As They Say in Arkansas

Brennan Dignan
October 30, 2019
Deeply embedded and out of site, it operates in the shadows pointing its big fat finger at the student. I would express it somewhat imperfectly like this: the system is fine, deal with it.

I was attending an educational conference in Bangkok this past month and found myself in a particularly frustrating session. It was titled, “Happy and Healthy vs Shame and Perfection: Supporting Students Who Have a Desire to be Perfect and Succeed in Rigorous Environments.” This session was led by a very passionate and engaging social-emotional counselor who is working at a private, high pressure international school in Asia. The crowd seemed genuine in their motivation and the speaker seemed to be doing good work for a bunch of stressed out youngsters. However, something didn’t feel quite right to me. It was in the middle of this sessions that my wife’s beautifully articulate Arkansan colloquialism came to mind:

“If you have to eat a turd, you don’t nibble around the edges.”

Let me try to explain.

The presupposition in which we were entering this conversation wasn’t, or isn’t, ever vocalized or questioned. Deeply embedded and out of site, it operates in the shadows pointing its big fat finger at the student. I would express it somewhat imperfectly like this: the system is fine, deal with it.

How did the student come to “Have a Desire to be Perfect and Succeed”?

Without asking that question, we enter into this conversation complicit in the unspoken answer: the students have done it to themselves. By extension then, our job as educators within the system is to help them develop strategies to overcome their self-generated problems. At these types of conferences we develop strategies that may help students to provide temporary relief (which is important), but cohort after cohort follow, each just a little bit worse off than the the one before, without any systemic overhaul . And so new conferences are developed, sessions offered, and strategies deployed, but of course it’s not a strategy problem: strategy is just a nibble.

Strategy As Nibble

Hong Kong had a particularly bad run of student suicides from 2015–2017. So much so that there is now a Wikipedia entry addressing that time period. You’ll also find this is true of South Korea. Lest you think it’s a problem with Asia, please refer to my “Cult of What” blog post and scroll down to “Re-Defining Winners and Losers.” In that post I point to the the sad irony that the “top” high schools, as we anoint them in the US, also have the unfortunate side effect of producing significant mental health problems. In fact, I think that it’s fair to say that wherever you find this version of the high stakes, compliance driven model, you’ll find correlative mental health issues.

In Hong Kong, a social-service organization conducted interviews of 7,500 students in the school system. They concluded that 51% were experiencing some form of depression and high degrees of stress. So they asked the students where it was coming from.

Most of the students said the main sources of their stress included the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education examination, the schoolwork and their apprehension about the future.

The HKDSE is an end of secondary school examination that basically dictates your post-graduation options and is modeled after the British system. It’s the epitome of a “one-shot” high stakes test. The “schoolwork” is a result of trying to get them to do well on the HKDSE. And of course, apprehension about the future is code for, “my ability to be accepted to one of the 12 universities given the gold star of approval by my community.”

So what was the response?

To address the issue, since the school year 2016/17, the Food and Health Bureau, the Education Bureau, the Hospital Authority and the Social Welfare Department jointly launched the “Student Mental Health Support Scheme” on a pilot basis.

Under the program, multi-disciplinary professional teams made up of teachers, educational psychologists, school social workers and psychiatric nurses would provide support for students with mental health issues.

Roughly 4 months after the rollout, only about 120 students had chosen to participate, and to my knowledge, this particular strategy is no longer being deployed. It’s a classic example of a technical approach to an adaptive problem.

So let me take a moment to summarize. The adults asked the students what was causing so much depression and stress. The students responded by telling them it was the HKDSE, schoolwork, and the future. So the adults responded with a nibble. “It’s not us it’s you” they said. “Here’s a mental health team to try and fix you”. That’s like providing a team of support to a kid who’s been told to hold on to an electric fence. “Hang tight little Jimmy, remember what we learned about grit and growth mindset?”

Another article explains how unreasonably demanding the academic culture has become and the fallout from this toxic culture.

Students in Primary 4 and above spend at least 55 hours a week on school, private tutoring and homework.

Between the competing claims of study, extracurricular activities and digital devices, students are getting at least one hour less sleep per night than international standards recommend, and Legco (the legislative council) warned that this may adversely affect physical and mental health.

The response?

Hong Kong schools are also beginning to recognise the value of mindfulness-based programmes. “What we’re seeing in schools is an acceptance that social and emotional learning is an important part of the curriculum from day one,” says Wolf.

I am actually a huge fan of mindfulness and the idea of promoting self-awareness and social-emotional literacy/learning in the classroom. There is so much in this article that I resonate with, but not once is the system put into question. In fact, they are using improved academics as a way to justify the mindfulness program.

Given Hong Kong’s focus on academics, there are parents who might baulk at this approach. “But academics, performance and well-being are so interlinked,” says Justin McLaughlin, nurse and counsellor at Kellett School, the British International School in Hong Kong. “If your well-being is not in a good place, your academics are going to suffer and vice versa.”

I would actually challenge that view. I’ve seen plenty of students excel academically that were completely spun out emotionally. The larger point for me though is this: we can use meditation and mindfulness as a way to help alleviate the unfortunate fallout from this insane approach to education, we can sell it to parents because it should improve grades (a huge contributor to the stress in the first place), but we can’t propose that the entire system might be responsible for the student’s “well-being” not be in a “good place”? The system is fine, the student is not. Stress, depression, suicidal ideation, etc., originate from within the individual, as if the student was inevitably doomed by genetics or some other physiological, materialistic, or Darwinian shortcoming. “Poor little Jimmy, he just couldn’t take the pressure. However, little Suzie did and now she’s at Princeton.”

I would like to propose three big bites and a swallow.

  1. All high schools worldwide abandon grades and use feedback as a basis for their assessments while also eliminating any high stakes, “one-shot” testing paradigm that has the appearance of keeping someone from leading a meaningful life.
  2. Any university or college that is ranked in the top 100 of the US News and World Report rankings, refuse to participate in those, or any other, rankings. Consider it collegiate civil disobedience. If the bigs disobey, the others will follow.
  3. All university and colleges worldwide quit using standardized tests in their admission criteria. No APs, SATs, ACTs, HKSDEs, GCEs, IBs, etc. It will force each institution to have to truly create a holistic review process that sees students as the complex, multi-dimensional beings that they are as well as acknowledging that we now live in the 21st century where rote memorization and regurgitation are no longer relevant.

And then we’re going to have to collectively hold our noses and swallow because it’s not going to taste good. All hell will break loose and everyone is going to lose their bearings. Eventually though, something else will emerge, and whatever that is couldn’t possibly be worse than what we have now, right?

Brennan Dignan
As a college counselor at a progressive international school in Hong Kong, Brennan's work attempts to infuse the post-graduation planning process with meaning and purpose as defined by the individual.
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