<Start Small, Dream Big>
Recently, we have two group of students who undertook an assessment on the same syllabus.
Group 1 were given sufficient rest before a positive start in a pleasant environment, parents were involved and given transparent information about the assessment (goals, objectives, how it would be conducted), and the children were exposed to a balanced myriad of activities.
Group 2 started early on the preparation of the assessment, given more chances to practice, but the teachers took on a sterner tone, with the threat of punishment/exclusion, the consequence of not excelling in the assessment was repeated, the parents weren’t given information about the assessment.
There were more anxiety experienced by both parents and children in group 2. Despite more practice and threat of dire consequence in group 2, the children in group 2 fared worse in the assessment. The children in group took the assessment in a relaxed manner and fared significantly better.
I was asked several questions by the parents in both groups:
- Are the results in group 1 ‘true’? This was asked because the children did not learn and take the assessment under stress. Surely exam and life must be stressful.
- Would the children in group 2 score better if they were given the same harsh environment for longer period so they get acclimatised?
This reminds me of a conversation with a friend on altitude training.
Elite athletes often take up altitude training, of which the oxygen level is much lower and making the usual practice much harder on the body. When these athletes compete on ground level, with full access to oxygen and easier physical environment, their stronger bodies are able to perform better.
Parents, who asked me if exposing a child to a sterner learning environment earlier would pre-disposed her to take stress better in future, is confusing the physical aspect of altitude training of an elite athlete versus the mental development of a young child.
The elite athlete did not pick up the sports with his parent and coach deliberately tripping him up mentally.
In a 2016 study by S. Vogel and L. Schwabe published in npj Science of Learning, they found that
’1) stress induced a shift from a flexible ‘cognitive’ memory system depending on the hippocampus towards a more rigid, ‘habit’-like memory system based on the dorsal striatum;
2) Furthermore, stress may hinder the integration of new information into existing knowledge structures, which may prevent the updating of knowledge by new facts or a deep multidisciplinary understanding of concepts which is often required in education;
3) It is important to note that the impairing effects of stress on retrieval are quite long-lasting, such that stressors long before the exam (e.g., at home) may still affect performance in the test situation.
4) Stress before learning may bias students towards rigid forms of learning, which may hinder the successful transfer of knowledge and reduce cognitive flexibility in problem solving.’
In other words, a stressful learning environment promotes rigid rote learning that fosters the child to cope by memorising and also impeding his ability to retrieve information during the test. The child is less likely to learn deeply, commit to longer term and has the ability to apply in future real life situation.
Together, these findings highlight that stress may critically shape our memories, which in turn cumulate to our personality and who we are.
Hence, a fuller answer to the parents’ question:
- Yes, the assessment results of group 1 are ‘true’, and reflect our child’s true ability.
- No, prolonged exposure to stress is unhealthy and shapes a rigid form of learners. Flexible learners are more able to apply what they master and apply them in life. Hence, they are more resilient to handle what life throws us.
The best resilient training for our child is our unconditional love and explicit display of our love for them. Unconditional as in there is no dire consequence, regardless of the outcome, we love them, they are smart, they are worthy.
When we believe in our children, we lift them up in tangible ways. They know they can do anything because we believe in them to begin with.