Are We Making Students Anxious When We Challenge Them to Solve Real-Life Catastrophes?

Last month I read an article in The Guardian about young people and their anxiety concerning the environment. The article reported that a survey of child and adolescent psychiatrists in England revealed that more than half of those surveyed were seeing young patients who were “distressed about environmental and ecological issues”.  The number of adults seeking similar help, according to the survey, was almost ten percent lower. 

The article got me thinking about the shift in education towards problem solving and how that might be impacting our students.

In the closing years of the 20th Century there was a call to explore ways to better prepare the next generation for the challenges ahead in the new millennium. Organizations such as the National Commission on Excellence in Education, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, as well as leading academic institutions like MIT and Harvard, and a number of Fortune 500 companies, came together with the goal of preparing students for a future that would feature rapid change and increasingly complex technology. 

Among the skills that were being strongly encouraged was that of problem-solving. Moving into the next century, it was understood that providing students with knowledge alone was not enough. Students needed to actively think deeper. Problem solving is a complicated process that has a variety of steps/procedures depending on the discipline and how well defined the problem is. Problem solving can involve collecting and interpreting data, conceptualizing, logical reasoning, applying strategy, analytical thinking, decision making, and synthesizing. 

During the development of 21st Century skills, it was determined that the best problems for students to address (in terms of engagement) were authentic real-world concerns. 

That was a cool thought. But, somewhere along the line, we started actually challenging students to solve real-world problems. 

So, instead of having students work on a real problem, like organizing an effective team that is trying to solve a carbon-level problem, we began challenging students to actually come up with a plan to fight rising carbon levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. 

Do you see the difference?

The former is a real life, fundamental issue that students will encounter innumerable times throughout their academic and post-academic life: forming a successful team. The latter is a potentially catastrophic, international crisis that no one has yet been able to solve. 

The former is low stakes and relatively anxiety free. The latter involves exposing young people to anxiety-inducing possibilities. 

I am not saying we should shelter our students from reality. But, do they really need to be confronted with so much doom and gloom? If every teacher that a student encounters in their day is developing problem-solving skills via real-life catastrophes, students will develop something else beyond a skill: a profound fear of their future.  

Students are managing enough stress as it is. Before the onset of COVID-19, lockdowns, masks, social distancing, and virtual learning, students were already anxious. Students were already juggling standardized test scores, college applications, parent expectations, peer pressure, deadlines, social media, and more. In a recent poll of my students, 73 percent listed “stress related to their academic workload” as their number one concern. I regularly receive questions from students asking and re-asking simple logistical questions about assignments – they are so afraid of somehow messing up. It drives me crazy to hear questions like “When is this due?”, “How many points is this worth?”, or “What is the minimum word count?” again and again – sometimes from the same student. I was on Google Hangouts with a student this week for three hours to help her create a paragraph. A paragraph! I know this is just anecdotal evidence, but for me it is telling. What it tells me is that students have a lot of their own issues to deal with. And, it just seems cruel to pile additional worries on their plates. 

What is particularly sad for me is that the problems we are piling on are problems that we created and/or failed to address in our time. Our solution, or our way of assuaging our guilt, seems to be shifting the weight directly to the next generation. That is not cool. 

I wonder if a better solution is to focus on developing generic problem-solving skills. What I mean is, break down problem solving into its component steps and then deliberately and explicitly teach students those steps. The learning becomes focused on the process, not on an outcome. 

Then, as a way to transfer their learning, students can apply their problem-solving skills to a practice problem. But, maybe that practice problem can be something a little less stressful, and a little more age-appropriate. For instance, students can organize a fundraiser, seek consensus about a Netflix series, or produce a blog site. 

The desire to introduce students to a dramatic and high impact real-world issue is irresistible. After all, this is where we want students to apply their skills in the future. Why not unleash them upon these issues right now?! Young people, such as environmental activist Greta Thunberg, are already making headlines in similar situations. Why can’t our students get involved also?

One reason teachers try to transfer learning to high stakes problems is the sense of engagement that real problems can generate with students. But, is engagement/excitement necessary for learning? In an excellent article on Edutopia.org entitled The Student Engagement Trap, And How to Avoid It, education consultant Dr. Kripa Sundar warns that engaging students with attention-grabbing bells and whistles does not always result in actual learning. In other words, we need to avoid the catastrophic distractions and focus on the precise skills that students will carry with them into the future. 

Then, once students have all the tools they need, we can challenge them to apply them to real, but lower stakes and interesting, dilemmas. Our goal is to develop problem solvers who can someday use their skills to save the Earth, right? Not to develop a generation to clean up our messes.

Stressing the positive versus the negative reminds me of an article that a colleague recently shared with me. It was about how society tends to glorify the negative and downplay the positive. The article was from 2013 and, looking at the recent news headlines, clearly not much has changed. The article closed with the retelling of a Cherokee folktale entitled Two Wolves:

An old Cherokee man is teaching his grandson about life.

“A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.

One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

“The other wolf is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.”

“The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person too.”

The grandson thought about this for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?

His grandfather simply replied, “The one you feed.”

For the mental health of our students, I’d like to feed the positive wolf.  

Ed X 

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