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Op-eds

Striking a Balance

  • JosephGerassi
In a world that’s ever more competitive, where getting into a top university has become the only measure of success for many communities, young men and women face challenges that previous generations never encountered.
by JOSEPH GERASSI | Jan 18, 2018

And, facing overwhelming expectations from parents, who want their children to be offered one of the limited places available at local or international universities, private schools have responded by placing even more pressure on their pupils to perform in the final matric exam. The adverse effect of all this on young adults cannot be underestimated.

The solution to this problem is obvious: less importance placed on high-stakes testing, such as matric, and a new focus on a broader definition of success. This would include the appreciation of creative and critical thinking skills, and the recognition of pupils who might not be able to regurgitate facts but who can problem-solve and come up with innovative solutions to world problems.

Most schools recognise this and accept that a composite portfolio of work, demonstrating appropriate work skills, is more important than a list of grades that usually demonstrate little more than the ability to learn facts off by heart. However, governments and universities continue to place considerable emphasis on final high school exams and results.

-In addition, changing the system is not a foolproof way to ensure that pupils are not pressurised into having to perform. The changes suggested above would ensure that the skills required in the workplace of the 21st century are taught, and that pupils with diverse skills are afforded an opportunity to succeed by having their unique talents recognised.

Naturally, the pressure to perform would still exist, as pupils compete and are pressurised either to create the best portfolio or be seen as the most creative and critical thinkers.

This would still be a better system than the one we have at present.

Given that the pressure to perform will likely always exist, schools need to rethink how they prepare pupils for their final two years of school.

Instead of concentrating solely on convincing them to perform academically, schools need to introduce support systems that will help pupils strike a healthy balance.

The stress that comes with having to perform is not just adversarial - a certain amount of stress is what enables us to reach our full potential. However, too much stress leads to burnout, anxiety and depression.

Brain scientist and molecular biologist John Medina says: “The more stress hormones swarm children’s brains, the less likely [children] are to succeed intellectually.”

As a headmaster with past and present experience of high-performing schools nationally and internationally, I have seen my fair share of stressed-out teenagers who have been excessively pressurised into performing academically.

Very seldom is this pressure self-imposed. It is placed on them by parental demands, community expectations and inter-school competitiveness.

Hence, it is imperative that we try to figure out how to push pupils hard enough to succeed but not so hard that they crack.

A good starting point would be for schools to discuss the fact that pupils are pressurised beyond what is normal, and to follow up by implementing a programme that supports pupils emotionally through these difficult years.

Pupils need to feel supported by their school when they limit themselves to studying the prerequisite seven subjects. They shouldn’t be made to feel that they are underachieving if they don’t matriculate with eight, nine or even 10 subjects.

Such a shift could be supported further by introducing mindfulness and wellness programmes into the daily curriculum and encouraging pupils to participate in these.

While excellent results remain a fundamental consideration, pupils need to feel safe to fail. This can only happen if they are given multiple opportunities to edit and resubmit their assessments. This is, after all, how the real world of work operates.

The next step would be for schools to engage with parents on the issues raised here. Parents often need guidance in understanding how a teenager is wired. They need to understand how the pressure to perform today hardly compares to that of past decades, when parents were at school.

Parents also need to understand the harmful effects of pushing children to meet rampant expectations. Although it’s their duty to ensure that their child is working hard and performs well, it is also their duty to look after their child’s health and emotional well-being.

In light of this, parents should endeavour to recognise and nurture their child’s strengths. Plainly put, if science is not where their talents lie, then support their love of art or music. This, in turn, parallels the ever-important need to set realistic expectations.

Unless one’s child really enjoys all of his or her subjects, it’s unhealthy for the child to be pressurised into attaining seven distinctions.

Finally, just as adults need time to relax and “play” in order to reduce stress, so do teenagers.

School has become a stressful experience for teenagers, especially in their final year. As educators and parents, we need to work harder at setting realistic expectations and striking a balance between pushing our children hard and pushing them too hard.

Joseph Gerassi is the executive head of Redhill School

 

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