Educational anxiety or learning anxiety is common. Most of us experienced it some of the time when we were in school and some of us experienced it most of the time.
Learning can be fun and interesting or it can be downright scary depending on the circumstances. Brain researchers are making it clear, though, that for optimal learning to take place kids need to feel not only physically safe, but emotionally safe as well.
The problem is that many of the policies, methods, and techniques used in schools and classrooms stimulate more unsafe feelings of fear and anxiety than safe feelings of curiosity, engagement, and fun.
There are five primary contributors to learning anxiety:
1. Unrealistic pressure
2. Students don’t know the reason for learning
3. The teaching methods don’t work for the students
4. Focus is on student weaknesses and mistakes
5. Students don’t have a say in rules, policies, and decisions that affect them
Teachers and most parents exert non-stop pressure on students to get top grades, to be an outstanding student, and “to live up to potential.” There is a very loud drumbeat for all students to go to college (even though 50% who do go drop out in the first two years), so the focus in high school is on college-prep classes—literature, history, math, and lab sciences. Non-academic classes are being cut at an alarming rate, leaving very few hands-on options. In elementary schools even recess has been shortened or eliminated. Every teacher (even in primary school) gives homework most nights of the week, and it’s common for junior high and high school kids to be up until one or two in the morning to get it done. Expectations for students are unrelenting and unrealistic. If an adult had a job like this s/he would either quit or insist on a raise.
Students Don’t Know the Reason for Learning
Students want to know “why” they are learning this stuff. Kids are constantly wondering and sometimes asking, How does this apply to me or the world? How will I use it? How will it benefit me? Unless there is relevance, all the learning is random, unrelated stuff that teachers and parents think kids should know, and it has no meaning. So, many students just go through the motions of learning without trying to understand the material. “A” students often don’t have any other reason for learning material than to get good grades, and since reading, writing, memorizing, and taking tests are easy for them they generally do well. However, understanding the material is not high on their list either.
Teaching Methods Don’t Work for Students
Reading, taking notes, listening to lectures, doing worksheets, writing papers, and taking tests is how students are supposed to get through school. However, this works for only about three in thirty students—1/10th. If 1/10th of the students are actually participating and succeeding in a classroom, what is the other 9/10 doing? Some are struggling to keep up. Some are struggling to catch up. Some simply shut down, mentally drop out, and become the source of classroom disruption. In order to learn, the 9/10 needs to be able to move, to do projects, to make things, discuss, explain things to others, draw, see and make charts and graphs, watch videos, work in pairs or groups. They are active, hands-on, whole-body learners.
In the high stakes testing world that schools now compete in, the job of the teacher is to make sure kids do well on tests. The problem is that kids have to learn the information for the tests somehow, and most of them need hands-on experiences to do that. They can’t just memorize all of it. However, to hear many teachers talk there is no time anymore for experiential learning. It’s test and move on. Think fast. Work fast. Keep up.
So, where is the fun in the learning process for the student? What will spark their interest and curiosity and encourage them to want to learn?
Focus is on Student’s Weaknesses
The current educational system focuses on the weaknesses of students and tracks mistakes and failures. The system says, Let’s see what’s wrong with you, and we will fix you. Since kids see themselves the way parents and teachers do, most kids believe that in some very important ways they don’t measure up or are outright failures. It’s hard to feel motivated to learn if you don’t believe you are competent and can succeed.
A young person weak in subtraction is given more subtraction problems to do. We say we are giving them more practice, but for students it’s repetitious and boring. By looking at students’ learning style teachers and parents can use the young person’s strengths to learn a new way to do subtraction. Maybe a student has a talent for drawing, and it would help him to illustrate the problems. Or, he might be a hands-on learner and need to manipulate beads or blocks before the light bulb goes on for him.
By identifying their strengths and talents and showing students how to apply them to
challenges we: 1. show them ways they can succeed, 2. give them a positive view of themselves, and 3. motivate them to want to learn. Success leads to more success, as we say at the LearningSuccess™ Institute.
Students Don’t Have a Say in Decisions, Policies, and Rules that Affect Them
Young people, especially teens, resent and resist situations if they feel others are imposing their wills on them. For the most part, however, we expect students to follow an agenda that a group of adults have determined is good for them. But, they need to have some say and choice about things that affect them.
From their earliest experiences in the school we could be offering students more choice about when, what, and how to study and learn. We could include them in making decisions about classroom rules and policies. We could help students identify their own learning goals and give them skills for fulfilling them. We could include more of their interests as part of the curriculum. As Les Brown, author, speaker, and trainer says, It’s possible that we can give them a curriculum that gives them a sense of purpose…
Until parents, teachers, and school administrators address these all too common, largely unexamined, fear inducing policies and practices in our schools and classrooms, students will continue to feel emotionally unsafe and educational anxiety will be commonplace.