Good Stress and Competition

A few days ago I wrote about the changing views in education relating to grit/ resilience/ perseverance and the recognition of mistakes made in the past when educators somehow believed that everything in education had to be about ‘unburdening’. Even as recently as the last few years, education authorities in India believed the answer to student stress, anxiety and even high rates of suicide was to make the examinations ‘low stakes’.

This is closely tied to Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth of Fixed Mindsets. The implications for the growing child, and in to later adult life are enormous in terms of their willingness to take on challenges, how well they deal with stress, the extent to which they perform up to their potential in situations that carry stress.

In this connection, I was fascinated to reread this article I first came across a couple of years ago from the New York Times;

New York Times – Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?
(Right click on the link above to open the article and read. You should be able to read without taking out a New York Times subscription)

The article is fascinating for what it reveals are clues as to the interrelationship between different factors that shape an individual’s ability to cope or even flourish under pressure and to respond effectively to stress. It highlights a genetic factor linked to the rate at which dopamine is cleared from the prefrontal cortex – which makes worriers of some and warriors of others.

Those who had the gene that only cleared the dopamine slowly were the worriers. What was particularly interesting was that they had higher IQ levels on average and that they could overcome the negative implications from the stress if they were trained and competent in what they were doing. This, to me, reinforces the need for a focus on the ‘how’ of studying and exam preparation as much on the ‘what’.

What is a little surprising is that this article came out in 2012, but i’m not aware of any further developments relating to these lines of research. What would be particularly valuable would be to treat this as a further element for differentiation of learning experiences for different children, based upon the cues and clues about which gene is at work for them – and therefore whether they need to be pressured, but with appropriate training or experience reduced pressure.

Finally, the article reinforced for me that when we applaud certain students for their academic achievements over others, sometimes we’re merely praising them for something that happened by chance and over which they had no overt or direct control. In the meantime, others are missing out on the motivation from praise and recognition even though they may be producing performance that challenges their genetic and other limitations.

Stress is a factor in most lives, especially for anyone who wants to achieve or aspire to rise above the commonplace. In such circumstances, young people need to acquire the tools and learn the strategies to not only cope with it, but to even, potentially relish it and flourish on it.

Things Teachers Do

Here’s an interesting blog post that i came across quite some time ago, that I share here because i found it particularly intriguing;

Edutopia – What Doesn’t Work – Literacy Practices We Should Abandon

The writer makes a number of suggestions where practices have gone on for a very long time, passed down from teachers to new teachers and carried out without question, but where there’s evidence that shows and suggests strongly that the practices really don’t work.

Perhaps the one that stood out most for me was the weekly spelling tests – consuming enormous amounts of time. As an aside, through my own learning from NLP, when he was about six i taught my son how to spell by getting visual recall pictures of words in his head. The result – he never dropped a single mark on spelling tests and barely spent any time preparing for them. But still, what a silly waste of time for him and all the other children in class.

The point about withdrawing recess as a form of punishment also struck a chord with me. In similar vein I also get troubled when children lose access to some of their favourite learning periods such as art, music, drama or PE in order to undergo remedial classes because they’re not making the desired levels of progress in ‘core’ subjects.

If i take issue with one aspect of the article it is the sense it conveys that teachers and children have no time to ‘just pass time and learn’, but must always be on a quest to save a vital few minutes to cram in yet more learning (slaves to the standardised tests systems). It almost seemed like it wanted to see the ‘time and motion’ men of the 1970’s workplaces with their stopwatches timing how long people take for their washroom breaks so that they can squeeze out a tiny fraction more of productivity.

Sometimes, it makes sense to not do things that don’t contribute in the classroom, so there’s more time to do other things – but not because we’re hellbent on delivering ever more bloated syllabus to stressed out learning-weary children.

Sometimes, some of the best learning happens at its own pace, and we shouldn’t forget it.

Learning From The Olympics

Ryan Lochte

It saddens me when educators believe they are so hidebound by the syllabus that they don’t have the time or momentum to open up the enormous learning that can come out of real life events and the things which are capturing the imagination of children in the world around them.

Most decent schools today espouse desire to educate the whole child, to provide holistic education and to inculcate the habits and mindset of lifelong learners. However, sometimes we need to hold up a harsh mirror to ourselves and ask if our actions match the words – are we walking the talk?

The Olympics come around only every four years. However, for two weeks i find that they provide one of the most mesmerising and powerful sets of stories that are laden with massive learning opportunities (way more powerful and valuable than vast amounts of the standard schools’ syllabus!) This time, even in the run up to the games there were fascinating issues around drug use, performance enhancement and questions of whether those who receive bans should be allowed back in to competition. This time around there was even the possibility that an entire nation would be banned from the Games. Ultimately, Russia were allowed to compete in most sports, but almost all their athletics participants were barred from competition and they have been banned from the Paralympics due to start in a couple of weeks time.

