Are the smartest kids also the saddest?

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Late last year, the OECD published the latest of their PISA tables.

Predictably, many went into meltdown, whether it was due to their country’s position on the table, their respective government’s reaction to the results or those who detest standardised testing.

But as this article shows, the tests are not all about numeracy and literacy.

As part of the tests, students were asked to agree or disagree with the statement:

I feel happy at school.

The responses to this statement have been mapped against their test scores in the image below.

test scores v happy kids

From an Australian point of view, should we be more concerned (than it appears we are) that students in our schools are some of the least happy kids in the OECD?

What do we make of the fact that the least happy students also come from countries that top the academic tables – South Korea, Finland, Estonia & Poland?

Admittedly Shanghai (even though I’ve looked at countless maps, and I’m still not convinced it’s a country in its own right) and Singapore are ahead of Australia in both the brains and the smiles, but I’m not really interested in starting a Happiness Race.

Sure we can get into a debate about the true meaning of happiness or whether you feel school should be “fun” or not, but I’m more interested in exploring why it is that so many kids would say they are not happy at school and what the potential knock-on effects of this might be.

Just going off on a tangent here…

Far too many people do not enjoy what they do for a living. They watch the clock, waiting for 5pm, and spend their weekdays wishing for the weekend. Maybe not you, but I guarantee you can think of a friend for whom this applies. It is not an uncommon phenomenon.

Why do we accept this? When it’s pretty much accepted that humans are at the top of the intelligence tree, why do we choose to sacrifice most of our waking hours doing something we don’t enjoy – or worse – actually hate?


When did you or your friend accept this future?

Could it be that as the OECD suggests, kids at school spend most of their day waiting for 3pm, or spend their weekdays wishing for the weekend.

Could it be that kids learn at a very early age that weekdays are just a means to the weekend?

Could it be that schools are actually doing a great job of preparing kids for the world of work that you or your friend experience?

What if, instead of the all-too-predictable response from government highlighting the “need to raise academic standards”, their response to the OECD tables was, “perhaps we should explore how we can make school more enjoyable.”

Yes we can focus on enhancing results in standardised testing – to be honest it’s not that hard.

Introduce rote learning en masse, daily repetition and cull some of the more “holistic” approaches to education and you’ll be on the right track.

But great test scores does not a happy child make.

And an unhappy child can make an even more unhappy adult. The four countries I identified above, South Korea, Finland, Estonia & Poland, have some of the highest suicide rates in the OECD.

Clearly I’m not claiming that there is a direct link between test scores and depression, nor am I saying that school should be all fun and games.

But what I am advocating is that if we focussed on engagement and wellbeing first and foremost in schools, kids would feel happier about being there and as a result achievement would rise.

This is opposed to the current trend that seems to focus on achievement at the expense of engagement & wellbeing of students and teachers.

In Australia, support is available at all times by calling Lifeline on 131 114, Mensline on 1300 789 978, and Kids Helpline 1800 551 800

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