ , how come you only got 24?” These kinds of pressures, we need to move away from and realise that each child is unique. I learnt it from experience by making mistakes as a mom. I started off like a ‘tiger mom’ and there was my poor son, who was like the goat that was sacrificed on that altar with me, well and truly! Until it dawned on me one day how wrong I was. He was in university and one day I came home and switched the TV on and I saw him on the screen. So, obviously, I was interested in listening, and someone was asking him “You are so involved and interested in the environment etc, why aren’t you looking at it as a career?” and his answer blew me away. He said, “Oh god!, my mother will have a blue fit!”. And that’s when I realised how terrible we are as parents, trying to foist on children, our desires. And from that instance I changed. And I think that the students I taught benefited from what my son suffered from.

S: Thanks so much for sharing all those stories. And thank you for sharing a personal story as well. Nothing is as powerful as stories and nothing is as powerful as personal stories. 

GI: I have a daughter as well, and I made a mistake with her, in the reverse direction. She was in a class, in a big class, in a leading school in Delhi and in those days they would rank students and she would be ranked 30 or 35 out of 50 kids and having learnt a lesson from my son, I decided I wouldn’t push her, doesn’t matter whatever she is, oh she is just average, so what? And I went along with that. Every year, I would go for all the PTAs, without missing one and I would be told, “Your daughter is a dreamer, she looks out of the window etc”, so I just accepted that. When she was in grade 9, we got an invitation for a PTA, I didn’t even ask her what it was for, I just presumed that’s what I was going to hear. But when I went to the school I found that it was an auditorium, and we were all seated like an audience and I was wondering what was happening. Then, I found my daughter going up on stage, she had come second in her class. And my reaction was shock and when we got home, instead of hugging and congratulating her, I said, “What happened?” My husband was so angry at my reaction and she just cooly said, “Well, I decided all my friends go and get prizes, so I also wanted to go and get one.” So see how I underestimated her. So therefore these are the lessons that my own experience has taught me. That is how judgemental we parents turn out to be and how we have to guard ourselves against it. 

S: Wow, that’s a very powerful point that you made here, again through personal life and experience. That is that, we should not put children in boxes and we should not peg them. 

GI: And more importantly Sandy, we should not try to fulfill our aspirations through our children. They may have different aspirations. 

S: That’s a very important point, that we must encourage our children to identify their talents, hone their talents. And as they discover their star within, or as we help them to discover their star within, we should let them make mistakes, and even fail, because that’s how they will become resilient and mentally tougher and more confident perhaps. Things like confidence, the ability to communicate effectively will come when one is able to find one’s talent, hone one’s talent. These are things that probably have more relevance than just their scores. So test scores or not, these qualities are perhaps even more important towards success in life.  Thank you for helping us decode that. 

Q.3) Do you think success is defined in fairly narrow terms in today’s world? How would you define success and what would be your advice to parents as they bring up their children?

How can we widen the definition of success?

GI: To me, the definition of success would always be that success is equivalent to happiness. You may become a millionaire, billionaire etc but  how can you be categorised as a successful person unless you are happy and content, within yourself? To me, that is actually the best hallmark of success. However, in the Indian tradition, we have the ‘inner world’ and the ‘outer world’. So if you are looking at the outer world, then your judgement would be, do they live in a big house, a small house, how much money they have, how many holidays they go on, or if they are rich, so that’s an indication of success. We don’t look beyond that, at happiness. If you are a rich man, or a millionaire, and you are very happy with yourself, you have empathy, you have compassion, you are helping others, yes then you are successful.  But you can be equally successful, without being in a millionaire club. If you are content with your life, if you are content and at peace with yourself, then it doesn’t matter whether you are a millionaire or not, as long as you are earning enough to have a comfortable life, to put food on the table, you have children that you are happy with and you are happy with your job, I think that person is also successful. So success is a term that can’t be defined so easily. Thats why they say ‘Money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness. Here too, I have a personal experience that I can share. My father was a very successful person in life and as far back as I can remember, we lived in palatial bungalows and houses, but when he retired he moved to a tiny flat, really tiny. And when I went there the first time I thought “Gosh, how is everyone going to adjust here?” But do you know my parents were so happy? We all adjusted. I would go with my kids, my sisters would come and we would all pile into that tiny flat. There was so much happiness around. It never bothered my father that from a palatial bungalow, now he is living in a tiny flat, because they were content and happy in themselves, they were at peace. They had a roof over their head, they had food and we went around and we travelled. So I don’t think we should measure it by money. But unfortunately, in today’s world, we do measure it by money. It’s good to have money, but provided you are also at peace with yourself. The thing that makes people successful, I think, is if they have compassion and empathy. You take the example of Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, they may be billionaires, but you know, there is empathy in them. Therefore, I believe that they are successful, because they have that empathy in them and they are obviously people who are confident in themselves, who are happy with themselves, otherwise they wouldn’t reach out to others. Yesterday, I came across this saying “It’s not important whether you are beautiful or rich or perfect, what is important is, do you care for others?”. To me, success cannot be separated from that actually. And I go back to our own Indian philosophy of being at peace with yourself. A truly successful person, has to be at peace with himself or herself. 

