Moving Away from “Pressure Cooker” Schooling

There’s a huge difference between feeding children’s natural thirst for knowledge and curiosity about life, stimulating them with great ideas, and the practice of “hot-housing”. There are two elements to “pressure cooker” education, as I would term it – forcing too much, too soon, and placing too much of an emphasis on the superficial “products” of learning such as grades, and too little on the actual process and the meaningful aspects of learning that are harder to test, such as conceptual understanding and creativity.

“I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think that the same is true of human beings. We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected. Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to an extreme old age.” – Henry David Thoreau

One of the stronger memories of the short time I had in primary school is of the “list” that would come out after each quarterly exam. Every child’s exam grades would be averaged and a list made of the whole class, ranked. It was very blatantly meant to “pressure” or shame children into working harder and making it to the top. The fallacy is, of course, that only one child ever becomes “Number 1”. There cannot be more than one “Number 1” place in the ranking system. Of course, Malaysian schools also used to practice streaming, where the students who did better in exams (I wouldn’t say, who are “clever”) will be put into “A” classes, while those do did less well were put into less.

All I an say about such practices is that they favour some forms of intelligence or certain skills above others, mainly language and mathematics skills and exam-taking, answer-memorising skills. Not every child is born with such skills and has them fully developed at age seven or eight. There are children who “bloom” later and who need time to develop these skill. There are children with different talents and skillsets, who may indeed be “geniuses” in their own right. When we privilege some children above others and force children to conform to a rigid sets of expectations, we are destroying the confidence of those who don’t conform. The B-grade and C-grade achievers, or those who achieve “lower rankings’ in class will simply have it drilled into them for nearly twelve years that they aren’t good enough, that they are stupid, that they can’t do anything.

“Earlier” doesn’t mean “better”. “Faster” doesn’t meant “smarter”.

It never bothered me that I was an average student in school, not great but not particularly bad. There definitely wasn’t any stress or pressure from home to do extremely well in school. I left school at age eight, never to return (thankfully!). For the next ten years of my life, I was not subject to school exams and excessive scrutiny about my grades. The homeschool environment that comes from being in a “class of one” is not about underachievement and lack of effort (far from it). Instead of being compared to others, I had only myself to be compared to. It was about achieving my personal best in all areas, not just in “schooling” but in “life”.

The great thing about homeschooling was that we learned at our own pace. If we didn’t do well in a lesson, my mother could reset the unit and get us to do it again (properly). Being a competitive person, the minute I got into college the thrill of “A-chasing” became much stronger. I enjoy university and I do feel good when I get high grades. However, the learning isn’t just about the grades but the actual “learning” , the knowledge and skills that are developed through various assessments.

Sometimes, we get comments like, “You’re so accomplished” or “You have so many skills!” The truth is, being in the relatively noncompetitive and “sheltered” homeschooling sphere, we weren’t subject to a lot of scrutiny and didn’t feel like we had to do or achieve anything to. It wasn’t about the product of learning or showing that we were achieving so much as homeschoolers. We learned things and we picked up skills because we were genuinely interested in them and just wanted to explore different things.  Life moved as its own pace, without unnecessary stress.

I can’t help but think that commercialised or institutionalised education, even progressive or project-based learning has this drawback – children are “on show”. They are like subjects in an experiments or specimens being observed under a microscope. Everything they do reflects on the school, and the school feels the necessity, consciously or unconsciously, to have “something to show”. Children may not be able to learn and do projects at their own pace and according to their interests, because the school needs to market itself producing “brilliant” and “accomplished” students. This isn’t the best thing, because what children need is the chance to be themselves and to learn away from all the class rankings, school rankings, international rankings, social media publicity and so forth.

We need to let children be children. Childhood isn’t about achievement and achievement isn’t about achievement.  Doing a project or learning something isn’t meant to be about “showing off”, but about the value that comes from the process itself. Conceptual development and the development of creativity and thinking skills occurs away from the public gaze. They simply aren’t “testable”. Is play “testable”?

I believe that intelligence develops “underground”. Like a pot of soup, it simmers away merrily for a long time, until the time comes when it is uncovered and served. Talent should developed and encouraged, but it shouldn’t be hot-housed and forced to unveil itself before its time. For one time, you don’t know what form it will take.

Education isn’t meant to be a parade or a stage-show. If it is, then it would be a fiction, something that looks and sounds good, but isn’t true or real. From a policy perspective, grades should not be the considered the bottom  line, nor should children’s learning be micro-managed. If you have learned something, you will be able to apply it and synthesize it. It doesn’t mean that you have to take a test to constantly prove that you’ve learned it.

Children should not be constantly ranked, compared, and criticised. Instead, they should be having fun and enjoying their childhood. They should be encouraged and praised for their accomplishments in all areas, not just “school subjects”. They should have the time to be themselves and get to know themselves, to explore their interests. They shouldn’t have to be on their toes, bogged by the expectation of schools, teachers, parents, governments, institutions, their extended family, their parents’ friends and society in general. To everyone else, we should say, “Hands off and let the child be!”



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