"We're not learning, we're memorising": Read London students' powerful open letter

Reimagining Education By Breaking The Silence

Wed, Sep 16, 20

Young people share that testing is causing 'panic attacks, feelings of anxiety, stress and sadly, a loss of interest in learning'.

At States of Mind, we run research and social change projects that enable young people’s voices to inform the way emotional and mental wellbeing is supported in society. As part of this work, last year we asked a group of London students about their experiences in education. The students explored the subject in a series of focus groups, and shared their findings in a letter to the Chief Inspector of Education, Amanda Spielman.

The students’ letter is a powerful account of how aspects of the education system are negatively impacting young people’s mental health and personal development.

We’re currently working the UCL Institute of Education to develop the project, and over the next few weeks will be sharing more as it unfolds. For now, you can read the students’ letter – below.

An Open Letter from London school students to Amanda Spielman, April 2019

Dear Ms. Spielman,

We really appreciate that you have launched a consultation on the proposed changes to the Ofsted Framework. As students, we feel that our voices and experiences are constantly overlooked and neglected by society. However, when it comes to something so important as our education, we believe that it is our right to tell the true story of how the current system is failing us.

We ask that you take responsibility for the fact that many aspects of the current system are causing a significant decline in the mental health of our generation. We have been working over the period of the consultation to create a student-led research project that provides evidence of students’ experiences of the education system and the influence it is having on our identity and mental health.

We would be grateful if you responded to our work and would be pleased to meet with you to discuss this further. We do not wish to perpetuate divisions between students and Ofsted. We wish to collaborate, inform and contribute to conversations around the reform of our education system. We offer our criticism with the only intention of creating a better future for our generation and society as a whole.

Yours sincerely,

Julia, Afruza, Fatima, Sadia, Reya, Maheen, and Iqra

“We are not learning, we are just memorising”

The purpose of education is to teach and promote an understanding of complex ideas, while guiding students to apply this knowledge to the world in which we live. However, it is highly questionable that this is successfully achieved within secondary schools in the present day. We feel that instead of gaining valuable knowledge which we are able to apply towards our future, the education system promotes the continuous memorisation of facts and the ‘cramming’ of content from textbooks to be regurgitated - and forgotten soon after. The results of our research have highlighted a strong consensus among students that what is considered learning in education, is in fact, the repetitive memorisation of facts that we must force into short-term memory to be recalled during exams. Students, throughout our research project, have highlighted the impact that this process has on their mental health. The huge amount of content required to be recalled in a limited time frame causes high levels of anxiety and stress. These levels of stress cause many students to lose access to their knowledge under exam conditions, knowledge which in other environments they may be able to recall readily, providing an inaccurate measurement of intelligence while inhibiting career prospects. Over the course of our time in education, high stakes testing has damaging consequences for our mental health, due to the constant, ongoing pressure and stress this singular measure creates. The long-term consequences of this system can include panic attacks, feelings of anxiety, stress and sadly, a loss of interest in learning.

It could be suggested that this need to recall information under exam conditions is a reflection of necessary workplace skills such as time-management, report writing, meeting deadlines, building an argument and so forth. However, we feel that standardised assessments do not consider individual differences, needs and learning styles; or adequately convey a student’s true understanding of the curriculum. This is because the huge emphasis on high stakes testing draws the focus away from true enjoyment and engagement in learning, towards a narrow and rigid focus on exam technique and performance. Many students leaving school often do not feel fulfilled or engaged in the process of learning anymore, as their potential for gaining true knowledge has been affected by the current framework and methods used. The result is an uninspired and demotivated generation who have been taught that learning is all about outcomes and that knowledge is for exams, not for life.

“We are breaking the next generation by not giving them the necessary skills for the future”

Our generation are young and ambitious. We deserve to gain a lot more experience in the skills required for us to be successful later in life. These include teamwork, communication skills, creativity, critical thinking and other skills not fostered or developed by the current curriculum. In order to support our future generations, education should provide us with many more opportunities and experiences at a much earlier point in our journey.

