Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Exams - failure is in the eye of the beholder

What are we doing to our young people going into the exam period?

Too many teachers and parents add pressure by ranting and raving about failure, implying that life isn’t worth living if you don’t pass the final secondary school, or university exams. Tragically, some students take this to heart and choose to end their lives. I can’t begin to express the sorrow and grief I experience every time I hear of a young life lost, particularly at exam time.

I wonder if they felt it was impossible for them to live up the expectations, hopes and dreams of those around them. If they were aware that they hadn't worked as relentlessly and hard as they could and had felt that taking their own life was better than facing the shame of failing an exam. I wonder if they had heard, (hopefully mistakenly) and taken to heart, that to fail an exam equates to being a failure as a human being.

Knowing the remote, but possibly tragic consequences of this extremely limited view of success; why is it that when a young person is coming up to the exams, teachers, parents and the news machines put more and more pressure on them?

From the in your face shouting and barrage of demeaning and demoralizing slurs on character, to outright predictions that “You’ll fail if you keep that up” the pressure is unwarranted and undermining on an often fragile self esteem.

I wonder if anyone involved really believes the students have no idea about the enormity of the perceived importance of the final exams. After all, it's been relentlessly hammered into them for years. "If you think this is hard, just wait till you do your *VCE" and "This is going to be the hardest year of your life".

I’ve chosen the words in the above paragraph carefully … Perceived importance.

Worst-case scenario: The student fails the exam.
Of course teachers may see this as a negative reflection on their teaching ability. The school may see it as a negative reflection on it and the teacher. Their ranking may go down, and they may not be seen as so prestigious. The parent may see it as a negative reflection on their parenting. The student might not get into the course they dreamed of. Their pride may have been dented, but the student never was, and never will be a worthless human because they failed an exam.

The student is NOT a failure; they have failed to answer the questions that were asked on that particular exam on that particular day. This is not a direct reflection on their worth as people. The world does not and will not end. It does not and never will make them bad people, undeserving of respect, tolerance, compassion. It does not mean they won’t go on to live lives that are rich, full and meaningful. It does not mean that they won’t go on to satisfying and successful further study in years to come. It is not a prediction about the rosiness of anyone’s future.

Exam results don't predict life achievements
Failing an exam could mean all sorts of things about the student’s stress levels, study habits, adverse outside influences – all sorts of things, but never is it, nor should it be used as a threat to predict a life that won’t be worth living.

As a teacher or parent, you should never make dire negative predictions about any student’s future – it’s cruelly undermining, often leads to loss of confidence and an inability to perform as well as possible. It rarely encourages a student to work harder and should never be used as a tactic – it’s heartless and vindictive, especially when accompanied with shouted, in your face putdowns.

In addition, no one has that fictitious crystal ball. We don't know. We can't predict the future. We're not seers, soothsayers or psychics. Many inspiring citizens have failed exams and gone on to be publicly revered. Please don't ignore their contribution in the push for impressive exam results.

As a long time teacher, counsellor and facilitator at tertiary institutions I’ve seen the result of undermining, toxic, vicious and cruel comments made by teachers and parents up to thirty and forty years after the event. Comments hissed under the breath, laced with venom, or shouted publicly, openly in front of a class.  Unfortunately many students take to heart and believe what powerful adults tell them. These comments stay with people, creating churning, nagging doubt and too often a profound sense of hopelessness.

Is that what we want for any young person taking their first steps into the adult world?

I’ve worked extensively with competent, yet academically insecure, nervous adults. Wonderful people, contributing generously to their communities, yet their underlying self esteem is in tatters as they’ve suffered at school with a powerful teacher who has glibly, possibly thoughtlessly or flippantly predicted that they won’t amount to anything. The teacher might not even remember, if they do, they might say: "I didn't mean anything by it, they were just words to get them studying harder."

Just words?
Words are powerful tools, used to inspire, encourage and support, but also to control, dominate or insult. "You're hopeless, you won't amount to anything" - what a cruel prediction, surely designed to erode confidence.

I've seen smart students with undiagnosed learning difficulties who, at school, had been publicly ridiculed, shamed, belittled and taunted for being unable to produce a single page of written work. As adults they are desperate to prove that they’re as good as those who can spell accurately and put sentences together easily.

These people are NOT failures. They contribute to the richness of our communities.

They are our families - they are sons and daughters, cousins, aunts and uncles, mums and dads, grandmas and grandpas.

The last exams of secondary school are part of life, one step. One small step in the path of many, many steps. The exams may be important, they may make it easier to gain immediate entry into university. But 'success' as a wholesome, interesting, intelligent, worthwhile human being does not and never will rest on achieving a high grade at the final exams in secondary school (or university for that matter).

What's been your experience with exam pressure?

The following link to youthbeyondblue.com has some excellent fact sheets on depression. Link here. Please seek help if you think you're depressed or need assistance with exam technique.  

If you know anyone who might benefit from this reminder about the place of exams as a predictor of life success, please post the link to FB or share in some way.



* VCE/HSC/SACE etc are the final exams at Australian secondary schools. They are scored and used as a basis for entry to many university and tertiary courses.
Graffiti art on the side of a building in Berlin. 2009.


Anonymous said...

I SO remember exams and report cards and lectures about doing my best and the disappointed reactions to some of my marks...I absolutely hated school....poor kids...and now they send them to school at age four and expect them to stay all day. Just babies. I feel so sorry for them.

sue said...

Delores, the body language is so hard to bear sometimes too - the pained expression of disappointment, even if no words are spoken. School at 4. I hope they're allowed to do heaps of bouncing around and giggling rather than sitting neatly and attentively.

Rawknrobyn.blogspot.com said...

This is so important to share and very well written, Sue. Thank you.
I tended to put pressure on myself to a ridiculous extent, influenced by messages about not being good enough. (Academics was the one way I could get approval so it meant everything.) It is truly tragic that society/family/school doesn't promote a more realistic perspective for kids.


sue said...

Robyn, thankyou so much. Hugs.