Child Happiness and the Tyranny of the Test Score
It’s end-of-term examination day.
Like the popular rapper, your palms are sweaty. Maybe your knees aren’t weak, but your hands are heavy. These exams will determine your results, your placement among your peers, and most importantly, they’ll determine the report sheet you take home to your parents. There’s a one-month holiday coming up. These results will determine whether you enjoy the holidays or not. To your young mind, whether your parents love you or not is dependent on these results. You may get that bicycle, or not. These results, and the exams that will shape them, will decide.
In their book, Introduction to Psychology, Charles Stangor and Jennifer Walinga discuss the concept of “the old brain”. The limbic system is the original brain, prehistoric, governing emotions and memory. It contains the amygdalae, the hypothalamus, and the hippocampus. The fight-or-flight nature all humans possess, that's the limbic system. It knows what to be afraid of, and when it recognizes a new threat, it logs it into storage, guiding our perceptions of aggression and fear. Do you fight, or do you run?
What made us different from other animals is that we developed something else, something called the cerebral cortex. It is partly made up of the frontal lobe, the part of the brain just behind the forehead, and right at the front of the lobe is the prefrontal cortex. It’s the part of the brain that is used to think, create, plan, use language, express personality, judge social situations, acquire complex skills.
You need both, but it is clear what part of your brain you’ll like to be using the most.
The educational systems in most countries involve the use of tests and assignments to judge student performance. These tests determine promotion to the next level of schooling, entry into higher institutions, scholarship opportunities, employment opportunities. Crucially, they may also determine and dictate parent-child relationships.
In my home country, children are assigned “positions”: the class is graded and then ranked. In a class of thirty, you’ll rather be sixth than twenty-sixth.
Often, these positions are assigned from as early as the age-5 class, the first in primary school for British-based systems, or elementary school for Americans. So as early as 5, children are pitted in competition with each other, which extends to the parents. You want your kid finishing high up in class. Too low, and there’s something wrong with their cognitive ability, or they aren’t working hard enough. The consequences of winning or losing this competition may be wide-ranging: some parents don’t care, and some really do. However, the competition exists, at an age when children should definitely not be competing.
David Berliner, in a guest article on the Washington Post from 2011 titled “Why giving standardized tests to young children is ‘really dumb’”, discussed how children in the first eight to eleven years of their lives do not possess the mental sophistication to undergo standardized testing. They may not understand the instructions needed to carry out the tests, and memory accumulation in a child that young varies from day to day, or even from hour to hour. Their brains just aren’t ready for that.
The brain’s “plasticity”, its ability to learn and restructure itself, is at its peak in early childhood, and this plasticity happens in the frontal lobe, the cortexes. Everyone knows tests and exams are basically regurgitations from memory, and that’s the old brain. The absurdity becomes clear.
Preparation for these tests and time spent doing homework also replaces time spent at play, and children learn a lot about their environments and each other while playing. They figure out social interaction, creativity in spaces, artistry, and early-stage technical ability, all while playing. Taking playtime away from kids and devoting that to study should be unacceptable in a healthy society, yet it is prevalent.
Here’s the worst part: a child is more likely to remember the consequences of performing badly in a test than they would remember the test itself.
Parental strictness has become a running joke among African, South American, and Asian adults of a certain age. Literally, since stand-up comedians have built routines around this very issue. Comedy, they say, is an effective tool for coping with trauma.
At a very early stage in life, there might be dire consequences for performing badly in school. It’s not uncommon to meet people who may have doubted their parents’ love for them, as a result of the parent’s reaction to a bad academic performance. This is a very early trauma, children feeling like they have to earn their parent’s affection through good test scores. The result is that they memorize, knowing that is what they need to do to get those high scores, to beat out the competition, to get a hug when they present their report sheet. By our own actions, we stifle our children’s creativity, we set them back to their old brains, create a fear of failure that will supersede the urge to explore and create. A dyslexic kid may be branded an “idiot”, special needs children are seen as defective. They failed the tests, they placed low in class rankings.
One may have noted that I specifically mentioned Africans, South Americans, and Asians. This is because this attitude to education is not the same worldwide. Talking to Europeans reveals a very laidback attitude to early education. Classes aren’t ranked, and for long periods, scores don’t matter, no one is getting licks for bad multiplication, or dodgy quantitative reasoning.
This serves to foster tighter bonds between children and parents, with the children believing they are loved unconditionally. They explore, they observe, they play, they create. They are put into music classes, they learn ballet, some learn to paint. Social interaction is less competitive and more complementary. It’s a better environment for children to grow up. Why then do certain parents put their children through the grinder?
It is the fear of poverty.
We grew up thinking that we had to be doctors or engineers or lawyers. At some point, accounting and banking may have also crept in. Children in Global South countries are groomed from early childhood to attain success in high-paying professions. It’s all geared towards an escape from poverty or the maintenance of an uncommonly high standard of living. Escape, because you becoming an engineer might be your family’s route out of poverty. You’ll earn money not just with mouths to feed, but with siblings to financially support. Uncommon in the occasions of the middle-class family, because everyone around you is poor and you are not, so you have to become a doctor, so you do not fall into that group. Poverty causes trauma that persists long after poverty itself.
The comedian, Chris Rock, in a cutting observation about racial inequality, remarked that black people have to fly to where a white person can walk to. Comedy, right? But comedians are excellent social scientists. They have to observe and interpret the world, breaking it down to create comedy out of the pieces, and Chris Rock did all of that.
The large economic inequality between the Global North (Europe, North America, Australia) and the Global South (pretty much everyone else), means that people from the latter often have to overperform. A black woman from Kenya may need multiple degrees with excellent results, undergraduate and postgraduate, to get a position a white man from Sweden may get with one degree attained at a slightly above-average grade. The parents know this, so they incentivize their children to aim for the top, to ace those tests. Inequality and poverty begin to shape our lives before we even know it.
There is an intrinsic pressure to profer solutions at the end of this. I don’t have all the answers, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t see that this isn’t right. There is one though: do away with all forms of standardised testing until a certain age, and eliminate class rankings entirely. These things don’t just affect familial relationships as earlier mentioned; they are also a way to cause early damage to a child’s self-esteem. Way too early, children begin to experience feelings of inferiority, and possibly jealousy, towards better performing classmates. This way, they are less likely to cooperate or want to work or even play together. Tunde, who placed first ahead of your fifth, is the enemy to be conquered.
Test grading, class rankings, and homework are unsavoury constructs of an unnecessarily hyper-competitive society. They need to go.
The Greek economist, Yanis Varoufakis, has proposed the possibility of a Star Trek-style world, where everyone receives part of the wealth generated from Earth’s resources. Without the pressures of not being able to afford basic amenities like food, housing, and clothing, humanity is free to pursue things that appeal to them. Creativity booms. Artists can produce art without the fear that it might not sell. People become engineers out of an urge to build and create, or doctors out of curiosity of biology or a desire to heal. People can pursue philosophy, poetry, the humanities, without fear of being unable to earn a living. Most importantly, children are allowed to be kids. The school exists to channel creativity, to observe it, and to mold it, not to stifle it. Healthy and loving bonds are formed, the family is happier, and the foundation of every functional society is a happy family. Unhappy kids make dysfunctional adults.
There is a popular meme of a little black girl closing her book in exasperation, possibly fed up with studying. She looks to be no more than six. Her mannerisms were far older. No six-year-old should have gotten to that point. No six-year-old should get to that point. Let the children live.