S: Essentially what you have said is that it is okay to have a lot of money or maybe a little, or to have a lot of power or a little less power, but what’s more important is how at ease or at peace we are or our children are. And the whole idea is that one can be more peaceful, if one is a little more content which means more intrinsically motivated and driven, rather than extrinsically motivated and driven, which ties into what you said earlier. Again, the parents have a big role to play as they bring up their children. They are the ones who will wire their children’s brains on whether they should be intrinsically or extrinsically motivated. And then of course, empathy and compassion play such a huge role because it is the ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, bring up our children so they can do the same. To ideally have unconditional love for everything around us, for people around us, animals around us, for the environment. So these are big pieces here. No, I don’t think it’s confusing at all. When we live a life that is a little less self-centered, then chances are we will have less agitation. We will be less frustrated…

GI: You will be less stressed too.

S: …Yes less stressed too. Empathy and compassion trigger an something that makes us go beyond our self centered needs and focus on others too, and help us live successful lives, could be with a lot of money and a lot of power…that’s okay, but lives where we are happy, we are helping others and we are generally at peace with ourselves. That’s the broader definition of success. And parents have a huge role to play here, because ultimately, how we are as parents, what we project on our children, are largely how they might be. And I guess teachers also have a role to play here, don’t they?  

GI: Yes. Teachers are the support for the parents. But parents have to realise that a school cannot be a substitute for parenting. They have their role to play and the teachers can have  the supportive role. What is important is the values the parents impart to their kids. For instance, some parents used to come to me, saying “My son, he is saying so many lies.” Then I would tell them, “See at home when there is a phone call and the child says, ‘Papa there is a call for you’, and you tell the child, ‘Tell them I am not at home’ and you think that it is a white lie so it’s okay, but the child does not know the difference between a white lie, a grey lie and a black lie. A lie is a lie. So if your son  sees you doing it, tomorrow he will imitate your actions.” So it is important for parents to realise that they are actually role models. And if all of us, as adults, look back and reflect on our own lives we will be able to trace a lot of what we do, to what we picked up from our parents and grandparents. Schools need to play a supportive role in not focusing only on marks, but also looking at the child as a human being and nurturing the child. Nurturing does not mean just rote learning, nurturing means teaching them how to react, how to deal with other people, teaching them about the value systems they need to have. If there is a child with a lack of self-confidence, then helping the child to overcome that. So today’s teacher is actually more like a facilitator. Because every child has more information than any teacher in the class, because they are so savvy with the internet and virtual world. They actually know much more. But the problem is how do they sift between the good and the bad? And that is where teachers today will play a very important role in guiding children and that’s how values will also play a part. 

S: I completely agree with you. This is very relevant for today’s times and coming from someone like you, who is hugely admired and respected, I am sure that parents and educators alike will pay special attention to your ideas and thoughts. 

For me personally, this has been one of the most interesting dialogues that I have had with eminent people and I really do thank you for your time and your ideas and thoughts which are very powerful and relevant and we will be delighted to share them with the world.

GI: Thank you Sandy, but I would just like to correct you. I am not ‘eminent’, I am an ‘educationist’ and  I am lucky that I am respected somewhat, but I am not ‘eminent’!

S:  Well I guess the one word that we somehow missed in this conversation was humility and I think now that’s been underscored as well. So thank you.
GI: It’s been a pleasure talking to you and ‘In India, by and large, it has been rote learning. So, the kind of content you develop through rote learning, it doesn’t really give you any indication of the level of understanding. So therefore I have never looked at grades as an indicator of success. And secondly to succeed in life you don’t always have to be an ‘A-lister’ where marks are concerned, you have to be an ‘A-lister’ in other fields as well. And to succeed, just the content knowledge is not enough. It is how you communicate, how you deliver, what your thoughts are and most important of all.

I love the system that you have introduced at the Vega Schools.”