Shrinking Syllabus Rising Stress

Directorate of Education, Delhi, has recommended for culling from the syllabus to scale back it by 25%. Read “DoE makes syllabus topics recommended for culling public for comments”.
The following article “Shrinking Syllabus, Rising Stress” by Mr. Nitin Khanna (Founder and CEO, Bharat Learn) , gives insights and lets you delve into the pros and cons of this initiative.

The main argument in favor of culling is to ‘make it easy for the learner’, never mind what happens to the learning itself. Now that is an interesting argument. And it comes from the same place from where many other similar arguments come. Like – giving high marks as freebies, no detention up to class 8th, etc.

Now, if this stuff reduces the student stress and improves learning, then I am all for it. However, what is actually happening is exactly the reverse – the learning levels are going down and student stress is rising!

How is that?

The general smartness and awareness of today’s kids amazes me sometime. I have no doubt whatsoever that these guys are much smarter and better aware than we were at their age.

Nevertheless, at the same time, I am still thankful that my student days are long past, mundane and banal as they might have been by comparison. I do feel that the work load on kids today has increased. There is simply too much stuff packed in the day and each task needs to be accomplished with utmost care and finesse. The list is endless and nothing can be left behind– be it academics, extra curriculars, sports or hobbies.

Somewhere, as India took (and continues to take) those rapid strides in economic growth and asserted itself as a major force in global geo-political arena, riding as it were, on our ‘knowledge capital’, students were reduced to become a mere fodder to quench the never ending appetite of country’s growth engine. I muse that Indian education system is perhaps a bigger fodder scam than the one in Bihar, which made the headlines a few years back!

Gone are the days of ‘mohalla’ cricket on school evenings, cycle safaris with a group of friends on a lazy Sunday morning or carrom afternoons and comics exchange during vacations. Sports need to be ‘pursued’ at expensive academies and vacations are even more unforgiving in their schedules with God only knows what courses and camps to be attended.

Add to it the internet, mobile, gaming and 24X7 TV. And then there are some of the paradoxes that I just can’t begin to comprehend – total connectivity and unabated communications in shorter and shorter relationships, never ending entertainment and increasing boredom and isolation, and of course, too many marks and increasing student stress.

It seems to me that someone has taken all the fun out of growing up!

And that makes me wonder… About growing-up, education and stress.

Oxford Dictionary defines stress as-

noun : a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or demanding circumstances

Webster defines it as-

noun : a constraining force or influence

When I look at student stress, I look at it in two ways-

  1. Source of stress – academic stress and social stress

2. Its manifestation – physical stress and emotional stress

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Let me take the above two and do a simple cross-matrix,


Academic and Social Stress

Academic stress, as the name suggests, is the stress caused due to academic process itself. The school rigor, tests, exams, the general workload of a student’s daily life is a part of academic stress.

Social Stress, on the other hand is the stress caused by the social milieu that includes family, friends and the larger socio-cultural scripting within which the child lives. Pressures to conform, over ambition, parental expectations and peer pressures are all a part of social stress.

Education is fundamentally, the development of body and mind so that one can create and contribute in the future.


Now, to develop body or mind, it needs to be engaged and challenged. It has to be made to grapple with problems and obstacles and guided to push its own boundaries to overcome them. To that extent, academic education is like a structured obstacle course.

Even if we argue that much of physical development in the early years happens involuntarily, the same is not true for the mind to that extent.

The nature of the mind is such that it does not like to be challenged or pushed into unknown areas. Hence, it is always happy in its own comfort zones and resists any obstacle which might push it out into new, unknown, uncharted areas.

But it must be pushed for the sake of its own development. And here the mind comes with its second defense – the fight or flight response. The moment the mind is subjected to an unknown, it perceives it as a pain or a threat and tries to either avoid (flight) the situation / stimulus or take the challenge head on (fight).

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Academic education with all its structured obstacles brings out our fears and thus triggers our natural fight-flight response. The well designed academic program has enough boundaries and in-built discipline that we can’t flee (now you know why bunking is not allowedJ). It pushes us, it stretches us and it puts obstacles in our path, by design. And therefore, like all obstacles do, academics cause stress. Period.

But this stress is the prime driver and is at the core of mental development and its purpose is to build resources within us so that we are better equipped to grab the growth opportunities in future.

I don’t know if it is even desirable to reduce this stress (by cutting syllabus or otherwise) as in doing so, we will be compromising on the core objective of education.

Now let us explore stress in a social context . This is the kind of stress which originates out of the interactions of the individual with the prevalent social structures and paradigms pharmacie prix viagra. These structures, given their own larger purpose, then incentivize certain actions and behaviors of individuals which are aligned to that purpose and punish others which are not.

The game actually gets played in three simple steps-Firstly, the society sets standards for success which fail to consider individual capacities and interests of students in any way and is based largely on material wealth and social status. Secondly, this narrow definition perpetuates the belief that opportunities are limited and only few can succeed (which might even have been true 25 years back but not anymore). Finally, the message is loud and clear. If you want to succeed you got to comply with the societal norms.

Social stress induces fear and self-doubts putting us into grim ‘what if’ scenarios which ultimately leads us to paint false self image that it is more likely that we may not ‘make it’.


Physical and Emotional Stress

Physically, all stress is in resisting. Resisting any force which threatens to disturb the status quo (equilibrium) causes stress.

However, a student is still a growing child. The body is in the natural process of physical growth where body resources and capacities are building every day. The body seeks new challenges everyday and each bigger challenge pushes the body to a higher level on its own growth curve.

Thus, we see that while the equilibrium in case of adults is more static, the equilibrium in a student’s case is far more dynamic and can perhaps retain its poise even with a high workload.

Emotionally, stress happens when we regret / ruminate over the past or when we are anxious / excited about the future.

In case of students, emotional stress is almost entirely on account of anxiety about the future.

As suggested by one Dr John G Kappas, one interesting point to interpret here is that emotional stress is first caused in the mind and eventually affects the body whereas physical stress is first caused in the body and eventually affects the mind.  Either ways, if stress accumulates over a period of time, its effects manifest both physically – like lethargy, obesity, more or less sleep, etc. – and emotionally – like loneliness, sulking, aggression, tantrums, etc.

It is easy to see that children naturally are better equipped to handle physical stress than emotional stress, which is an ability, which develops over a relatively long period of time.

The way I look at it, referring to the diagram in the beginning, if we really care about stress among our children, we should try and reduce the social stress, especially the social emotional stress. That should be one of the primary roles of parents, teachers, academicians and society.

In actuality, we are the ones causing and increasing social emotional stress in most cases. What’s more, in the guise of reducing overall stress among children, we are reducing academic stress (read rigor) thereby devaluing the very effectiveness of education.

The result is that we have made a mockery of education where learning and growth gets compromised and the overall stress and student suicides keep increasing!

We have seriously got it all mixed-up…

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