School system fails to recognise the many kinds of intelligence

Our rote-learning model favours children who can absorb and regurgitate large amounts of information, while ignoring the others, says Mary O’Connor.

How can an academically challenged student endure 35 hours per week of feeling like they cannot compete with their classmates?

The Irish school system creates a culture of fear, which can drive students who are underperforming to engage in maladaptive behaviour.

Maladaptive behaviour can manifest itself in many forms. One child’s feeling of low self-worth may manifest itself in negative classroom behaviour — eg, taking on the role of ‘class clown’ — while another child may withdraw and internalise their suffering.

A struggling student’s feeling of inadequacy will be reinforced by a bad report card, thus instilling shame.

Brené Brown, an American researcher and author, says: “Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It is the fear that we are not good enough.”

How are children who are underperforming in school coping and what are we doing to challenge this detrimental thought system?

Well, the simple answer is they are not coping and we are not doing much.

Instead of focusing on multiple intelligences and using a strengths-based model to assess each child’s interests, we simply force-feed a system that favours the entitled, upper middle class and those who are experts at rote learning, or learning vast amounts of information and regurgitating it.

We, as a society, place no emphasis on developing critical-thinking and problem-solving — two vital skills for life after education.

Although the theory of multiple intelligences is not without its critics, it gives a voice and validity to several different types of intelligence. 

As I look back on my schooling, I vividly remember the students who flourished academically.

They appeared goal-oriented; behaved in a manner that invited praise and respect from their teachers; and had aspirations based on their academic success.

The other question I pondered, 10 years after leaving school, was did they seem happier? My answer would be an unwavering ‘Yes’.

Why? Well, it’s quite simple.

Looking at Martin Seligman’s Perma model of happiness, which focuses on five key areas in a person’s life, it became evident that high-achieving students’ happiness resources were replenished frequently.

Their lower-achieving classmates’ resources were not.

The model looks at positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments. 

Taking these five areas and applying them to a school system, lower-achieving students may get a very diluted version of what their higher-performing classmates are receiving.

Furthermore, adolescents who rank themselves at the ‘bottom of the class’ are more likely to experience more severe symptoms of depression and anxiety (My World Survey, 2012). 

Although academic staff are not there to resolve students’ emotional problems, they can play a central role in how they communicate with their students.

Below are key areas for teachers to explore, when engaging with students.

  • Give your student positive feedback;
  • Show the student tangible evidence of progress;
  • Help students overcome difficulty;
  • Use confidence-building activities;
  • Be inclusive to all students;
  • Look at students’ strengths;
  • Be reflective in your practice;
  • Monitor your own stress and how this might affect your practice.

From conducting informal, qualitative interviews with past students of Irish school systems, I heard their accounts of embarrassment, shame, and distress. 

They didn’t fit the mould to attract positive feedback from teachers.

Hearing negative feedback on a consistent basis can alter our thought pattern and change how we feel. We then adapt our behaviour to act upon what we hear.

If we are told we are lazy, we may start to think we are and may start behaving in this manner. This is called a self-fulfilling prophecy and can be created by our teachers.

In 2013, guidelines were published by the Department of Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive, and the Department of Health, with a view to providing practical guidance on how post-primary schools can promote mental health and well-being. 

These guidelines are thorough, detailed, and appear quite ambitious.

I wonder whether this thick, fruitful document has been effectuated across school systems.

If this is anything like the government’s strategy document, 'A Vision for Change’, which set out the direction for mental health services in Ireland, it is a tick-box exercise that is there to be seen, but not resourced enough for implementation.

I welcome the challenge from Education Minister Richard Bruton to tell me that I am, in fact, wrong.

Mary O’Connor: BA journalism; BA psychology, State University at Stony Brook, New York; P.Grad Dip ABA, Trinity College Dublin; MA counselling and psychotherapy, ICHAS

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