Around 14 years ago, someone ran into my grade coordinator office and said a student was having a panic attack and couldn’t breathe.
I hurried out and found Lizzy, aged 16, pale, sprawled on the floor gasping for air with eyes rolling upwards as she passed out. Unconsciousness – her body’s attempt to restore order.
The reason? Many high-stakes exams, the relentless pressure to succeed and get to college, and an intimidating tower of flashcards to memorise at the expense of sleep…
Feeling alarmed, we revived Lizzy, helped her calm down by breathing slowly into a small bag, then supported her through a professional counsellor. But I couldn’t take away the reality of the multiple exams and all the things she needed to memorise through sheer effort. A diligent child caught in a typical pressure to perform trap just like millions of others globally.
“Individual needs are not considered and students do not know how best to learn efficiently.”
Survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog, aka over-inflated curriculum and hyper-assessment, practices frequently present in education are not appropriate to the human species if we are going to be human about learning. I will not be the first or last educator left thinking how can I help this child? How can I fix this systemic problem?
But there are now solutions which we will come to later in this article so hang on in, but we need to understand some gloomier facts first.
First the problem
The over-inflated curriculum/hyper assessment issue across education can be understood at three interdependent societal levels in national education systems.
- Economy: potential employers habitually require a competitive set of qualifications to filter applicants and place focus on narrow exams and test scores.
- Government: to facilitate the economy, authorities instruct curriculum bodies to select and mandate voluminous curriculum content that needs to be taught with little consideration of how it should be learned most effectively.
- Schools and universities: to comply with the government mandate, institutions ramp up the pressure through exams and tests to ensure that the ever-voluminous curriculum content has been learned in aid of competitive selection.
The problem is that the societal tail wags the dog. Individual needs are not considered at this macro level and students do not know how best to learn efficiently. To make things worse, students are simply not taught the most effective systems to effectively encode, retrieve and apply the mass of material they are expected to learn and lose sleep cramming. If we access the research, this is one thing we can practically change in our lifetime.
Next, the result
If you are a student, and especially a teenager or young adult, in the majority of education systems globally, there is a high chance that you are OFTEN NOT ENJOYING IT despite the best attempts of your valiant and caring teachers.
You are often either bored or overworked with the crushing pressure of memorising huge volumes of facts and content with much seemingly irrelevant or lacking applicability in life. Rote learning and lower order thinking is rarely fun but still dominates in our education systems.
Likewise, if you are a teacher schooling in a high coverage, high pressure system, it can be joyless at times to march through content and exams with limited space for your creative expression. I can relate as I have done it.
“There is a high chance that teenagers are often not enjoying their education.”
For those schooled in this system, it must feel like going to a doctor who prescribes you copious pills that give you a constant headache. For those trying to reform the education system it must feel like you are swimming through treacle.
Sadly, students are often crushed by the pressure, and it impacts on their mental health and general well-being. This is ironic really, given that education should conceivably help humans flourish and set them up for a successful life as adaptable and ethical learners, thinkers and doers. Not exactly the good life Aristotle imagined for learners in his education philosophy. Edu thinker, Michael Fullan, calls this a bloodless paradigm).
This extreme pressure can lead to extreme behaviours especially in some national systems.
For instance, visualise a child on an intravenous drip trying to stay awake at night to cram the content for a make-or-break exam such as the Chinese Gaokao.
“This extreme pressure can lead to extreme behaviours especially in some national systems.”
Learning by cramming is not only inefficient, it harms the health and makes no sense. There are better strategies now revealed by research, so read on.
Complexity and reform
Let’s be honest, it is preaching to the choir in a finger-on-the-pulse education magazine to claim that there need to be BIG REFORMS to improve education at both country and international level. Big philosophical debates constantly swirl around us on purpose, relevancy, importance, and effectiveness, that can leave one feeling dizzy.
Unfortunately, a lack of access to the latest research on learning has left many students feel like they are the victims more than the beneficiaries of education. A mile wide curriculum, too many high stakes assessments, and no research based, integrated system to help them optimise and manage their learning.
“More progressive schools and universities are trying to buck the trend.”
There are exceptions, however, and progressive educators and systems are trying to pivot in better directions urged on by research and global bodies such as the OECD, WEF, UN, or New Pedagogies for Deep learning. Programmes like the IB are implementing approaches to learning and teaching at the core of its programme, realising their importance.
More progressive schools and universities are trying to buck the trend and reimagine education as it should be. i.e. reduce coverage for depth, teach the best habits of mind, skills and concepts most important for life, and encourage the joy of discovery, experience and learning independence, to be more inclusive and assess the strengths of the whole person.
When we boil this down, we need to focus on helping students learn to learn effectively and efficiently:
- Effectiveness: it is mindset and strategy as part of an integrated system rather than pure, brute effort that helps students learn best.
- Independence: students need to take ownership of learning for life.
- Better mental health: Student who can learn deeply and efficiently, have more time to themselves, feel more confident and motivated and experience better mental health.
Every day I have contact with a child, teacher, school, or university, I feel privileged to work in international education. Despite this, I see a common issue despite teachers and institutional leaders doing their best. It is time to help them, not just for their well-being but that of the students, the learners in our care.
“We should not wait for other reforms which may take decades in coming.”
I am a positive person and I dwell in hope that we give students control of their learning, growth and development through an integrated learning system that is not solely based on relentless pressure and misplaced effort.
As part of a child’s individual learning compass, teaching them how to think, how to learn, and how to regulate their learning must be at the centre of what we do. We should not wait for other reforms which may take decades in coming due to the lengthy research to practice gap and slow percolation into practice. Treacle will always behave like treacle.
Leo Thompson is head of educational partnerships at iCanStudy.