The pressure schools and parents place on the young

A CONVERSATION WITH A STUDENT a few months ago left me feeling dismayed and, perhaps naively, somewhat bewildered. In essence the all-too-brief discourse occurred at the time of the release of the IB Diploma examination results and centred on the points obtained by the student.

This student had achieved 41 out of 45 (enough for entry to world-class universities) and had done so through diligence applied to ability. Yet instead of smiles of joy at such a magnificent achievement there were tears of frustration that a higher score had not been gained and that her life had now been ruined; she had achieved at the highest level yet felt a failure.

I was left to reflect on how such a terribly sad state of affairs could have transpired. Over the weeks that followed I pondered as to how we have reached a position in our society – not just in Singapore I hasten to add – where achievement as measured narrowly by results – has become the paradigm by which success in the education of our young is judged.

In consequence we employ a whole slew of techniques, tutoring and coaching because without them there is no chance of that all-important prize: the “top spot” however described. I confess too that I worry about claims of the efficacy of divine intervention in achieving the kudos associated with such quantifiable results: the student referred to earlier might have felt abandoned.

The pressure this places on our young people (not to mention their parents and teachers) is truly awesome and must explain the many well-documented occurrences of depression and frustration in the young which are so much regrettable features of many of our modern societies. And very sadly we in schools, and as parents, are guilty of perpetuating the problem rather than dealing with it.

We teach not to educate, but to drill our young to do well, to match the measurement we have devised. Copying notes, rote-learning facts or filling in blank spaces in endless printed sheets whose quality falls far below that of the excellent text, web and practical resources now available must be so dispiriting for all concerned; even the wonderful opportunities for inspirational teaching and learning afforded by modern technology have been devalued by the endless use of PowerPoint (chalk-and-talk using pixels).

Many will recognise the furtive conversations between heads of schools bemoaning the situation but bewailing their powerlessness. We must be honest and recognise that we all rejoice in so many top scores, our record-breaking number of victories, and trophies shining in their cabinets like seams of iron pyrites.

Even if we agree that there is something skewed in all of this we can do nothing because it has to be the fault of parents in pushing their children to achieve; yet schools also add their own pressures through expectations of extra lessons, revision work and so forth.

As one parent observed wryly “We know it is wrong, and we do not want to see our children put under such pressure, but we are Singaporean and this is our default position.” (I could have heard the same in other countries too).

In our modern culture we have become bewitched by what is measurable (usually with a monetary value lurking somewhere in the shadows ready to entice us towards its many “pleasures”) and what can be celebrated in easily tangible ways, and we focus on achieving this, almost to the exclusion of anything else (whatever we may say in public). Our young people grow up in such an environment and become its unwitting victims.

Now lest it be thought that I am an advocate of mediocrity, or that I believe all competition to be damaging, let me reassure. After all, I was raised as a Scottish Presbyterian where the Protestant work ethic, embracing Paul’s sentiments in Colossians: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (NIV), was our paradigm.

This also hints at an alternative way: we need to change our current paradigm. We can tinker at the edges of the issue; however, in time, the default mechanism will exert its momentum and we will lapse. This is rather like the rudder on a sailing boat which will tend to a certain position when released – whatever force we apply to the helm – based on the trim of the boat’s sails and its rigging: to change the nature of the boat’s response we must re-tune the fundamentals of its running and standing rigging.

Herein, then, is the fundamental issue: we need to re-tune, recalibrate or re-programme. Romans 12:2 points us in the right direction – “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. en you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (NIV). We, as leaders in education and in the Church, may translate this into action in education by being determined to focus on developing the intrinsic qualities God wishes to see nurtured in all of us and to do so in the best way we can. FOCUSING ON QUALITIES such as love, respect for ourselves and others, and yes, absolutely, hard work and aiming for excellence, will allow our young people to develop as living embodiments of our Creator, developing all their unique talents. Then – and this is the beautiful harmony of it – they achieve success … not because we have trained them to do so, but because the whole notion of quality comes first; it is intrinsic, inherent, a new default mechanism.

Although there will still be inevitable pressures arising from the need to check progress – and here we educators have to do more to make assessment match the subtleties and intricacies of our education – we will have removed the tyranny of the test which prevails and distorts so cruelly.

None of this has not been said before by people far more erudite than I, but I write in this context to see if we – educators, leaders and members of The Methodist Church in Singapore – might be able to make a real effort to try and stop this juggernaut rather than wring our hands, or wail and gnash our teeth.

Our young people deserve our commitment to their lives (and to the future of humanity); their parents need our leadership and guidance – both are crying out (literally and figuratively) for this and we are in danger of failing to live up to our responsibilities as leaders of our communities if we do nothing. This is our absolute responsibility and we must use all of our experience, belief and faith to fulfil it.

P. Kerr Fulton-Peebles is the Principal of ACS (International).