Work experience is generally the most effective way of allowing young people to develop valuable and relevant skills. It allows students to discover their strengths and weaknesses by applying themselves to practical, real world scenarios, while allowing them to start distinguishing their unique values and preferences for the future.

Many educational institutions in Britain provide the opportunity of work experience; for only a week. This is simply not enough. As well as education, students should be able to focus on developing their practical and social needs for the future. Students should be able to do work experience for at least a whole term (more should be acceptable if needed). Moreover, this should take place in year 10-11, so that students are able to make a more informed decision on what A-level subjects to choose at college/sixth form (depending on what degree they want to do in the future) or whether they want to choose an apprenticeship. This can only be determined after they’ve obtained a range of skills and identified their own strengths and weaknesses beyond academic measurements of intelligence. Introducing more opportunities for practical, real world experience would allow students to make a much more accurate and individualised decision about their futures, earlier in life. Fulfilment comes from finding a path that aligns with your unique skills and your values. The current education system does not provide the opportunity for us to achieve this understanding of ourselves.

Communication isn’t just about speaking; it’s also about listening. Schools and college/sixth forms should reinforce the importance of active listening. Active listening is a skill that can be acquired and developed with practice and which holds great value for students’ futures. Active listening generates true learning, as it encourages you to listen and to understand, rather than reply. Promoting the development of good listening skills could enhance critical thinking and interpersonal skills required in the workplace, as it encourages students to practice asking clarifying questions to fully understand the speaker’s intended message. Teachers can help their students develop these listening skills by focusing less on exam performance and more on the quality of classroom interactions.

Schools should also offer opportunities for students to create group presentations, projects and practical assignments where students are able to take ownership of the subject matter. This would allow students to work together to pool their expertise, knowledge and skills, while fulfilling their educational, social and practical needs in tandem.

Finally, they should offer reflective learning opportunities. For example, recording students reading selected text or videotaping group presentations is an excellent method for assessing their strengths and weaknesses. Students can reflect on their oral performance in small groups. Then, ask each student to critique the others so that they can get used to receiving constructive criticism and develop their self-esteem in interpersonal scenarios.

All of these recommendations provide realistic and simple solutions for improving the development of young pupils’ communication skills, which are essential requirements for the real world which awaits them. This generation is full of passionate and ambitious individuals who are going to build our future. We should all be provided with as many opportunities as possible to open up and reach our full potential and to think and act independently of others.

“Standardised assessments conflict with Ofsted’s demand for personal development in schools”

Many students feel that their true personality is stripped from them by the current education system, which repeatedly emphasises and promotes the idea that individuals can only be successful in life by attaining high grades. This narrow conception of success is a deeply entrenched issue causing the education system to neglect our unique traits, values and ambitions. Instead, we are encouraged to learn and perform in the same way as millions of other students, placing no consideration on our individual needs or sense of purpose. It is extremely concerning that we are being limited so much by the education system. The pressure to conform to a standardised, academic measure of success has huge consequences beyond our time in education. The prevalence of non-academic stigma from families, schools and society as whole causes less academic individuals to internalise a sense of shame and low self-worth if they do not achieve the grades that are expected. There is nothing in place to prevent or reduce this shame. There is an idea sold within education - ‘that if at first you don’t succeed, your worth is symbolised as a letter, forever’.

More than 70% of workers are not content with their career choice, forcing us to question where the system is going wrong and what we need to do to fix it. The years spent in education are crucial years in which an individual is still developing their personality and sense of self, and it is not fair how we are forced into a system which requires certain aspects of our intelligence to shine with the rest to be brushed under the carpet, as this will have a huge impact our later lives socially, physically and mentally. By overlooking the individuality of our generation, you overlook our potential. Success is enabled once an individual feels motivated and confident in working towards something beyond the norms of society, while feeling content with their place in life. By not fostering individuality in education, our generation is being set up to lack self determination, ambition and self-esteem. We do not want to conform, we want to make the world a better place.

