Testing and Competition

In the New York Times Magazine article Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman tout the benefits of stress and competition for developing young minds.  They argue that brain science and genetics can help us better understand how stress impacts the “Worriers” and the “Warriors”, and why some perform better than others in high stress situations, ultimately concluding that academic competition is beneficial for both.

Although it is certainly the well-researched case that people respond to stress differently, I’m not sure the authors have applied their ample findings to answering the right question. In fact, using stress management findings to help kids better tolerate academic testing flies in the face of every wise and humane thing that has ever been learned from the Emotional Intelligence and the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction movements.  We did not come to be a “Prozac Nation,” in a globally warming world, because unbridled competition was a positive thing.

We are at a moment in history where the future of the planet, and us as a species, is dependent upon mutuality, coexistence, and the creativity and compassion to think about old challenges in new ways. As a clinician and narratologist having led Emotional Intelligence trainings in schools for many decades, I can say without hesitation that the effort to prepare students to score highly on tests runs counter to everything good that might come from having them spend the first twenty years of their lives in classrooms. Dr. Daniel Siegel in The Mindful Brain asserts that: asking students to simply memorize and repeat material is actually teaching them how not to learn. When students are led to make discoveries with passion and compassion, and given experiential opportunities to put these discoveries into practice, there is simply no need for testing. They are eager to implement, and even further explore, what they’ve noticed. When they can share this excitement with their peers, as colleagues and fellow travelers, they care not who might achieve the highest scores because they have all “scored.” 

Whatever brain science has come to show about those of us with largely ‘warrior’ minds and those of us with largely ‘worrier’ minds – and I’m sure there is ample evidence toward these genetically and environmentally driven propensities – the goal should not be to become a species that can embrace its own stress in some race toward “testable and comparative achievement,” but to become a species bent on envisioning and then creating a world community in which we learn and share together, and are more likely to innovate social good corporations than test-prep machines; and far more likely to enjoy the process. If there is anything to the theory of evolution, and I for one believe there is, let’s hope that we have evolved beyond a series of exams indicate that a mind has been well-shaped for good citizenship because of it’s ability to decipher factors and spell arcane words.  My own two creative and curious children stopped enjoying school after “standardized testing” entered their lives, just as many of their friends – now sporting migraines and ulcers – did. The body does not lie. This is not a way to educate, no matter how adept we may become at “managing” the stress of this wrong-minded thinking.