Examining Exams: School, Stress, and the Impact on Young Minds

New Zealand

This year, I feel like I've relived exams. Witnessing the emotional toll of this time of year on children and teenagers has given me a window of insight into the pressures and expectations that exams can bring. Even where parents feel they adopt a liberal stance and avoid putting undue pressure on children, many children are aware of being evaluated and fear disappointing their parents or feeling disappointed in themselves when confronting a report card that does not live up to their expectations.

For some children whose living circumstances are filled with stress and uncertainty, reaching a clear and focused mindset which would enable them to absorb and retain information is near impossible. These are the children who find themselves achieving well below their academic potential, with stressors scrambling the mind and precluding the focused attention required.

In his writing about thinking, Wilfred Bion links the capacity to think and link ideas to the experience of emotional containment. A child who lacks a sense of containment and emotional security also often lacks the internal holding space in which ideas can land, be linked together and retained in a meaningful way.

For many teenagers, the mathematics exam looms large. I can imagine high school students across the country, staring at a convoluted maths problem while the invigilator crosses numbers off the blackboard to indicate the diminishing time available to complete the paper. This is the stuff of nightmares - literally, it is not uncommon to hear of adults who completed high school decades before, dreaming about feeling unprepared for their final maths examination. For those learners who really struggle to master this subject, the imagined relief of dropping the subject conflicts painfully with the threat of closed doors and lost career opportunities. Indeed, the maths monster dogs many a teenage mind.

Some influential modern psychologists, including Howard Gardner and Robert Sternberg, argue that the education system needs an overhaul. Gardner puts forward the idea of multiple intelligences, arguing that the school system tends to privilege linguistic and mathematical intelligence over other equally important kinds of intelligence. His theory invites reflection on whether our education system nurtures the entrepreneurial spirit, the creative mind, and the intrepid inclination. Sternberg suggests that we are in a self-perpetuating cycle of recycling the same kinds of assessments and entrance requirements which were relevant 50 years ago, and he doubts whether these correlate with the skills required to adapt to and thrive in the world.

The education system and its methods of assessment are issues which are important to think through and debate. What seems important for now is an awareness of the demands of exams and assessments on children, and a mindful attitude towards whether we can offer the emotional provision required for children to thrive emotionally and intellectually.

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