Schools system is failing our young people

An education system that is rigidly results-driven is crushing potential, creativity and vitality, argues clinical psychologist Dr Tony Humphreys
Schools system is failing our young people

LEARNING CURVE: Our current education system puts pressure on both teachers and students

THE nature of our educational system is having adverse effects on students, and, indeed, teachers’ wellbeing, according to a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

The research was focused on second-level students preparing for the Leaving Certificate examinations.

Many students complained of the squeeze on their time — school attendance, homework, sport, study and for some students, part-time work.

The most alarming, though not surprising, finding is that the educational approach ‘crushed their creativity’ due to the fact that examinations reward rote learning and suited those who were prepared to learn and regurgitate knowledge on a page.

This finding reinforces the fact that we live in a results-driven society and our preoccupation with results is tragically expiring rather than inspiring in nature.

Education derives from the verb ‘educe’ which means ‘to draw forth from within’. The original teaching method of Socrates has been largely displaced by professorial deference to received scholarly authority. By and large, our students are taught how to take assessments and exams but not to think, write, or find their own path.

Many students found that the pressures from school and home forced them to give up sport, led to sleep disturbance and not having time to meet friends, which is a critical aspect of adolescent development. What echoed strongly in students’ responses is ‘what a student does in school is never seen as enough’.

In the research, teachers, too, admitted to time pressure which was leading to rote learning — ‘teaching to the test’ — and recognised the adverse impact of this on students’ motivation and stress levels.

The ‘grinds phenomenon’ was another telling revelation with large numbers of students undertaking grinds in several subjects, giving rise to ‘burn-out’ and jeopardising emotional and social wellbeing.

In contrast to the experiences of the Leaving Certificate students, transition year students spoke positively of work experience and links with local community and businesses.

Tony Humphreys
Tony Humphreys

It was reassuring to read of students affirming the high quality of teaching staff, motivational teachers and quality relationships. Nevertheless, students want changes — fewer subjects and choice related to their individual talents, abilities and passions, broader forms of assessment — certainly continuous — and, wisely, routes other than formal higher education be given greater emphasis.

The research findings and other international studies are certainly calling to look at parents, teachers, students and education with fresh eyes. An old Chinese proverb captures the spirit of the changes being called for: “Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.”

Each child is unique and always has talents to contribute and will do so when he or she feels valued, needed and valuable. The reality is that parents, who are the primary educators, and teachers can only provide such holdings for the child/student from how they see and feel for themselves — emotionally, physically, socially, intellectually, behaviourally and creatively.

There is certainly a need to upskill the parenting and teaching professions in terms of the impact of adverse childhood experiences in homes, schools and communities on children’s emotional, social and educational wellbeing.

Indeed, the priority needs to be Parents First and Teachers First. Parents are the first educators of children and the psycho-social safe opportunities for them to examine their lives to date and to create lived rather than unlived lives, will hugely benefit their young charges’ overall progress.

The same is true for teachers. They, too, deserve the professional safe opportunities to reflect on their own lives and to realise the effects of adverse family and school circumstances on children’s emotional and social wellbeing and on their educational progress.

Alongside such consciousness-raising opportunities, all schools need a specialist on children’s and adults’ overall wellbeing.

A reality that needs to consciously emerge is that the quality of our relationships, the quality of our parenting, the quality of our teaching, the quality of our leadership, the quality of our citizenship and the quality of our life’s journey can never be higher than the quality of our relationship with Self.

The provision of the opportunities to engage in this essential life task is critical not only for the wellbeing of children, of students, but for all adults as well. The paradox is that life needs to be remembered backwards but lived forward.

I believe a school can become a space that supports parents, teachers and students, each on their personal journey to conscious expression of wholeness — in wholeness we are fully alive. Extraordinary things begin to emerge when it is psycho-socially safe for each of us to bring all of whom we are to a particular environment — home, school, classroom, community, workplace, church.

Sadly, when fear necessarily and creatively, in the face of adverse circumstances, buries key aspects of us, then much of our potential, creativity and vitality lies untapped.

Dr Tony Humphreys is a Cork-based clinical psychologist, author and national/international speaker.

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