It’s exam season here in Cambridge and I’ve been spending a great deal of time with anxious students lately. But I do feel for them so much. The pressure put on children to perform well in examinations seems to grow year on year, and given that what happens in an exam is such a poor indication of the education they’ve received, it seems entirely unfair. My son is sitting his first set of qualifications this summer, and I’ve had lots of conversations with Mister Litlove, and in fact, with friends who have children at the same stage lately. There’s a huge parental desire to make kids do their revision, to oblige them to face up to the importance of the exams they’re sitting, in the belief that these are make or break situations, that life will somehow pass them by unless they have a string of excellent grades.
I am staunchly against this, not least because I witness in my job all the damage that this approach inflicts. Children are well aware that exams are important; they have it drummed into them just about every day they are at school. And what happens at school is that the exam becomes far more important than the subject. The students I see have lost all connection with the interest and curiosity they may have once had in their studies, although it’s possible they never really cared for them much anyway, and only chose to pursue certain subjects because they felt they were good at them. Inevitably, then, the work they do will be undertaken in a sterile, joyless frame of mind, whilst their fragile sense of identity is overly dependent on a good grade. If parents have joined in teachers in exerting pressure on children, then they begin to believe that they are ‘bad’ or unlovable if they don’t get the grades they need. They no longer situate their sense of value and guidance inside themselves, but rely quite desperately on external events to prove their worth. For the worst cases, who’ve grown accustomed to being pushed by teachers and parents, they have no sense of responsibility for their own development and no independent will power to get on with work. And the bad news is that, by 19 or so, their characters are in the final stages of formation, and altering their attitudes is going to take a great deal of pain and suffering that could have been spared them, if they’d been left to make their mistakes and figure out what was important to them a whole lot earlier.
Once you put an examination at the end of a course, you effectively put up a hurdle and a promised reward. Kids know that what comes with a reward or payoff is generally a task that’s tedious or unrewarding in itself. ‘But they won’t work if we don’t examine them!’ I’ve heard many teachers wail. Not true. Human beings are innately curious and innately creative; you just need to give them the right sort of conditions in which to exercise those qualities. Thirty-five children in a class, supposed to be sitting down and listening quietly may not be the right conditions (particularly for boys). Many years ago now, behavioural scientists tried out an experiment with monkeys, putting puzzles in their cages intending to offer food if the monkeys could solve them. Before they even got that far, the monkeys were trying to work the puzzles out. The scientists could not believe it. They had wanted to know how much incentive was required, and had never bargained on no incentive at all being necessary.
These findings were replicated by a group of researchers working with young children who liked to do drawing. One group were asked to draw for a certificate and a ribbon. Another group were asked to draw and at the end were unexpectedly given a certificate and a ribbon. And the final group were just invited to draw. When the researchers returned to the school several weeks later, they found that the children who’d done drawings knowing there’d be a reward at the end of it had given up drawing now in their free time. The other two groups drew as much as they had done before. Examinations and rewards can actually be a disincentive to work, particularly when that work is playful and creative.
Do you know, I had no intention of writing any of this when I sat down? It must be on my mind more than I knew. But my point here is to trust the child, and to let the child grow up to be exactly themselves, which will be more than enough. Things work out how they must, and there is no point forcing children into situations, courses, pathways, that don’t suit them or for which they feel no genuine, motivating passion. Every parent wants the best for their child, no question of that; but getting parents to accept they might not be the best placed to know what that best thing is, is an awful lot harder. Things go wrong whether we like it or not, the best laid plans unravel; the only thing we can usefully teach our children is to roll with the punches of destiny, and to believe in their capacity for self-knowledge, innovation and resilience.
Okay, screech of soapbox being pushed to one side. With that off my chest, perhaps I can talk about the actual topic of the day which is, believe it or not, plans for summer reading. You’d never have guessed that, would you? I was going to talk about how much I’ve been enjoying readalongs lately, and wondered whether anyone fancied joining in with some (no examinations at the end!). Emily and I are going to read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood in the month of July, and if anyone else wanted to join in, that would be delightful.
I’m also intending to read Angela Carter’s Wise Children and Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge in August. Nothing happens in the blogworld in August; it’s so quiet and sparsely populated. Again if anyone wanted to readalong, it would be lovely to have companions for both books. Let me tell you a bit about the books. Angela Carter’s Wise Children concerns two theatrical families, the Chances and the Hazzards and the crazy, bizarre things that happen to them. It’s a blend of Shakespearian romance and magical realism, written in Carter’s rich and vibrant language. The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge is Rilke’s only work in prose, and again it is a rather odd book but a stunningly brilliant one and an amazing example of the modernist imagination. It begins with the poet living in Paris and suffering from the convergence of his delicate sensibility and the brutal sights and sounds of the city. Trying to calm himself, he returns to memories of his childhood and, when that fails, to legends and parables. This one will be a reread for me, but it’s been years since I last read it. Well, I’ll be reading them anyway, but if anyone wanted to join in, that would be lovely.