Scared into learning: how schools run on fear of failure

14th May 2010 at 01:00
They use high levels of anxiety to maintain discipline, research claims

Schools rely on generating fear among pupils in order to function smoothly, new research claims.

But pupils' resulting anxiety can lead to the academic failure they have been taught to fear, according to Carolyn Jackson, senior lecturer at Lancaster University.

"Fears are pervasive in educational settings," she says in a paper published in the journal Educational Review. "Schools ... attempt to scare children into working, by highlighting how hard they must work, and outlining the consequences of 'failure' ... Schools could not function without reports, tests, exams and selection. High levels of anxiety are important for maintaining discipline."

When Dr Jackson, who specialises in psychological education, questioned 800 pupils from six secondaries about their education-related fears, the vast majority were anxious about academic failure.

Teenagers worried about scoring less than their peers in national tests and therefore being perceived as stupid. While other forms of fear tended to decrease with age, test anxiety typically increased as pupils progressed through school.

"I don't pray a lot," said interviewee Shareen, discussing key stage 3 tests. "Before the Sats I just started to pray and I used to ask God to help me and stuff," said interviewee Shareen. Teenager Mark added: "I was scared of going down to bottom sets."

Much of the pressure came from parents: many spoke about their fear of not living up to elder siblings' achievements. "If I don't do well ... I'll be a bit of a disappointment because of my two sisters getting higher results," teenager Terry said.

Working-class pupils were under pressure to do better than their "unsuccessful" parents or siblings.

Although both girls and boys discussed their fear of failure, significantly more girls admitted to feeling anxious about Sats: 75 per cent, compared with 64 per cent of boys. And girls were more likely than boys to describe their fears in vivid terms. "I was scared to death," teenager Jenny said.

Dr Jackson believes this may stem from gender stereotypes. "Boys and men are expected to show no fear," she said.

In fact, she argues, fear can be crippling. Pupils terrified of academic failure often adopted a range of defensive strategies such as procrastination and reprioritisation, which ultimately hindered their chances of success.

"Fear as a motivator is unlikely to be successful in the long-term," Dr Jackson concluded. "Learning is the first casualty in highly competitive school environments."


What pupil interviewees said ...

- "I was scared to death! I thought: 'Oh no, I'll get stuck halfway through and I won't be able to answer any of the questions.'" Jenny

- "My parents want me to do well, 'cause they said they wish they'd done well at school and done better and stuff." Jane

- "I was shaking, because there was so much pressure. People were willing you to do well, and inside you were thinking, 'I don't know if I can do it.'" Steph.

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