How do we prevent 18 from becoming the new 40?
28 Oct 2015
Guest post by Stephen Chamberlain, CEO of Challenger Multi Academy Trust
A report by Demos came out yesterday which reveals just how pervasively unhappy teenagers are. The Mind over Matter report concludes, after surveying 1000 teenagers, that self-confidence is slipping between 14 and 18. So much so that 18-year-olds are half as likely to be happy (33%) as 14-year-olds (60%).
This is a worrying find and one that we cannot afford to overlook, as it means that throughout the sensitive and outlook-birthing teenage years, students are feeling increasingly anxious and demoralized. Could this mean that teenage years will soon connote stress, cynicism and depression rather than zest, curiosity and rebellion?
A constant and remorseless focus on exam and results is one explanation behind students’ frustration that the report suggests.
However, I do not believe we can stop there. Rather, the causes run deeper and have to do with students’ weak self-concepts as well as crucial soft skills of which current curricula are found wanting.
So what can be done to reverse this woeful trend? A solution put forward by that the author of the report is that we should change the way we think about mindsets. Students, that is, should be encouraged to view mindsets as ‘open’ rather than ‘fixed’ and revel in challenges and adversity.
Seeing learning opportunities in failure and character-building in setbacks, students are less likely to succumb to similar feelings of powerlessness and anxiety. Conversely, students with ‘fixed’ mindsets are more likely to see their confidence swing according to the results they get and the praise or dispraise they receive.
This is a very helpful change of perspective, though one easier said than done. Hard skills are often touted as all-important whilst softskills are seen as secondary. If the report lays one thing bare, though, is that hard skills and an emphasis of knowledge-and-memory-reliant skills does not empower students to form the ambitions and dreams that will propel them forward.
What transpires is that students feel there has been too much emphasis on hard skills at the expense of soft skills, perversely bracing them for exams while leaving them totally in the dark as to well…life.
In order to help students feel confident again and ready to live life on their own terms rather than chasing grade after grade, we have to encourage them to venture outside the classroom. Through extracurricular activities and character building initiatives, they become provoked into thinking in fresh ways and widening their perspectives and range of experiences.
Most of all, they cultivate the necessary soft skills that will help them bounce back from setbacks, academic and, crucially, non-academic too. It is clear that such skills as empathy, cooperativeness and creativity cannot be intuited or spelled out. Students have to challenge themselves and take on diverse hobbies and interests.
Hopefully, teenagehood will then be seen as not only a time of nonchalance and rock-and-roll-ness but also one of growth, confidence and zeal.