Time to Listen to Students

A debate is ongoing in Sweden, revolving around school results and performance. Meanwhile, there’s the simple fact that many students are stressed out by school. And among those being stressed, 68% admit to resulting mental health issues, according to the Swedish Health Authority.

So, should we be compromising students’ health in order to  achieve high educational objectives?

Sweden is approaching the upcoming election, and one of the big political questions is about education more precisely, school results. The latest PISA study (Programme for International Student Assessment) showed that Sweden is not among the top countries. The statistics show that we actually average 23rd place, which is lower than the other Scandinavian countries.

This opened up a debate within the country regarding education and has led to higher demands in Swedish schools. But a persuasive plan as to how students can reach these new higher demands is missing. The debate used words such as “performance”, “grades” and “exams”, which indicates a focus on results rather than the learning process.

And while this debate continues, the Swedish Health Authority is problematizing the fact that mental health issues are growing more common because of stressed out students. A study done by the World Health Organization shows that psychosomatic issues are more common for students who report feeling stressed over schoolwork. The constant talk about results stresses students out. There is the big risk that the realization of educational objectives will eventually rob students of their energy, motivation to learn, and finally also their health. Bottom line:  better school results should not be achieved by compromising students’ health.

Last year my own energy and life motivation were drained. After years of long-term stress caused primarily by school demands and my own desire to perform well I could no longer do it and was diagnosed with “occupational burnout”. I had no energy to do the most basic things in life, and I no longer enjoyed the things I was passionate about. Anxiety, difficulty with thinking and memory, dizziness and panic attacks, were daily symptoms.

Students’ experiences and opinions, like my own, should be important considerations in any educational process and setting. Focusing only on results, rather than the process and context for learning makes students fall apart and lose what is generally a young person’s natural interest in learning.

Maybe it’s time to talk instead about how to create the best conditions for both the student to learn and the teacher to teach. We need to be sensitive and concerned about the well-being of students. We otherwise run the risk of the stress going so far that a student ends up with burnout even before starting to work.

The political debate could affect education in very practical ways. It puts at risk the most important aspect of school — that it’s a place to learn.

Victoria Englund   (Örebro, Sweden)

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