'If we want children to be truly successful, schools must change the way they teach'

7th July 2016 at 11:00
stress, anxiety, education, students
Focusing on tests and grades is contributing high levels of anxiety and stress in children, says Stanford University researcher

Schools need to radically alter the way they educate children to equip them with the skills they need for the 21st century – and help them make them cope with high levels of anxiety, depression and stress, according to a leading academic.

The education system is failing to give students the resilience and wider skills they need to thrive at school and lead productive lives, says Dr Denise Pope, senior lecturer at the Stanford School of Education and co-founder of Challenge Success, a research project that aims to reduce pressure on young people.

Parents are also failing to look after their children properly, putting excessive pressure on them to succeed and not giving them sufficient time to play and relax.

Here, Dr Pope, author of book Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids, explains what is going wrong – and what schools can do to help:

What were the most surprising things you learned in doing the research for your book, Overloaded and Underprepared?

Since we have been working with schools for over a decade to promote healthy, engaged learning, we weren’t surprised to see that many of the students in K-12 schools in the US are disengaged – going through the motions of learning, “doing school,” or opting out of the system altogether. Many more are anxious, stressed, and lack positive coping mechanisms.

We know that many of these kids are not learning the important 21st century skills they need to succeed – skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, creativity, and resilience.

What surprised us was that we have good data to show the benefits of a number of educational policies and practices that help kids gain these skills and become more motivated and engaged with learning, but relatively few schools in the US use these policies or practices. In the book, we summarize the research behind each of these effective strategies, such as healthier schedules, alternative assessments, and wellness initiatives, and then offer practical case studies and tools to help educators make changes that will help their students thrive.

What is your message for parents who are concerned about how their kids will remain competitive if they challenge the status quo?

We see far too many kids who suffer from debilitating health issues, such as depression, eating disorders, perfectionism, severe sleep deprivation, and anxiety. We know parents may be worried about stepping off the fast-track, but we urge them to consider the big picture and the ultimate health and wellbeing of their children.

To help parents, we offer a three-part plan, based on the research around protective factors for kids, called PDF.

The P stands for playtime – a time each day where your child can engage in freely selected, child-driven play activities. This may include some structured extracurricular activities, but “playtime” should also include unstructured time for imaginative and social play (which for teens is often time to “play” with friends, either in person or via social media).

The D stands for downtime which includes sleep (8-10 hours for teens and 9-11 for elementary school children), as well as time for reflection, introspection, and self-relaxation and restorative practices, such as reading for pleasure, playing or listening to music, yoga, etc.

And the F stands for family time – a critical component for healthy child development, where the majority of the family spends time together eating meals, doing service, checking in and loving one another unconditionally.

The irony is that if we want our kids to be truly successful (happy, healthy, fulfilled, and prepared for life outside of school), we need to challenge the narrow conception of success as solely related to grades, test scores, and educational credentials, and we must focus on these other critical components.

What is your message for educators?

Challenging the status quo as an educator is not easy, but it can be done.

The trick is to start slowly, choose one area of focus, and then begin a dialogue with at least one other educator at your school so you don’t have to face the task alone.

Our book offers tips for teachers who want to make small but powerful changes to their own classroom policies, such as changes to the kind of homework assigned and how much it is worth, test correction and revision policies, incorporating more real-world, project-based learning and authentic assessments, and how to foster more positive teacher-student relationships.

We also offer concrete suggestions for educators who want to implement bigger changes at their schools, for example, changing from a traditional to a block schedule, creating an advisory program, developing a wellness curriculum, or reimagining grading practices and report cards.

We summarize the research behind each change and offer practical suggestions from over twenty different schools. We find that teachers and administrators appreciate that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

They can learn from the mistakes and advice of those who have recently gone through the school reform process. Finally, we urge educators to work together with parents and students to achieve the necessary buy-in and goodwill to foster successful and long-lasting change.

What is your message for students who are faced with looking like failures to their peer group if they choose to take a different path?

We know that parents and kids face peer pressure to conform to traditional and narrow visions of success – especially academic success.

Much of this pressure stems from misconceptions about college and career paths. Just as we try to convince kids not to engage in risky behavior simply because it is “cool” and everyone else is doing it, we take the same approach to challenging success.

We share positive stories about students who have chosen alternate paths. We describe extremely successful kids who took gap years before deciding what they wanted to do, kids who chose to go to community college or trade schools, kids who chose not to over-enroll in AP or honors courses because they were sufficiently challenged and excited by other courses or teachers or activities and knew that they couldn’t do it all and still get the sleep they needed.

We know that one size does not fit all, and that there are many, many paths to success. We remind students that they have one body and that they need to care for themselves physically and emotionally and to make healthy and authentic choices that will pay off in the long run. After all, success isn’t measured at the end of a semester, but over the course of a lifetime.

What progress are we making in better preparing our students for today’s world? 

We are definitely making progress in terms of incorporating social and emotional learning into the classroom, integrating technology, learning from recent research on the brain, and recognizing the importance of the school-family connection to better prepare our students for today’s world.

That said, too many of our schools still rely on traditional notions of teaching and learning that prioritize lectures, tests, memorization, and ranking and sorting students.

If we want our students to be prepared for the world, we need to organize our schools and classrooms to operate more like the out-of-school world where folks work together on projects, use multiple resources to gather and analyze information, brainstorm ideas, prototype and iterate, seek feedback from a wide range of sources, and ultimately share their finished products with real audiences.

By doing this kind of work, students hone their interpersonal and collaborative skills, stretch their imaginations, acquire key content skills and knowledge, and engage in rich, fulfilling experiences that benefit the larger community.

Challenge Success helps educators incorporate more of these “work” world strategies into their curricula, creating an environment where students are motivated, engaged, and more likely to retain what they learn.

A version of this article first appeared on the Global Search for Education. Follow on Twitter @CMRubinWorld

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