Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves…

Home / Single Post

Last month the Sydney Morning Herald carried an article that suggested that perhaps students chose university courses based on the prestige associated with such courses, rather than what was most appropriate for the individual.

Personally I don’t think this is so surprising… do you?

After all, since Year 1 they have been categorised as either good, average or below average learners, although in Kindergarten, it was probably, butterflies, caterpillars or bumblebees. In the upper echelons of primary school we have the much sought after “Opportunity Classes”. Is this to say the rest have no opportunity?

Get into high school and the distinction is a little less ambiguous. Streamed classes are portrayed as the answer to engaging students… by pushing the smartest, and giving extra assistance to those who need it. And at the peak of the  schools academic mountain we have the 2 Unit, 3 Unit or 4 Unit courses, each with added power to secure that top ATAR, with which to access the hallowed halls of university.

But here is the flip side… by streaming kids, we give them a status. Anyone who has any understanding of adolescent behaviour will tell you that status is the defining currency in the teenage years. In fact it’s not just teenagers. There is a wealth of evidence that says that a lot of adults would prefer an upgrade in their job title (no change in duties) over a pay rise! It seems the need to retain or improve our status is hardwired into us.

But at this particular time in life, to give a child a status that must be protected at all costs (no-one wants to be moved down into the middle set!) is inherently dangerous. In her book “Mindset”, Carol Dweck suggests that some students who are identified as being smart early on in their school careers develop a fixed mindset and do all they can to avoid failure, and maintain their status in the smart group.

Whilst this may appear harmless, what they are doing is working to avoid failure, rather than working to achieve brilliance – and there is a subtle but important difference. No-one achieved anything great by being right all the time.

The PFR Model of Education

Teachers may see such students as being engaged but in reality many are being subjected to an all to common educational model: what I call the “Pressure – Fear – Relief model.”

Pressure from parents, teacher, peers and themselves to perform (maintain their status)

Fear of failure and losing their spot in the smart group.

Relief when the pass the test and gain the accolades that come with maintaining their status.

I touched on this in a post last year (inspired by the work of Tal Ben Shahar) and will continue to explore this further in 2011.

So is it any wonder that after “succeeding” in this system, students will choose university courses based on the highest entry requirements? Isn’t it just a further reinforcement of their status? Add to that the prospect of a high paying job, and all the trappings that come with that… the house, the car, the latest technological gizmos…

But as Sir Ken Robinson often says, “Being good at something, is not a good enough reason to do it.”

I believe that one of the reasons that the incidence of depression continues to rise is that too many people are doing jobs they do not enjoy… sure they are good at them (and they may well pay extraordinarily well), but fundamentally they do not like what they do. And you spend a hell of a long time at work! They simply got on the conveyor belt in Kindergarten and couldn’t get off…

How much time at school is devoted to students learning about themselves, their passions and strengths? Other than academic strengths of course. If schools are genuine in their claims that they “Prepare our students for life”, then there is a moral imperative to start framing our education system (again paraphrasing Sir Ken) not around the question of “How intelligent are our students?” but “How are our students intelligent?” and work with them to discover ways to truly engage in their passions and strengths without fear or favour of labels such as; academic, vocational, non-academic, arts etc…

I argue that if we got this part of education “right” we would see a decrease in the rates of depression in the next decade, and not the actualisation of the World Health Organisation‘s prediction that our current crop of students will face as greater risk from depression as from any other disease by the time they are in their thirties.


I’ll finish with a thought about engagement. It is a word bandied around in education, often without much thought. Teachers will comment on whether students appear engaged, and will often base their evaluation of a lesson based on the students’ level of engagement. Think about what an engaged student looks like… what are they doing?

And then think why do they look like that, and why are they doing what they are doing? Is it because they are under the influence of the PFR model of education? Or are they doing it because they want to do it? Would they want to do the work, even if they didn’t have to?

Now I’m not naive enough to think that every piece of work a class is set would inspire them as such, but it would be nice if more often than not, it did… wouldn’t it?

Think about your own habits at work… are there things you do even though you don’t have to?   I would hazard a guess that it is these activities you truly engage with, and that engagement carries though into other areas of your work, making you a better employee… or employer!

Sign up for email updates (top-right of screen), share with your friends or connect on Facebook or Twitter…

0 Comments on “Sometimes “successful students” fail themselves…

  1. There is definitely pressure from schools to do the ‘right’ subjects, to get into prestigious careers.
    When choosing Senior subjects in Year 10 I was seeking advice from the careers counsellor to choose between Chemistry and Legal Studies, and she advised I should do both and drop Art, because (direct quote) “bright students don’t usually choose art”. *jaw drops* Ignored her advice and did art which was one of my favourite subjects, and great to decompress.
    For the record, I went with Legal Studies, and then my Legal teacher told me I should become a lawyer when I REALLY didn’t want to. Didn’t do that either, but my 2 friends who are lawyers now make way more money than me.. ah well…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *