Have standardized tests themselves created a generation of anxious, stressed-out kids, or is it just some kids’ response to stress that is the main problem?
And maybe the answer isn’t less competition, challenge, and evaluation, but more of it. Just not the kind that many kids are experiencing.
A New York Times Magazine cover article just posted today poses all these provocative questions. Written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, who co-wrote NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, a book that I described in a previous post as one of the best non-parenting books to help raise successful kids, the article is called “Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure and Others Fall Apart.”
The article describes research studies in areas as diverse as pilot training and student test-taking into variations of a single gene called COMT. About half of us have a mix of both variations, but one-quarter possess only the Warrior gene mutation and another quarter carry the Worrier variation. This gene helps to regulate the level of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s planning and decision-making center.
Interestingly, this gene may help to determine whether your body performs better in normal, everyday circumstances — as Worriers do — or during times of stress — as Warriors do.
Warriors may be naturally primed for external threats. In contrast, Worriers may perform worse under stress, despite the fact that they may have higher levels of overall cognitive ability. However, once they are given experience and preparation about how to handle and manage these stressors, they begin to adjust to the stress and do well.
The conclusion of Bronson and Merryman — on the basis of this stress research — is that an optimal level of stress is good for both Warriors and Worriers. Warriors thrive on the rush of competition in all of its forms, whereas Worriers need regular practice in the intensity of stress so that they can learn to adapt to it.
In terms of standardized testing, our educational system, and even parenting in general, I find myself confused about the message that I should take away. I’m often skeptical about using a few brain research studies to generalize about the entire educational process for all learners, but these studies are really interesting and may be a small piece of the puzzle explaining why some kids demonstrate resilience under conditions of chronic stress and others don’t.
Is this research an argument for or against standardized testing? If lots of regular stress is beneficial, how do we go about creating the ideal conditions for learning in order to thrive under conditions of challenge and adversity?