We’ve ruined our children
Of course, our 15-year-old students did not do well in reading, math and science. The cringe-worthy embarrassment from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) was not a wake-up call. It was as predictable as “Ang Probinsyano.”
And the finger-pointing is off to the races. Is it the K-to-12 program? Is it the budget cuts on education? Or is it the vague but favorite set of benchmarks of government bureaucrats and intellectual elites — quality, efficiency and the increasingly beloved innovation?Our children are not okay. And the reason could not be more clear and corrosive: We care about our children’s performance, we do not value their humanity.
We equate doing well with high grades, top-notch rankings, elite schools and selective courses. When there is no suicide on campus, this must mean their mental health is all right. When teachers have advanced degrees, this must mean they know how to create a classroom where students feel loved, experience belonging and can express difficult feelings without fear of punishment or rejection. As long as our children are successful and are taking the road of status, they are happier.
This entrenched tradition is misguided. Our narrow attention to the results in reading, math and science overshadows other Pisa findings. The majority of our teens, according to the report, believe that intelligence is something that cannot be changed very much. If I believe that I cannot develop my potential and aspirations, why would I put in the necessary work in doing well in school and life? This is sad and disturbing—and they learned it from us.
Our 15-year-olds report moderate to high levels of life satisfaction, also according to Pisa. These are comparable to the average of their OECD peers. When asked whether they have clear meaning or purpose in life, have discovered satisfactory meaning in life and have a clear sense of what gives meaning to their life, our teens agree or strongly agree much more across the board. Their disposition toward life seems hopeful.
This is a utilitarian fantasy.
This “satisfaction” — a favorite all-purpose metric of the economic approach to measuring the quality of life — fails to consider social conditions. People would not want the things they could enjoy if society has put those opportunities out of reach. Over time, our students adapt and learn to be “satisfied” with dated textbooks and dilapidated classrooms. When other possibilities are denied them or are off-limits, they find “meaning” in ill-equipped teachers and mediocre career guidance. The “satisfaction” approach reinforces the status quo.
These outcomes are not offshoots of rules and regulations. We deliberately pursue them because we believe that childhood is only marginally meant for joy and carefree play. Childhood is a means to get a job as an adult — and for many, to then get out of the country.
We need a seismic shift. When we take a different slant on how we frame these difficult issues, we can prioritize policies over others and construct meaningful interventions.
Our children should be encouraged to play and have fun. They need less homework, fewer tests and more art and music. Their curiosity, imagination and social-emotional learning should be prioritized and cultivated. And not only for school-aged children. Teenagers in high school and young adults at university, too.
None of these ideas are new. Finland has taken this route since the 1970s. The paradigm shift we need is not in these ideas, but in doing them.
And our government bears the ultimate responsibility for promoting and securing these opportunities. At minimum, the business of government is to ensure our freedom to choose from a range of possibilities. The assertion that children have rights means nothing unless specific state-delivered programs and policies ensure that our future could enjoy their capabilities.
The report card is out: We have given up on childhood — and on our children.
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Dr. Ronald Del Castillo is professor of psychology, public health and public policy at the University of the Philippines Manila. The views here are his own.
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