Maths Fear and Anxiety

Teachers and parents need to be aware of their role in the creation of maths anxiety. At times, I have seen students suffer massive debilitation because of it. One young lad, who had strong academic credentials and was expected to do well, go to a good university and have a strong academic future became so anxious that he required me to meet him outside the examination room before the exams, to talk him down to stay calm and to walk him in to the exam room. He then wanted me to be there to meet him when he came out, after the exam was over.

If we care about students fulfilling their potential, we have to acknowledge the existence of maths anxiety and do all in our power to help children to address it and to empower themselves with the tools and the confidence to be in control of their feelings about the subject.

Getting in a Mess Over Testing

In the last week or so, the debate about testing in the US took a significant new direction with a decree from the President, Barack Obama with the headline – “We’ve been doing too much testing.” Here’s a New York Times story with more background on the issues:

New York Times – Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools

There is real irony in this story and the way that it’s reported. Politicians dictating to educators about how children will be educated. For example, no clues are given as to how they’ve arrived at this figure of 2% of instructional time to be given to testing. As the article quite rightly suggests, with testing not defined, who decides what forms part of the 2%? Also, if the testing is rubbish it doesn’t matter whether it occupies 2% of a student’s learning time in school – it’s still going to be wasted time.

Further, we have to be realistic. part of the problem with high stakes testing isn’t the actual time the tests take to conduct. it’s all the other associated lost time that worries me. If, as is often the case, teachers are going to find their performance assessed according to the performance of the students in the exams, we can hardly be surprised that the teachers turn over large amounts of learning time to ‘test preparation’. Before you know it, even with one annual cycle of exams, way more time is lost in revision lessons, exam priming sessions, practicing for the processes of answering the exam questions etc. Before you know it, learning to excel in the exam has become far more important than learning.

Then, in most Indian schools, my experience suggests that combined pressure from the parents, the students and the teachers will see one exam take place per day, with the remainder of the day written off for the child to go home and ‘mug up’ for the next. Then, there are often some days declared as ‘non-instructional’ while the teachers do the marking of the exam papers. Then, we lose some more learning focus and time whilst everyone fills themselves with angst about the results afterwards.

The net effect in an academic year that typically amounts to about 190 school days is that, easily over 10% of learning time is lost to this process. I have always felt that this was truly bizarre if the purpose is really to check progress and point the way for future learning.

So, while the US tackles the mess it’s got itself into with a new limit on testing time, the Indian educators need to take a long cold hard look at the entrenched habits of examinations.

School must be for learning, not testing.

Gulf News Article 5: Active and Passive Leisure

This is the fifth in the series of 7 special articles I’ve been writing for the Education Supplement of Gulf News. The remit was to write pieces which would be of interest and value to young people aged from around 14/ 15 upwards.

This article deals with defining the difference between active and passive leisure and how one can be a powerful force for good while the other can significantly undermine a person’s chances of achieving anything meaningful in their life:

Gulf news article 22-09-2013
(Click on the link to open, read or download as a pdf)

Academic Honesty Under Threat

I found this article both worrying and interesting as it deals with an apparent decline in academic integrity with greater and greater numbers of students resorting to cheating. What’s more, it’s clear that this isn’t particularly cheating by students at the bottom of the performance ladder, but often those near the top.

Mindshift Article on Academic Dishonesty

It would be all too easy to explain away what’s happening on the basis of general societal slide in ethical behaviour, but I think instead it is more important to consider seriously the extent to which the education system itself may be leading to systemically driven failure.

We have education systems that claim to acknowledge that if you want to have motivated students you should focus on effort, not on outcomes – yet maintains the big and ultimate rewards to be dished out on the basis of outcomes. We have a system in which, in most countries of the world, too many children are being encouraged to believe that their success in the future will be determined by the right ‘labels’ on their CV. As a result, admission in to all but a handful of colleges is deemed almost to be a badge of failure.

We need a system that doesn’t put every product of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, Cambridge, IIMs and IITs on pedestals as demi-gods, whilst looking disdainfully down on those who have come out of so-called lesser colleges. The fact is that in a healthy education system I (ME) would be responsible for my achievements – not the institute in which i studied. So, I can be acknowledged to be a weak product out of Harvard because I didn’t put in the effort and make the best of my time there, or a great output of xyz university who squeezed out every ounce of opportunity to learn (and continues to do so long after leaving college).

Employing people, even in a country like India, is getting increasingly expensive. Employers have to be sophisticated and smart enough to gear their systems to find people with the right attributes and not take easy, short cuts that involve blindly taking those who are the products of a handful of colleges. Then, students would not place all their focus on such narrow definitions of success, but would be aware that there are infinite ways to succeed. Then, they might be more willing to treat examinations as a means to test themselves and show themselves in a true light, rather than being tempted to resort to unethical means.