I'm working my way through Judson Brewer's book Unwinding Anxiety, and at one point he addresses the ways in which we justify and even seek out anxiety.
The sciency basis is a paper from 1908 by Yerkes and Dodson that has become enshrined as the Yerkes-Dodson Curve or even the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Yerkes-Dodson posit a sort of bell curve for stress, where more stress and anxiety and pressure drive better performance, until they don't and instead start to make things worse. This seems like it makes sense. But does it?
|These are not human people|
Bewer says no. In fact, he says that decades later when papers supporting the Yerkes-Dodson curve were actually subjected to review and replication (that replication thing continues to be an issue in social science papers--see also the marshmallow test) and found that only 4% of the papers held up. Instead, the data mostly shows a linear negative correlation between stress and performance. The more stressed you are, the worse you do. Period.
Talking to his book editor about this research, Brewer heard a striking observation from her:
People romanticize their anxiety and/or stress. They wear it like a badge of honor, without which they would be a lesser person, or worse, lose a sense of purpose. To many, stress equals success. As she put it, "If you are stressed, you are making a contribution. If you're not stressed, you're a loser."
We can count the many, many ways this plays out in our lives ("If I'm not stressed, I'm not doing as much as I could be doing"), and what is someone who's overly addicted to drama is not a person who's convinced that stress and anxiety are signs that life is going well? But part of what struck me about these observations is how it all plays out in a classroom.
Because boy can I relate to the ways in which we think our job is to "push" students, to inflict stress and anxiety upon them the better to spur their growth. Pressure is needed to make diamonds, or some such sentiment. And so we'd set out to put students through a pressure cooker.
Well, some of them. The pressure cookers are usually just for the honors students, the high achievers, partly because "they can take it" and also because their high-achieving parents shared the romanticized notion of anxiety. We knew better than to try putting the lower-achieving students through the pressure cooker because we knew (or we found out the hard way) that they'd buckle or just quit. And that should have spurred insights. I wrote years ago that every teacher should be bad at something, because there is no stress like the stress of knowing that you're going to be required to do something that you can't do well. And your brain goes through all sorts of contortions to deal with that.
I got smarter as I went. Some of it was simple procedural tricks, like teasing coming attractions well ahead of time ("There's a paper about this topic coming up in a week or so") so that things didn't come as a surprise or shock. Some of it involved changing tone and approach, from "This is going to really separate the wheat from the chaff" to "This may look scary, but you are capable people, I'm not going to give you more than you can handle, and I am going to get you through this successfully."
Some of it I couldn't control. Some of my colleagues used me as the Boogie Man ("You just wait till you get in his class!") and my juniors loved to try to scare sophomores ("Oh, man, this will be the hardest class ever!"), but by halfway through the year, we would inevitably have the "This really isn't so bad" conversation. And high school students have learned from adults how to humblebrag about how much stress they're carrying.
But teachers don't have to romanticize anxiety, don't have to buy into the notion that their job is to pressurize students, don't have to jump on the "We build grit by putting them through the pressure cooker" train.
As we know from a hundred different pieces, when it comes to pressure and stress and anxiety, schools are cranked up to 11 right now. So this may be an excellent time to shed any remaining romantic notions about how anxiety is good for you and makes you better at whatever it is you do.
I'm not arguing that schools would be better if we never asked students to do anything hard, ever, and we reduced their stress levels by requiring them to do nothing, ever (nor am I convinced that doing so would actually reduce stress, but that's another conversation). Pursuing the mission of education--to help students grow and learn and better understand themselves and figure out how to be fully human in the world--that comes with some stress and anxiety built in. But if your classroom approach is based on the notion that you need to crank up the stress and anxiety in order to make your students "better," maybe don't. If you're a policy person and your whole raft of policy ideas is built on the premise that schools are all about applying pressure and creating stress in order to promote learning, the research is not on your side.
I'm pretty sure an anxiety-free school is not possible (just as anxiety-free life is unlikely), but there is no need to deliberately pile on more. Instead, focus on building strength and providing support. I'm a firm believer that the solution to the problem of Hard Things In Life is not to try to avoid all hard things, but to develop strength and confidence in dealing with those things when they come. That's where classroom focus should be.