Parents and schools spend a lot of time worrying about how kids measure up academically. Less attention goes to how happy kids are while they’re learning, and what that means for parents and schools.
The OECD is trying to change that. New results from its high-profile PISA test, used to measure student achievement among 15-year-olds around the world, take an entirely different tack from the usual focus on science, math, and reading.
Rather than concentrating on academic scores alone, the findings explore the critical connection between wellbeing, belonging, and achievement. (The report defines student wellbeing as “the psychological, cognitive, social, and physical qualities that students need to live a happy and fulfilling life.”)
“If you feel good, you learn better,” said Gabriela Ramos, chief of staff at the OECD. “It’s not about promoting high achievement or not; it’s how you do it with the other sets of skills we need to develop in children.”
To this end, the report quantifies which countries’ students are the most motivated, the most stressed out, and the happiest (as measured by self-reporting life satisfaction).
Kids who report they want to do well in school perform better, the report found, which puts the onus on schools and parents to spark the desire to learn. “The data show that to do well in school it’s not just cognitive skills, it’s a cocktail of all the things that influence a child’s life,” said Helle Thorning-Schmidt, CEO of Save the Children.
On average, the most motivated students scored the equivalent of more than one school year higher in PISA than the least-motivated ones.
Teachers, parents, and school culture also have a lot to do with whether or not students thrive, the report found. Those who don’t feel they belong tend to say they have more fraught relationships with teachers. This is in step with a growing body of research about the importance of belonging instead of punishment, and the power of teachers in helping to guide disadvantaged students.
More alarmingly, the OECD found a lot of bullying,—what it defines as a systemic abuse of power—including physical, verbal, and relational (social exclusion). Around 4% of students—what they estimate to be about one per class—reported being hit or pushed at least a few times per month, though it varied from 1% to 9.5% among countries. “Bullying is very strongly related to psychological distress, and it’s its not just in one point in time—it lasts for life,” said Mario Piacentini, a policy analyst at the OECD.
Below is a breakdown of the results.
Happiness doesn’t always translate into achievement
On the 2015 PISA test, students were asked to rate their life on a scale from 0 to 10, with 0 representing the worst possible life, and 10 the best possible. On average across OECD countries, students reported a level of 7.3 on a life-satisfaction scale ranging from 0 to 10. Most teenagers, on average, are relatively happy, the report reasoned.
Happiness is of course subjective and heavily influenced by culture (the Danes, the happiest people in the world, apparently have a low bar for happiness).
But as a first-of-its kind data set, there are some interesting takeaways. Boys are happier than girls, with only 29% of girls reporting being very satisfied with their lives compared to 39% of boys. More girls also report the highest levels of unhappiness (14%), compared to 9% for boys. “Why are girls reporting lower levels of life satisfaction than boys?” asked Ramos, saying it was a grave concern. “Can we do something about it and not only be concerned about it?”
Anxiety is weighing more on girls
Kids are more stressed out today than ever before. Psychologists assign this to everything from social media to increased academic expectations to a loss of free play in early childhood.
PISA asked students to report whether they agree, strongly agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statements such as: “I often worry that it will be difficult for me to take a test”; “I worry I will get poor grades at school”; “I feel very anxious even if I am well prepared for a test”; “I get very tense when I study for a test”; and “I get nervous when I do not know how to solve a task at school.”
– Jenny Anderson
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