13th May, 2019
Today I contributed to a Radio Ulster discussion on supporting teens about to take GCSEs. I have spoken and written on this topic a number of times so was reasonably well prepared to offer my top tips. Most examination advice focuses on successful examination technique and study strategies and urges the need for balance so in other words youngsters, with the help of their families, should be encouraged to be looking after their core needs for adequate sleep, rest, recreation, especially social and active and good quality nutrition
I would certainly endorse the need for balance but I also think there needs to be some acknowledgment of the need for perspective. Before the radio discussion I mulled over what I could say most usefully in a few minutes and in response to questions, about which I had not been briefed, and I pondered over the meaning of the emotionally laden and stress-inducing word ‘examination’. Its roots come from late Middle English, Latin and French vocabulary and it means to weigh, test (against a standard) and examine.
In a sense it could be argued that it is a part of being human to examine and to be examined and we all frequently and often gladly engage in all these examination experiences in order to find out, learn and develop. However, the so-called formal examination is designated significance and status that often evokes negative emotions such as fear, stress and worry that can spill over into physical wellbeing and unhelpful behaviour, for example, anxiety, sleeplessness, poor eating and isolation.
The issue with formal or, as they are often known, public examinations, is that they tend to be viewed entirely in summative terms, that is to say, they are seen as an end in themselves; a final and enduring evaluation of worth, ability and effort whereas in fact their formative potential is equally worth taking into account, i.e. their capacity to signpost where you need to learn more and/or better. That saying “you win or you learn’ is worth bearing in mind whenever an examination is being taken. Each examination should not be looked at as the final verdict on ability and application but part of many examination experiences over time, which if learnt from can have a very positive cumulative effect both on learning and on results of study.
Parents and key adults in teenagers’ lives have a big role in ensuring their youngsters achieve a good balance in their daily lives but equally important, in my view, is in developing perspective. This is best done through lots of everyday, unforced and honest conversations that draw upon the adults’ own experiences, genuinely and actively listen to the teenager and ideally lead to practical follow-up in terms of help and resources. Most important of all is the communication of empathy and positive and unconditional regard for the young person as this is the basis upon which all effort, discipline and to some degree, risk-taking rests.