Another year, another set of GCSE results. More photos of triumphant and disappointed teenagers – and a plethora of reports of anxiety, panic attacks and depression amongst the 16-year-olds who have just completed their exams.
“GCSEs have been a horrible experience,” says one 16-year-old (quoted in the Guardian). “I have suffered from panic attacks and a high increase in anxiety. It’s quite scary how as a student I find it normal to see my peers break down in lessons as they are scared of what’s going to happen to them in the future if they fail.”
The symptoms that this teenager is describing sound entirely natural to me. If you tell people that their whole lives will be decided on how well they perform in a series of very intense assessments taking place over a few weeks, it’s understandable if they respond with anxiety and panic. In fact, it would be odd if they didn’t.
It’s the culmination of a school system based on fear and rewards – rewards if you comply with the school requirements, and fear used a tool to manipulate the less compliant. I know 9-year-olds who were told by their teachers that if they didn’t work harder and do better in their tests they wouldn’t get good jobs when they grew up. The result, anxious 9-year-olds.
As a psychologist, it seems bizarre to me to deliberately induce anxiety and fear in children in order to motivate them to learn – because anxiety and fear blocks learning. Fear is a response to danger, and its purpose is to get us away from the source of threat. The response is not very sophisticated, and it probably evolved to get us away from dangerous predators. For this reason, when we are afraid, blood supply is directed to our muscles so we can escape from or fight the source of threat. Our heart beats fast to get more oxygen supply to the muscles, and we start to feel agitated and trapped if we can’t get up and move around.
It all makes sense when the threat is a lion. But when the threat is exam failure, the response is useless – we can’t run away or fight the exams, and leaves us feeling panicky and anxious.
Yet we know that fear is not beneficial for learning. In order to learn effectively, children (and adults) need to be relaxed and able to explore freely. Fear acts directly against this.
This is why democratic schools are against high stakes testing, and instead fight for the right of children to learn free of assessment or judgment. By taking a self-directed approach, they aim to preserve the love of learning which all humans are born with, and which the fear of failure destroys for so many.
It’s hard for many of us to imagine a school where children learn for the love of it, rather than for fear of failure. Most of us were told that we had to be examined in order to motivate us, that otherwise we would waste our time and that more and harder exams were the only way to guarantee excellence. And in the process, for many learning became a chore rather than a joy.
It’s a sad truth that losing your joy in learning and your belief in yourself has the potential to seriously alter your life course, way beyond the consequences of failure at GCSE. If you believe in your ability to learn, and enjoy the process, you will be able to learn what you need when you need it. And you can take exams when you want to and need them, rather than because you are 16, and everyone else takes GCSEs when they are 16.
Knowledge can be acquired at any time. Joy in learning and intrinsic motivation, part of our birthright as humans, are far harder to regain once gone. High stakes testing damage both those things and with very little benefit. It’s time for change.