The achievement disease in education

September 01, 2017 - 10:05

The Ministry of Education and Training has finally decided to temporarily stop ViOlympic, an online math competition for primary and secondary school students.

The Ministry of Education and Training has finally decided to temporarily stop ViOlympic, an online math competition for primary and secondary school students. — Photo

Thu Vân

The Ministry of Education and Training has finally decided to temporarily stop ViOlympic, an online math competition for primary and secondary school students.

Let’s hope it’s not just a stop to the contest – let’s pray it’s a sign authorities have realised how serious the achievement disease in the education sector has become.

The controversial decision was made two years after the internet-based contest was launched in 2015. It was initially said to promote and encourage pupils nationwide to practice mathematics in English, and create a healthy online playground for students who have a passion for maths using modern technology.

However, taking place in a society well-known for its achievement disease, the contest’s humane purpose at the beginning eventually lost its way.

Instead of a being playground, the contest made schools and parents aggressive when trying to encourage their students and children to get higher and higher scores in the contest. Even worse, many schools started to make teams for ViOlympic, training their students for such contests, with some even using the results from the contest as bonus points for their students.

Instead of being a voluntary activity, many teachers were made to hold extra classes to train students, with time restraints. They would tell the students the answers without method to solve the problems, so that they would recite the answers by heart.

And convenience is a problem in the high-tech contest: one student can create many accounts, with which they can repeat a test many times. And again, learning the answers by heart.

A teacher from HCM City said he was also a victim of the game.

“The education ministry said it was a voluntary activity – but when the instruction came down to local education departments and lower levels, it becomes another thing. It becomes a requirement, a measure for each school if they want to be rewarded for their achievements,” he said.

“And that comes down all on the students – many would have to learn to do the test well even if they didn’t want to.”

Another teacher who wanted to remain anonymous said he thought the contest was a good idea that would require students to think and work out problems. But because of the pressure from school leaders, students were told to repeat tests again and again in an attempt to get the highest scores.

“I was amazed to see some results on the contest website – some finished a test that would take them 30 minutes in two. It could only be two things: either the system was wrong – or the student had learnt all the answer by heart and just click, click, click,” he said.

Is that what we want from our children and future generations?

Of course not – and maybe that’s one of the reasons why the education ministry stopped the contest.

In the past few years, the education ministry has done many things in an attempt to keep their promise on tackling the achievement disease – applying new marking systems, banning the organisation of extra classes, dropping the entrance exams for secondary schools. But it seems like the mindset hasn’t changed much.

And let’s be clear about this: would stopping one contest solve the problem? It’s a problem affecting the whole system – the thirst for achievement, the quest for recognition, the need to be better than others.

It’s endemic to not only the country’s education sector but also others – the word “achievement disease” – which generally means that schools only report their achievements while ignoring their problems.

The pressure to perform well is so deeply seductive – it has actually drove schools to cheat. The desire to achieve becomes all they see – and then they strive for it at all costs.

The ViOlympic case was clear: a contest that was supposed to inspire passion in students who might have had little interest for maths, was turned into a boxing ring! We can clearly see how many schools want the recognition, the fame, rather than students who actually want to think and work.

And for that – many young people in the country now are feeling the consequences – lacking soft skills, life skills, and a direction in life.

Professor Văn Như Cương, who has contributed to compiling textbooks and opened the country’s first private high school, once said cheating has become a way of life in the education sector.

“We have lots of outstanding students, many university graduates, many master degree holders, but so many of them lack the capacity to work well. Such fake things are the evidence of a failed education system,” he said.

The achievement disease has distorted the utmost purpose of education: to help each individual’s well-rounded development and the realisation of each individual’s potential.

It’s the education sector leaders that have to realise this before anyone else: can we drop all the nonsense requirements, all the meaningless rewards that a school can get for having more “outstanding students” than other schools? Can we tell each student that he or she is a unique individual and should work on improving his or her potential instead of making them fight against each other in some contests?

Can we actually start working on the real purpose of education, rather than chasing meaningless results and achievements? Can we be brave enough to look at the faults in the system and fix them – instead of ignoring them, avoiding them, and as a consequence, producing generations of young people who don’t know what they want in life?

In 2012, the story of Deputy Minister of Health - Cao Minh Quang and his counterfeit Ph.D. degree made headlines. In the affidavit, the Deputy Minister declared that he was granted the Ph.D. Degree at the University of Uppsala (Sweden), but the authorities identified that he never obtained this degree. The Department of Internal Political Security (A83) under the General Department of Security II identified that the University of Uppsala, Sweden only granted the certification of Pharmaceutical Study for Mr. Cao Minh Quang, which is not a Ph.D. degree. And it’s not just one story – you can find many more like it.

In this society where the psychology of degree appreciation prevails, we have people with many degrees but who can’t work. I bet because many of them didn’t actually work out how to solve a math problem when they were in school. Achievement disease, degree appreciation – all lead to a failed future that we don’t want.

The education ministry was smart enough to stop the ViOlympic contest. Who will be tough enough to stop the system from continuing to decay? — VNS