Fourteen years ago, someone ran into my grade coordinator’s office and said a student was having a panic attack and couldn’t breathe. I hurried out and found Lizzy, aged 16, pale and sprawled on the floor gasping for air with eyes rolling upwards as she passed out. Unconsciousness was her body’s attempt to restore order. The reason? Many high-stakes exams, the relentless pressure to succeed and get into college, and an intimidating tower of flashcards to memorize at the expense of sleep.
Feeling alarmed, we revived Lizzy, helped her calm down by breathing slowly into a small bag, then supported her through seeing a professional counselor. But I couldn’t take away the reality of the multiple exams and all the things she needed to memorize through sheer effort. A diligent child caught in a typical pressure-to-perform trap just like millions of others globally.
Survival of the fittest, dog-eat-dog, aka over-inflated curriculum and hyper-assessment practices frequently present in education are not appropriate to the human species if we are going to be human about learning. I will not be the first or last educator left thinking, “How can I help this child? How can I fix this systemic problem?”
But there are now solutions which we will come to later in this article, so hang in there, but we need to understand some gloomier facts first.
The over-inflated curriculum/hyper-assessment issue across education can be understood at three interdependent societal levels in national education systems.
- Economy: potential employers habitually require a competitive set of qualifications to filter applicants and place focus on narrow exams and test scores.
- Government: to facilitate the economy, authorities instruct curriculum bodies to select and mandate voluminous curriculum content that needs to be taught with little consideration of how it should be learned most effectively.
- Schools and universities: to comply with the government mandate, institutions ramp up the pressure through exams and tests to ensure that the ever-voluminous curriculum content has been learned in aid of competitive selection.
The problem is that the societal tail wags the dog! Individual needs are not considered at this macro level and students do not know how best to learn efficiently. To make things worse, students are simply not taught the most effective systems to effectively encode, retrieve, and apply the mass of material they are expected to learn and lose sleep cramming. If we access the research, this is one thing we can practically change in our lifetime.
The misinterpreted effort hypothesis
(explained at 16.45) demonstrated that students would typically avoid strategies that require a little more effort even though they may increase learning efficiency and bring better results. Common strategies like linear notetaking will bring common results and fast knowledge decay, but the results and retention could be far higher using other strategies based on neuroscientific research.
If you are a student, especially a teenager or young adult, in most education systems globally, there is a high chance that you are often not enjoying it despite the best attempts of your valiant and caring teachers. You are often either bored or overworked with the crushing pressure of memorizing huge volumes of facts and content with much seemingly irrelevant or lacking applicability in life. Rote learning and lower-order thinking are rarely fun but still dominate in our education systems.
Likewise, if you are a teacher schooling in a high coverage, high-pressure system, it can be joyless at times to march through content and exams with limited space for your creative expression. I can relate as I have done it.
For those schooled in this system, it must feel like going to a doctor who prescribes you copious pills that give you a constant headache! For those trying to reform the education system, it must feel like you are swimming through treacle. Sadly, students are often crushed by the pressure, and it impacts their mental health and general wellbeing. This is ironic really, given that education should conceivably help humans flourish and set them up for a successful life as adaptable and ethical learners, thinkers, and doers. Not exactly the good life Aristotle imagined for learners in his education philosophy. Edu thinker, Michael Fullan, calls this a bloodless paradigm.
This extreme pressure can lead to extreme behaviors, especially in some national systems. For instance, visualize a child on an intravenous drip trying to stay awake at night to cram the content for a make-or-break exam such as the Chinese Gaokao. Learning by cramming is not only inefficient, but it also harms health and makes no sense. There are better strategies now revealed by research, so read on.
Complexity and Reform
Let’s be honest, it is preaching to the choir in a finger-on-the-pulse education magazine, such as TIE, to claim that there needs to be big reforms to improve education at both the country and international levels. Big philosophical debates constantly swirl around us on purpose, relevancy, importance, and effectiveness that can leave one feeling dizzy.
Unfortunately, a lack of access to the latest research on learning has left many students feeling like they are the victims more than the beneficiaries of education. A mile wide curriculum, too many high-stakes assessments, and no research-based, integrated system to help them optimize and manage their learning. There are exceptions, however, and progressive educators and systems are trying to pivot in better directions urged on by research and global bodies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the World Economic Forum (WEF), the United Nations (UN), or New Pedagogies for Deep learning. Programs like the International Baccalaureate are implementing approaches to learning and teaching at the core of their program, realizing their importance. More progressive schools and universities are trying to buck the trend and reimagine education as it should be, i.e. reduce coverage for depth, teach the best habits of mind, skills, and concepts most important for life, and encourage the joy of discovery, experience, and learning independence to be more inclusive and assess the strengths of the whole person.
The K-12 Digest piece on changes we need in the education system has shared some important areas to highlight the way forward at an individual level. For instance, Liz Keeble lists the need for metacognition in her short article. Nindiya Saket comments that education of facts should be about learning to think. But how can we put that together? Justin Sung, a co-founder of iCanstudy who has designed a comprehensive, entirely research-driven, learning-to-learn (integrated mindset, metacognitive, encoding/retrieval, and high order thinking) system and online course, commented, “Students around the world are being told to drink from a fire hydrant of knowledge and we must give them a cup to reduce the anxiety!”
Based on this insight, there are three reasons we need to focus on helping students learn to learn effectively and efficiently:
- Effectiveness: mindset and strategy are part of an integrated system rather than the pure, brute effort that helps students learn best (hence misinterpreted effort hypothesis).
- Independence: students need to take ownership of learning for life.
- Better mental health: Students who can learn deeply and efficiently, have more time to themselves, feel more confident and motivated, and experience better mental health.
A comment from a student who benefited from an integrated learning system. (Photo source: Leo Thompson)
Every day I have contact with a child, teacher, school, or university, I feel privileged to work in international education. Despite this and despite teachers and institutional leaders doing their best, I see a common issue. It is time to help them, not just for their wellbeing but that of the students, the learners in our care.
I am a positive person and I dwell in the hope that we give students control of their learning, growth, and development through an integrated learning system that is not solely based on relentless pressure and misplaced effort. As part of a child’s individual learning compass, teaching them how to think, how to learn, and how to regulate their learning must be at the center of what we do. We should not wait for other reforms which may take decades in coming due to the lengthy research-to-practice gap and slow percolation into practice. Treacle will always behave like treacle.
If I had been able to empower Lizzy efficiently 14 years ago by optimizing her learning system in the way that organizations like iCanstudy and increasingly others are doing, maybe I wouldn’t have found her lying unconscious on the floor following a panic attack.
Leo Thompson is dedicated to empowering people to learn and grow through applied education research and innovation. Committed to global citizenship, Leo has a deep appreciation for different cultures. As a contracted School Support and Evaluation Officer for the Council of International Schools, he often visits schools internationally to appreciate their strengths and support their continuous journey toward excellence in their context. A former teacher and school head, he is now an independent education consultant, writer, and speaker who lives in Vienna, Austria. For Leo, being successful must mean bringing sustainable value and wellbeing to the world in whatever you do.