Seeing the bigger picture – helping students find perspective
August 21, 2018
By Dr Lieb Liebenberg

On a recent trip with a group of friends to Namibia, we visited Namibrand. As its name suggests, Namibrand is right on the edge of the Namib desert and with its beautiful red sand dunes provides one with a glimpse of what lies ahead if one were to continue westward towards the Atlantic Ocean. Namibrand is a unique, privately owned reserve of 220 000 hectares where each landowner has removed fences as part of a hugely successful ecotourism initiative. Because of the way that it is set up and managed (only one bed per 1000 hectares is allowed), it is also one of the best places for stargazing in Southern Africa. If one wants isolation, remoteness and time to think about what is really important, this is a great place to be.

One night, as we were all gazing up into the sky and discussing the insignificance of our planet in this seemingly vast milky way, which itself is dwarfed by about 100 billion other galaxies, one of the teenagers in our group remarked:

“Living in the city is nice, but the problem is that it makes you think you are more important than what you really are”.

Given the context, this remark was perhaps not that significant, however, it was the next sentence that really caught my attention:

“The problem with XYZ School is that the teachers make you think that the next test or exam is the most important thing in the world”.

So why would a student, in the middle of nowhere, having an “existential moment” about our place in the universe (seeing the bigger picture) immediately link that experience to what happens at school which is 1500 km away?

A couple of days later, we were talking after dinner about the exciting new research on learning and the brain, when the discussion turned to stress and how that impacts negatively on learning. Another student, this time from a well-known private school, was listening intently and it was obvious that the conversation resonated with her own experiences. As a grade 11 student, she knows the importance of year-end marks for admission to university and naturally it makes her anxious. In such an environment one would expect that teachers will do all they can to support their students. Apparently they are, but the way they are going about it seems a little bit like an “academic boot camp”. Perhaps they attended a course somewhere on “negative reinforcement” or such because they keep telling the students:

“Your test marks will go down this year/ you will do worse in tests/exams than last year/ most of you will be struggling this year”.

I am sure that teachers are trying to use this sort of “scare tactic” as a means to get the students to focus and work harder, but on this particular student (and I suspect many more in the grade) it had the exact opposite effect. In fact, there is absolutely no good reason on earth why such an approach makes sense.

The experiences of these two students tell us something about their school environment and their teachers. It’s not that their teachers are lazy or uncaring but it seems that the actions they are taking in order to motivate and drive students towards success which should, in theory, fill students with confidence that they are being well prepared somehow have the opposite effect. Instead, students come to experience tests and exams almost as “life or death” events instead of seeing them for what they are – milestones towards achieving ultimate success. The extreme focus on individual assessment events leads to a loss of context, to losing sight of “the bigger picture”.

The Bigger Picture?

Although the term the bigger picture is definitely overused – at least it has the advantage that even if it is not always able to fix problems – it is a great way of finding perspective. Coaches, especially when they are in a rebuilding phase, like to talk about the bigger picture (which basically means something like: we are losing now, but be patient we have a plan and when it comes together we will start winning…). Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they don’t but the basic principle is sound – long-term success is dependent on a process where even the worst failures become opportunities to learn. When a team wins the league at the end of a year, no one cares about the losses on the way there…

It would be great if teachers and their students also have a similar mindset when it comes to an academic year. Students need to know that it is not so much about each individual assessment as an end to itself, but seeing them as milestones towards overall mastery of the curriculum and ultimately gaining skills for life after school. In that context, assessments have a twofold meaning – yes they do indicate mastery (or lack thereof) up to a particular point. Equally so, and perhaps more important, they are learning events for students to find out what they know, to strengthen neural pathways through recall, to find out whether a particular learning strategy is working, to show some grit and determination, etc. But all of this is only possible in an environment where everyone knows that these assessments are just milestones on a much longer journey.

In the end, we – as tiny humans on a tiny, insignificant planet in a vast universe – should know that no single test or exam must be allowed to gain more importance than what it deserves.