Monday, 23 January 2017

Why people think Fear and Anxiety need not be Obstacles

Recently, while supervising at an exam in school, I came across a sentence written of the window ledge, "Thanx for ruining our life." I was disturbed by what I was seeing and wondered what could have been the cause of such negativity and helplessness. On one another occasion, I came across one of my science students in Delhi, who had fallen into deep sleep. It was clear that he was deeply exhausted. Students the world over are facing tremendous stress like never before, and our systems and structures of education are not helping them in any case.
What had once started as a drive to reduce the weight of school bags has now changed into a challenge for reducing stress and anxiety in students. It must have been the result of unimaginable stress and anxiety that a student wrote in a rather sarcastic sense, of course, to thank somebody for ruining his or her life! To blame any one factor for this instance of extreme negativism and pessimism would be wrong, and thereby to advocate the doing away of written exams, or some form of assessment would be wrong!
It is clear in most cases that fear is both self-induced and also other-induced. So, when a mother tells her child to stop crying or else the bogey-man will take her away, she is in effect inducing a sense of fear in her child, a fear of the dark, a fear of strange sounds, empty spaces, and a lot of other things included. The fear of failure in children is induced by parents, the society, and even schools. A college mate of mine used to have panic attacks before the final exams. He would vomit, feel nauseous, and generally debilitated before each exam. He missed a few exams and thus completed his graduation much after me! The society that the student lives in, is also responsible for inducing the fear of failure in the child. So when people talk about their own fears about appearing in exams, their trepidation about impending results, they are in effect transmitting their own feelings on to the child.The school too is responsible for instilling a feeling of fear in the child when it tells him that he might as well seek admission in another school because of poor performance.
Students who don't fear failure will however also suffer from stress and anxiety related issues. Stress results from having to do too much at the same time. A brilliant science student, a girl studying in a girls only school in grade eleven decided that she would like to be a doctor. She joined one of the well-known coaching centers in Delhi. What happened was that she began spending more time working than resting. It became very difficult to complete whatever home task had been given to her. The tutors at the coaching center were very particular that she completed their homework. Her teachers at school demanded that she complete their homework. In the end, it became very difficult for her to cope and so she had to drop a year.
When a group of eighth-graders decided to use fear as the theme for their assembly, it became very clear that they had understood how fear had indeed become a debilitating factor which had robbed most students of their capability to excel. What makes matters worse is the bullying that students receive from their peers. 'Nerds', students who are good in studies are ridiculed when they go to the badminton field to play a game. They fail to play well before they even start a game, just because the comments made by their own classmates have made them so self-conscious and fearful; they are so afraid of making a wrong move that they fail miserably! Failure is infectious, and the fear of it is even more infectious!
Schools and curriculum-framers too are responsible for the fear, stress, and anxiety that students face during their days in school! A drastic shift in pedagogy and assessment strategies will put the fear of the unknown into the minds of learners. Thus, when seventh graders get promoted to the eighth grade and they get to write so much more than in their previous grade they are stressed out and anxious about their performance in exams that for them would be the first time they would be doing a two to three hours written paper! The attraction of 'joyful learning' fades away as all of a sudden, 'academic rigour' and 'deadly deadlines' begin to loom over them like a sword ready to dispatch them off!
So, what then is the solution for all of these issues? At the school level, it is important to introduce students to academic rigour steadily and gradually. What matters the most is that students need to start writing as much as possible from their earliest grades. Some form of formal written tests with a time limit should be introduced in the primary grades itself. The idea of deadlines should be introduced gently but surely in the early formative years of a student's life in school. The old but perfectly fine adage, 'practice makes a man perfect' works even today! Also, teachers should let struggling students taste success from time to time. This does not mean that students are always passed even when they have not done well enough.
The introduction of the grading system by different education boards across the world may have reduced cut-throat competition, but it has not eliminated it completely. Making board results not entirely responsible for getting admission to college, and instead, introducing entrance exams and interviews have helped a lot, though more needs to be done. Today, however, soaring cut off lists in some of the premier universities in the country based on board results have added to the stress and anxiety that students feel during the final year at school.
