Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What’s the Point of School (Part Three) - Stress and Escapism

Guy Claxton highlights the problem of stress and escapism in our students.  In a nutshell, the pressure to achieve academically, without being given the support and resources to actually reach those expectations, is causing a great deal of stress in our students.  They turn instead to other sources to bring about the feeling of success and happiness that they crave.

Some negative sources of these substitutes could be: excessive television, excessive internet, drugs and alcohol, bad relationships and sex, bullying, other antisocial behaviour.  Some positive sources of these substitutes could be sporting pursuits, subjects at school that are perceived as less academic because of their creative aspects, good relationships, joining campaign groups.

The young people who have some guidance tend towards the positive substitutes and those with little guidance tend towards the negative.

What is really needed is a total overhaul of the education and assessment system.  Instead of refurbishing something that has rotten foundations, we need to start from scratch, breaking down the old system piece by piece so that we can see the details of the full picture of destruction that we’ve carefully avoided looking at for so long.

In an ideal learning situation, the person in the teaching role identifies where the person in the learning role is in their understanding.  The teacher will then begin to build from there, gently pushing the learner to challenge them self by encouraging them to step just outside their comfort zone.  With the support to overcome challenges like this, gradually increasing in intensity over months and years, the learner will develop confidence in their ability to deal with difficult situations.  With support from someone who is good at teaching them self, the learner will develop a tool box of strategies for promoting their own learning and overcoming of challenges by them self.  This sort of learning is not limited to the academic field, but also to the learning of technical skills (in a sporting context for instance).

The limits to such learning is only time.  For some people, they may take a lot longer to learn the same lessons as the average person, but this does not matter because such a style of learning leads to greatly accelerated learning if it is persistently practiced over many years.  You can see where the current system, which forces learning of individuals into a time frame that will at best suit 50 percent of students, is not going to be workable for too many people.  To it’s credit, the NZ education system has a standards based system in which students are not meant to sit an assessment until they have reached the required standard to pass.  Teachers are meant to know when their students are ready to sit the assessment and allow them to sit internal assessments, or enter into external exams at the end of the year, with the knowledge that they will definitely pass.  In practise, teachers are still under pressure to teach a set body of knowledge in a set period of time, and they are somehow expected to focus on key learning competencies while meeting the learning needs of 25 to 30 students with unique learning needs.  Along with the requirements for University entrance guiding things, and the many other pressures of life and education, it is impossible to expect teachers to be able to do this.  The same system which puts pressure on students, but fails to give them the resources to succeed, also puts pressure on teachers with similar limitations.

This has turned into a longer post than I would like, so I’ll finish there for now.  The key thing to remember, when you find yourself in a learning or teaching situation, is that you can’t rush good learning and you can’t expect people to learn rocket science if they haven’t mastered the basics.