This raises fascinating moral issues, but also the grey areas about what is or isn’t a legitimate action to seek to enhance performance to out-compete others. When is ‘win at all cost’ legitimate?

There are also fascinating issues for discussion with even quite young children about sponsorship and the involvement in a festival of physical prowess such as the Olympics from companies who sell junk food and carbonated drinks. Children can engage in thoughtful debate about how they respond and react to the messages they are receiving through the media.

Then, in the Olympics that just got over there were the issues of sport and politics that came to the fore when one country’s athlete in Judo refused to shake hands with his competitor at the end of a bout, reflecting long term animosity between their countries.

And then, the most challenging of the negative stories coming out of this Olympics – the Ryan Lochte and the US swimming team story about ‘what happened at the petrol station, the effects of lying and all sorts of other questions. There have been fascinating conflicting views and stories like this give children wonderful opportunities to debate and explore issues that are far from black and white, but contain subtle nuances where they may need to see multiple sides to an issue to arrive at a viewpoint. They may even wonder about whether the case is seen differently because he was a high profile multiple medal winning athlete as opposed to a lower acxhiever.

For those not so familiar, here’s the story from the BBC about the aftermath of the whole saga:

BBC – Ryan Lochte Sponsors Withdraw Support

How many children will really get the guided, structured opportunities to explore these kinds of issues flowing out of a major news story related to this massive sporting event? I fear, not enough.

The Voice of Youth

It was International Youth Day on August 12th. That will have passed most people by, seeing as they’re so busy hurtling along in the present, living their own lives “of quiet desperation,” to keep up with the Joneses, to consume, have and possess their way to happiness – so who cares what the youth think? And besides, nobody took any notice of us when we were youth, so why should it be any different now?

Well, here are some excellent reasons as set out in a statement by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon:

The Malay Mail Online – A Call To Empower Youth – Ban Ki-moon

Mine was a generation of ‘angry young men’, a generation that was pretty disdainful of the world we were inheriting from those older, who vowed to do a lot better and who claimed that we were going to put a lot of things right. When we look at the world today, we have to say we came up short in so many ways. As time went on, we lost the anger that fired us to want to change the world and fell, way too often, in to individual selfish narrow blinkered worlds obsessed with having, acquiring and using.

Just today I read a statement suggesting that in the last 50 years humans have consumed more of the earth’s resources than in all previous history. I also learned recently that in 2015 more people in the world died as a result of wars and conflicts than in any of the previous 25 years. Mankind cannot go on like this and if our generation is incapable or unwilling to think beyond short-term narrow interests, then it’s high time we gave scope for the voice of youth to be heard far stronger. Otherwise, they risk becoming a generation bowed down by cynicism and negativity and they will be no better than we were – instead of finding solutions they will just take over from us making things worse.

There has to be a better way.

Learning to Learn

Becoming a lifelong learner works best when educators ensure that every pupil acquires the skills and competencies of learning – the ‘how’, as well as teaching them stuff. In fact, i could even suggest that a lot of the stuff has little use or purpose other than as a vehicle for the acquisition of learning skills, practice and honing those skills.

With this in mind, I wanted to share this really useful link for educators, parents and students;

Learning Scientists – Downloadable Materials

The page provides six very good, downloadable posters specifically related to building and strengthening study (learning) skills. There are also some links to stickers.

It’s important to remember something critical with this kind of material, especially when sharing the concepts and ideas with a class of students. The experience was really brought home for me in relation to mind mapping. This is a wonderful set of techniques that I personally use very frequently and value a lot. In one school group, I remember a very enthusiastic teacher telling me that she was introducing mind mapping to her class six classes. She took a couple of special sessions with them and came back to tell me that they loved it, were very excited and confirmed they could really see the learning and creativity benefits.

So, she taught them the techniques and had a few projects and exercises where the outputs for all pupils were to be as mind maps. A few months later I met this teacher and asked her, “how are your classes progressing with their mindmapping?” After a moment’s hesitation she looked shocked. “Oh, I’ll need to check, but i haven’t seen any of them doing it for a few weeks.” She came back the next day, having checked and confirmed that she could only find one child in three classes who said they were still using mindmapping at all.

I asked if i could sit in on the next session with the pupils. She and i spoke with students in small groups, reminding them how enthusiastic they had been with the techniques when they were first introduced. Time after time the responses were similar and boiled down to a hesitant admission that it was good, that they had been excited, but that as others (especially key opinion shapers among the children – the cool kids?) stopped doing it, they had an increasing feeling that it wasn’t for them, even that it was a bit wierd. It boiled down to, “people like me don’t do stuff like this.” And we wonder why we’re so slow to bring about real lasting change in education?