Parents need to learn to back off and not breath down their children's necks. Parents must accept that their children have potentials and capabilities that can be nurtured through tact and patience and not through threats, induced fear or even bribery. The word 'bribery' reminds me of a question that appeared in one of the Pre-board paper. In the question, students were asked to 'Write an article...urging all parents to give their time and moral support to their children' and not just fob them off with 'expensive gifts'. Parents are known to bribe their children by telling them that if they score a ninety-eight in the best of four subjects, they will gift them a car, or an expensive mobile. While this 'bribery' might have some motivational impact, it also induces undue stress in a student who is not so good to go all out and achieve those magical marks! The bad thing about this form of motivation is that it becomes a vicious circle where the student who achieves the magical marks expects more gifts from his parents to achieve success in college. What matters most is for the student to score well in exams and to view the good marks as the reward, not the expensive car. A few students whose papers I examined mentioned bribery as one of the things parents resort to in order to induce their wards to score well in exams.
We are living in a materialistic world where the economics of life dictate that we participate in a rat race in order to achieve success. Not all the rats will reach the finishing line the first, and not all of them will be the last. What we need our children to understand is that they don't always have to stand first, it is OK to come second or even last. What matters is to enjoy what we are doing and to gladly take ownership for our own performance. When a student comes up to me and tells me that I gave him fewer marks than he deserved, I respond to him and tell him that it could be the other way round, it could be that he had earned those marks. When another student scores a perfect ten on ten and tells me that I gave him a ten, I tell him that he had earned them! The label of being a failure is such a frightful one that one becomes devastated when one tastes failure! This reminds me of the story about Robert The Bruce. Once when he was recuperating from his wounds and the humility of having being defeated once again, he saw a spider attempt to climb up a  web string. It fell down a number of times and each time it fell, it started climbing up once again. Robert drew inspiration from this incident and he went on to be a successful warrior.
A great number of students will not answer a question in class because they are afraid of giving the wrong answer. Some will respond to their teacher's prompting but add that they are not sure about the answer. These hesitations are the greatest obstacles to learning and excelling. What needs to be communicated to all students is that failures, wrong answers, and mistakes can be some of the most powerful reasons to learn! A skilled teacher will be able to turn around a wrong answer to analyze concepts, ideas, and principles. It is good to make mistakes because we can learn from them. People who don't fail don't learn, do they? In any case, who can understand the meaning of success than the defeated soldier lying in the battlefield listening to others celebrating their success! Emily Dickinson's poem suggests that the joy of success can be tasted only by one who has tasted defeat. The fact is that no one who is an expert in cycling can claim never to have fallen off his bicycle. No one, not even an expert swimmer can claim not to have choked, drinking water while learning to swim!
Fear, anxiety and stress can, in fact, be the greatest inducements for us to succeed in life. This reminds me of William Douglas, an outdoorsman,  and a friend of W.D. Roosevelt who could not enjoy adventure activities of canoeing, trekking, and fishing for landlocked salmon because of his fear of water. This fear robbed him of the pleasures of connecting with nature while trekking and canoeing.His fear of water was the result of two incidents that place during his early childhood and teens. It drove the fear of drowning firmly into his heart. Douglas became so fed up of his fear that he finally decided that he had to do something about it. He thought enough was enough and he took up a two-pronged approach towards tackling this problem. He first hired the services of a swimming instructor. He trained under him patiently, day after day, till he had learned enough. But then that was not enough for Douglas. He still had to face his fear. What he did was to swim solo in the swimming pool. The old fear came to him and Douglas confronted it and it fled. He was still not satisfied, and so he decided to swim in Lake Wentworth between Triggs Island and Stamp Act Island. When he put his face down into the water, the old fear returned, but Douglas confronted it and it fled. Nothing can beat the joy of having one's fear, nothing can the thrill of having overcome one's stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety can be the inner voices that prod us towards success. Fear can be a motivation to strive to defeat it. As Roosevelt stated, "all we have to fear is fear itself!" the rest will fall in place!

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