How much pressure is too much pressure?
By Alfred Tang
(Math and Physics Instructor at The Edge Learning Center)
In my conversations with parents, I sometimes sense the worry that their children are being subjected to too much academic pressure. Other times, parents want me to put more pressure on their children because pressure plays a role in students’ success in school. What is not always clear is how much pressure is too much or too little. If students experience too much pressure, they may either rebel or become irresponsive. On the other hand, if students are left alone to do whatever they want, they will most likely do nothing. The human mind is a complex thing. To this end, I will discuss what a learning center like ours can do to manage this complexity.
Success comes with a price. To be successful usually involves doing better than someone else. Since no one wants to be outdone, everyone will fight to the death to keep someone else from getting there first. Fighting is competition. The competition takes a lot of effort. Success is 30% genius and 70% sweat. Sweating is uncomfortable. In school, students need teachers and coaches to force them to sweat. A few students with type A personality may push themselves to sweat when nobody is pushing them. At the end of the day, the simple truth is that things do not move all by themselves unless something is pushing them. It is just Newton’s first law in physics. Translating this law to education, some form of pressure is necessary to keep the students moving along the road to success.
In physics, Newton’s second law says that the greater the push, the faster a rock moves. Teaching would have been easy if students are more like rocks. That way, we can just push them as hard as we want and they will move as fast as we want. But unlike rocks, human beings have a will. They can choose to respond to pressure in whatever ways they want. When we push our students to work hard, sometimes they fight back. In that case, Newton’s third law kicks in, which says that the greater the force the greater the reaction. Some other times students can also choose to deflect the pressure by all kinds of creative diversions or just do nothing at all. In order for students to respond positively, the pressure must be accepted on a personal level. The smartest students are the hardest to accept external pressure because they can see through our game easily. At least young Einstein did not play the game well and almost failed out of high school. It is to say that, although we agree that students need some pressure to do well, it is not always so straightforward to create a learning environment in which academic pressure is meaningful to students.
In the game of life, if someones win, someones else must lose. Failure is painful. The extreme form of defense mechanism against pressure is self-destruction ranging from eating disorder to suicide. In Hong Kong, suicides among children make up a quarter of unnatural deaths in 2012-2013. Students who commit suicide are not necessarily losers in the world’s eyes. Many of them are beautiful, well educated and come from good families. Exactly because everything is so perfect in their lives, their standards are much higher. Sometimes the standards are so high that any slightest hint of failure is catastrophic in their minds. The study has shown that suicide rate is higher in social settings in which failure is not open for discussion. When students are already putting too much pressure on themselves, teachers need to help them relax, take a step back to look at the bigger picture and know that the world will not come to and end just because they get a B on one test. People fail to realize that, when they have found something good, it is already a success to do it regardless of the outcome. Jim Elliot was a newly married 28-year-old American missionary who went to Ecuador with four other young men to evangelize a savage tribal people called the Aucas. The concern at the time was that these indigenous people were dangerous and that the young missionaries might lose their lives trying to share their faith with them. Eliot’s famous response was, “He is no fool to give what he cannot keep (i.e. his life) to gain what he cannot lose (i.e. his heavenly reward)”. The idea is that one should be willing to risk doing something worthwhile even though he fails. Failure is not always the biggest regret. It is much more regretful not to find anything worth doing. Indeed Jim Elliot and his four friends were massacred by the Aucas. After their deaths, their wives brought their young children with them to live among the Auca people who killed their husbands. These courageous women finished what their husbands started by leading the Auca people to the Christian faith. What looks like a failure at first can actually be a success as long as we are doing something worth doing.
Now back to our original question, how much pressure should parents allow their children? If parents do not allow any pressure, their children live a sheltered life and have already failed even before they begin. As a rule, parents should push their children as much as they can handle and then a little bit more. But in the process, parents must have an open and honest communication with their children about failure. For example, among all the athletes who enter the Olympics, only a few come home with medals. The rest who return empty-handed are not losers. Everyone is already a winner by being in the game. In competition, the important thing is to do one’s best, have good work ethics, be humble and have the integrity to keep doing the right things when the pressure tempts you to cheat in order to get ahead. As far as a learning center like ours is concerned, we take the students wherever they are at and try to make them better. If they end up going to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and MIT, we are happy. If not, we are just as happy as long as they do the honorable things in the process. In my experience, the relationship between a teacher and his students is possibly the best thing to keep teenagers motivated to pursue a life of success. That relationship is the basis of positive pressure in the sense that students put pressure on themselves to try harder in order not to let the teacher down. Young people want to know that their teachers have their best interest in mind and are competent in giving guidance as they step into a world full of complexity, excitement, dangers, and confusion. When there is trust between a tutor and his students, there is meaningful pressure to achieve the higher personal best. By knowing our students, we know exactly the kind of pressure they need to be more successful.
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