The tough hard truth is that self identity, and especially identifying with others can override the very best of learning and opportunities for growth if not tackled adequately and in a sustained manner. This raises many more issues about how, as educators, we work to limit ‘group think’ and support/ encourage/ entice creativity, individuality and the confidence in our students to plough their own furrow, to believe that they are not obliged to meekly conform to fit in.

Resilience

Resilience is a critical attribute for any person to grow up to be a fully healthy, self-actualizing person. However, until recently, really relatively little was known about resilience – how important it is, what increases a person’s ability to grow up with a healthy level, what are the impacts of childhood trauma and stress on it?

There was a time when the prevailing ideas were that all stress was inherently bad and that children should go unburdened in every way possible. Far more importance was placed on boosting self image, by telling children positive things about themselves, praising them endlessly and avoiding talking about weaknesses or shortcomings. Today, many believe that the prevalent views of the self image movement has resulted in a generation of young people who struggle to handle feedback, who can’t take strain or stress and who believe that they should be praised for every little thing they do. These young people all too often come across as needy, overly dependent on extraneous motivation and incapable of handling pressure effectively.

In more recent times a new word has become a strong force in education, especially in the USA. That word is ‘Grit’, which to me is another name for resilience. Much of the work, received with mixed feelings by others in the education field, has come from writer and academic, Angela Duckworth. Here’s a TED talk in which she explains her viewpoint on the role of Grit. One of my favourite lines – “Grit is living life like a marathon, not a sprint.”

This concept is also tied to issues of perseverance and also Carol Dweck’s concept of Growth Mindset (see earlier writing on this blog). I believe that the more we acknowledge this, the more we realise how much education has been failing children when it asked nothing of them, failed to stretch them and didn’t make sure they followed through adequately. These are young people now moving in to the world of work believing that life should be easy, rewards should come to us simply for showing up and that failure is a reason to immediately back off/ give up or take the path of least resistance.

Somehow, persistence, sticking at things through difficult or challenging times, went out of fashion. There was some kind of notion that really smart people didn’t need to break a sweat – that sweating the tough stuff was for the plodders. The self esteem movement positively railed against anything that looked or felt like hard work in schools, claiming that this was harmful to the vulnerable developing child. Instead, they wanted us to praise every effort, however small. Out of this came many things including primary school sports days where nobody should be a winner or a loser, everyone got a medal and the key was turning up and participating, mass handing out of classroom stickers for everything and a reluctance to ask children to stretch.

For those of us right now enjoying the four yearly feast that is the Olympics, the question is simple – would any of those athletes even be there, let alone be winning without grit, perseverance, resilience or a growth mindset? I think the answer to that one is pretty clear.

There is an interesting additional aspect to this question. Some children, sadly, are subjected to levels of challenge, strife or stress inducing trauma or tragedy in their young lives that we may wish would not afflict any child. In the past, conventional wisdom suggested that it was almost inevitable that such children receiving an excess of challenges beyond all reasonable levels of grit, perseverance or resilience will almost inevitably carry scars and negative impacts. However, we always knew that despite this – there were individual cases of children who appeared to have shown enormous levels of grit to rise above the circumstances and to flourish later as adults. So, I was very interested to see that there’s been recent research in this area seeking to understand better individual levels of resilience and how some children appear to ride out levels of trauma that would be beyond the capacity of the vast majority.

Quartz – Children Need Some Stress in Their Lives

Reading this article, I’m left with the feeling that research still has a long way to go. However, we do appear to be at least a step or two closer to understanding how to help children achieve optimum levels of stress in their lives so that they are capable of building grit and resilience and also how to help children whose young lives are impacted by extreme negative events or trauma so that they have a better chance of riding them out and maintaining functional ability to fulfil their potential.

This is going to be a fascinating area to follow.

Teachers, Pay and Working Hours

Here in Malaysia, we are undoubtedly faced with a very important issue in the next few years – a need to attract a greater flow of high calibre graduates and candidates to the teaching profession to meet increasing demand, especially for International and Private Schools that intend to provide high quality holistic education without pricing outside the means of most people by employing all expatriate teachers.

There are those who believe that if the profession is to attract in the desired talent, then two issues will be critical – pay and working hours. This is said so often, without necessarily being proved, to the point where few question the validity of the statements. So, it’s particularly interesting when there is hard evidence and data flowing from analysis. The following article and infographic come from the Economist:

Economist – Daily Chart – Do Shorter Hours Or Higher Wages Make Better Teachers?

The data is fascinating as it presents significant evidence that suggests that whatever is the ‘secret juice’ for great teachers, it seems to have very little to do with either wage levels or working hours. Schools with high or low achievements in the PISA examinations are spread throughout the range of salary levels for teachers and the range of hours teachers worked.

So, if it’s not wages and it’s not working hours ………….. what is it that leads high calibre people in adequate numbers in to the education system and creates the environment within which they can support students’ high achievements?

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