Tell pupils to feel the Fear, then take the tests anyway

27th May 2016 at 01:00

Sure as eggs is eggs, the metronome of the school calendar has clicked back into the race towards the exam series. Even the students (and teachers) who are standing still can’t deny that it’s rushing towards them.

Some students are lively enough to see the storm and start pulling on their wellies. I know sixth-formers who have been mapping their free time since Christmas with a revision schedule. They get to make the most of their time: they start by studying lightly, from far away, and repeat, focusing, drilling down and reinforcing until, by the time that AQA approaches, their grasp of the content is both fixed in their mind and fluid in its manipulation.

Of course, these students have a gene that science would love to bottle. Hell, I would. Someone once wrote, “We should just find all the people who know where the little jugs for their irons are, and put them in charge.” When I see students who can plan their whole year so that they avoid the three-week coronary arrest of study leave, I’m reminded of that. These people will go on to become surgeons and architects and leaders, while the rest of us are texting to say that we’re running 10 minutes late.

For the rest of us mere mortals, the lusty month of May is rarely merry; we miss the first buds of summer because we’re planning catch-up days and attempting to distil a year’s worth of learning into a mind map, a list of bullet points, a booklet called What you need to know.

None of it is any use if the pupils won’t change the behaviours that made these things necessary in the first place; you can lead them to a hay bale, and put the nosebag under their nostrils, but nobody can chew the stuff apart from them.

Happily, nature provides a drop of motivation: the Fear. Fear, like any stress, is a subtle thing. Neither good nor bad, its utility varies by context. It can suffer the vice of excess, or an equally vicious deficiency.

Too little of it and you’ll challenge a gang of bikers to mambo; too much, and you’ll jump at a bowl of Rice Krispies. Students often live long, languid lives where the future is an unimaginably distant country, where there is always enough time, and “in a minute” will serve as the answer to any urgency. There is never enough time; this is one of the key pillars of adult wisdom. The day a child realises it is when they are no longer a child.

And too much paralyses. Any stimulant will do the same. There is a bell curve you can track here. We all need a little pressure to pull our fingers out; a little more, and we’re running at peak flow. But a little too much, and the engines cannae take it.

Our kids are like that. We’re like that. And exam season is the time to work out how much they need, and when they need to know this.

Some students start to feel the Fear and fold like an origami swan. You can see the cognitive dissonance roar up and drown them. “No point trying,” you can see in their eyes, “might as well get back to the Fifa.” That’s when we need to soothe them – sometimes by unpacking the syllabus they fear, sometimes by coaxing some self-belief out of them.

Others need the Fear blaring into their lives like a heavy-metal concert. It’s a delicate balance. Exams are stressful. So is life. This might be the last chance we get to show them how to handle it.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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