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Effective learning 'can make pupils unhappy'

Policymakers should be aware of a trade-off between pupils' achievement and happiness, report warns

Academic warns there is a trade off between effective learning and pupils wellbeing

Policymakers should be aware of a trade-off between pupils' achievement and happiness, report warns

Traditional teaching, homework and school competition can boost pupil achievement but make children unhappy, according to a new report.

Gabriel Heller-Sahlgren said policymakers need to be aware of an “achievement/happiness trade-off” in education.

His paper for the Centre for Education Economics, published today, questions the idea that “pupil wellbeing and effective learning go hand in hand."

It says: “Several interventions and strategies involve an achievement happiness trade-off, including competition from autonomous and independent schools, external school-leaving exams, and teacher-centred teaching methods.

“These interventions appear to increase pupils’ test scores as well as decrease pupil happiness and make learning less joyful, thereby illustrating the achievement–happiness trade-off that for long has been ignored in educational thinking.”

He said the idea that pupil well-being and effective learning go hand in hand is an important tenet of progressive educational theory.

“Since ‘deep’, genuine learning is supposed to be invigorating and joyful, education that does not live up to these ideals tends to be seen as ineffective and wasteful,” he added.

However, Mr Heller Sahlgren’s paper finds that effective learning is often not enjoyable.

He adds: “This does not mean that policymakers should ignore pupil well-being entirely.

"A basic cost-benefit analysis suggests that pupil achievement is more important from an economic perspective – but when using adult life satisfaction as the outcome measure instead of income, pupil happiness appears more important.

“The paper’s principal lesson is to start taking the concept of trade-offs seriously in education.

"Policymakers and stakeholders must carefully assess the extent to which their proposed policies involve trade-offs – and take these into account in their decision-making in regard to which goals to promote and which ones to discard.”

Cecilia K Y Chan, head of professional development and an associate professor in the Centre for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at the University of Hong Kong, has highlighted how the world is looking to East Asia for educational inspiration without realising how unhappy that education approach is making young people

Speaking in this week’s Tes Podagogy podcast, she says: “Chinese culture is very driven by grades and assessment and academic knowledge.

“There were three interviews and tests for my daughter to get into school. She is four years old.

"A lot of parents will put their children through interview prep classes at that age that cost hundreds of pounds.

“Then if you look at OECD, we are top for many subjects, but we are also very low for the happiness of our students. We also have a very high suicide rate for teenagers.

"The approach is not making our pupils happy.”

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