One of our key suggestions for Ofsted is that schools, teachers and students should not only be defined by the grades they receive or whether they conform to strict guidelines about what is considered ‘normal’, but rather their personal development over time. This includes their growth, self-awareness and qualities of emotional intelligence, as these are characteristics which will have much more of a lasting and significant impact on an individual’s health. We are calling for the prioritisation and trust in what Ofsted currently considers ‘subjective’.

Students should be trained and assessed on skills which prepare them for the hardships and demands of the modern world. Being assessed through examinations that require hours of unstimulating memorisation is not only an invalid test of intelligence, but it also fails to prepare us to be self-determined, creative, strong communicators or to be able to solve the real, complex problems of the world. Education makes us conform to the blind acceptance of facts, restricting critical thinking and the opportunity for us to develop our own ideas. Education should make us think bigger and smarter, it should inspire and motivate us.

“Preparing us to get good grades does not prepare us to be good human beings”

We study for over 13 years, envisioning that we will find what we’re passionate about, where our interest lies, what we want to be a part of. Instead we spend, or rather, we often waste those years obsessing over grades, obsessing over taking home a good report, and then we come to realise that the idea that ‘achievement is more important than understanding’ has become the reality.

We’re brought up in a way that from a young age we are shown the importance of education. We start with the 1 times table making our way up to 10. We learn how read, write and how to speak our minds. As we grow up, we start to gain a deeper understanding of the world around us; and it’s interesting, motivating. It’s interesting going to school and learning about our favourite subjects, it’s interesting being able to see beyond what’s there. What is not interesting is constantly being told that we have to prepare for exams so that we can get good grades so that we can ‘make something out of ourselves’.

We’re told by teachers, parents and by society that we’re privileged to have so much education, we’re privileged to have so many resources to aid us in our learning and that we shouldn’t take it for granted; and of course we appreciate it, we’re not saying we don’t. But when does all this ‘privilege’ actually become the thing that is making this generation so ‘broken’ and ‘sensitive’, as the older generation likes to call it. Getting bad grades doesn’t make you stupid or less worthy than people with straight A’s. Just as getting good grades doesn’t suddenly make you a “good human being.” The education system does not recognise or pay attention to this distinction and the effect it has on the quality of education.

All the focus in schools on making us get good grades stops us from actually paying attention to the other little things that can help us improve as individuals. We’re taught to be competitive, we’re taught to work hard, but when are we ever taught it is important to help others or to just simply take a step back and appreciate other aspects of the world around us. Thanks to schools, our general knowledge and our grades may be increasing but our sense of humanity is decreasing. What’s the point? We enter education as a child and we leave as adults. Does that mean that if I am an A* student when I leave that I am a good human being? What does a letter or a number on a paper have to do with someone’s true personality? Being human and being part of a society involves more than numbers on a paper. You need manners, you need sympathy, empathy, honesty. You need to feel good about yourself so that you can make others feel good about themselves. That is not what we’re getting. We’re learning how to try and be better than everyone else, no matter how it affects you. We often come out of school feeling worse than we did when we entered. We’re stuck in a constant loop of “I just need to get through this week…” But every week.

The education system does not prepare young people for later life, as it does not recognise the importance of allowing young people to fail and experiment, which is the main way that human beings learn about ourselves and the world around us. A single letter ‘F’ could knock a student’s confidence to the ground and stain their records for a long time, if not forever, depending on whether it’s a final exam. Life is full of failure. It’s a normal and inevitable part of life. So why is there such a negative light shone upon it within education? So much shame and disappointment. We’re not taught how to deal with failure, how to bounce back. We’re just told we can do better or asked whether we revised enough. If the education system has made us believe that failing is such a bad thing, how will we go on to live our lives and be “good human beings” if we can’t even cope with one of life’s most common occurrences?

**We are currently working with UCL Institute of Education to develop the students’ research further. Watch this space as we share more about our findings in the coming weeks, and work with students to reimagine educational assessment. **

For now, you can read more about the project in a blog by our founder, Bea, and watch a short film below.