Written by Francisca Lam
Hong Kong is known for fostering an “exam culture” where students are put under extreme pressure to do well in exams. The imposition of this culture is more imminent than ever as exams have an increased amount of importance on society now. Many educational institutes now have a shifted focus on results, and a higher desire for student academic success.
Since globalisation ‘managerialism’ refers to the usage and application of a business model to measure different factors (accountability, efficiency, and sometimes surveillance) on education. As many education systems develop, managerialism has an increasingly profound impact on the structure of education systems. The previous primary goal of achieving student happiness is now secondary to the primary need of attaining high exam results – factors that could influence this includes the governmental desire to prioritise economic growth and the natural influence from globalisation.
As managerialism affects the society, it inherently pushes students towards achieving academic success, even if it means putting in more time and effort outside of class to achieve so. A recent survey shows that most students in Hong Kong go for tutoring lessons after school- 54% of students in Form 3 (the Year 10 equivalent) and 72% of students in Form 6 (the Year 13 equivalent). The results demonstrate that students are under a certain pressure- the time where they previously would have been able to enjoy something of their interest may be taken away due to extra tuition classes that push them towards the ultimate goal of academic success. But Hong Kong is not the only city (and country) to have such a pressurising exam culture. Schools in England create a similar pressuring environment for students to study in. Parents and workers in the educational field should be worried about the damaging effects that the pressuring exam culture can bring to students.
“Good exam scores are important, but the hothouse atmosphere and the paranoia that can create can be damaging” – Richard Harman, chairman of the Boarding Schools’ Association
To put this into context, there has been a 59% increase in self-harmers in the year of 2010-2011, which is a double of the year previously. The statistic becomes increasingly important as researchers begin to find correlations between mental health and academic stress. The Nuffield Foundation reports a double in teenagers with rising mental health problems, and the Samaritans (British-based) have found that 70% of the teenagers who engage in acts of self-harm and with accompanying suicidal thoughts stem their problems back to academic problems. Astonishingly, the figure from academic problems is much higher than other figures from problems that stem from relationships, parental issues, or bullying.
In 2006, Margaret Lee and her colleagues in the Chinese University of Hong Kong found a correlation between suicidal thoughts and test anxiety, which stemmed from parental dissatisfaction based on how the students performed academically. This correlation was further investigated further in a later study in 2009 by Lee when she surveyed 3383 students on the same subject on the correlation between academic pressure and an adolescent’s mental health.
Despite statistics and correlations in research, there hasn’t been a single piece of research that can verify that the sole cause of the decline in mental health is because of society’s exam culture. However, it is worth noting because that there isn’t a single root cause to these issues, it is now causing researchers to claim that it is more becoming reasonable and justifiable than it was in previous decades that the growing competitive educational systems are a major contributing factor to these issues. Schools and parents should try to help their students and children to change from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset, and to develop skills and strengths for them to become resilient people in the future and have them understand that their skill-set is largely beyond the boundaries of a number or a letter grade.
People with a fixed mindset usually believe that they are good at something, or they are not. They believe that being “good at something” derives from a person’s inherent nature because a person is who they are born to be. On the other hand, people with growth mindsets believe that anyone can do anything because of their own actions. The differences between the two mindsets are extremely subtle, but the effects are long-lasting. A person with a fixed mindset would find any form of trouble to be devastating towards them. They will eventually talk themselves into giving up, instead of trying to learn from this process and take one failure as feedback, which is what a person with a growth mindset would do.
“One of the most basic beliefs we carry about ourselves, has to do with how we view and inhabit what we consider to be our personality.” – Carol Dweck, Mindset
The two mindsets are fundamental; whichever mindset you inherit affects your behaviour, your relationship with success and failure (professionally and personally), and ultimately, how happy you are. In Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, she found that “the growth mindset is so winsome since it creates a passion for learning, rather than a hunger for approval.” The quality of a growth mindset is that a growth mindset believes that anything, ranging from fundamental human qualities like intelligence and creativity to emotional relations like love and friendship can be cultivated over time if a person deliberately puts in effort to make a conscious change. People with growth mindsets know that failure isn’t something that will set them back- in fact, they consider every “failure” to be something that can be learned from. Something that they can grow from.
A growth mindset however, doesn’t mean that a person believes that they can do everything. In Dweck’s research, she specifically emphasises on how the developing mind works and identifying methods on how the mind can be reprogrammed. In Mindset, Dweck reveals the people with fixed mindsets usually see risk and effort as a giveaway of what a person is inadequate at. Essentially, it reveals that people with fixed mindsets inherently come up shorter in one way or another.
In The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz (psychoanalyst and professor at University College London), Grosz discovers that the root of the “stubborn fallacy” of that creative excellence is inherited by birth, and not cultivated through active application of a certain skill could be due to a child’s childhood, and upbringing.
From Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller’s study (from 1998), Grosz discovers that today’s culture of excessive parental praise is the driving cause for the destruction of a child’s self-esteem in the future. It cultivates an unhealthy environment for the child and by producing out empty praises, praise essentially has the same effect as criticism- it expresses the indifference of the parent. Rather than giving a child praise or punishment, the presence of a parent is more important. Presence helps build a child’s confidence by demonstrating to the child that he is deserving of the attention. An absence in presence demonstrates to the child that an activity is worthless unless if the outcome of the activity leads to praise.
“Being present, whether with children, with friends, or even with oneself, is always hard work. But isn’t this attentiveness- the feeling that someone is trying to think about us- something we want more than praise?” – Stephen Grosz, The Examined Life
When applying this theory back to the exam culture in Hong Kong, it can be assumed that the only “path to success” is from parental praise- in Hong Kong, parental praise stems from academic success. If students are focused on academic success, it causes unnecessary pressure and causing a student to feel trapped under the education system in Hong Kong. Parents often spend a considerable amount of resources on tutorial lessons for a student after school; this causes them to overlook a student’s’ mental and physical health and well-being.
It’s important for teachers and students both to recognise the importance of developing genuine interests and skills, and how to lead a fulfilling life. Our current education system in Hong Kong (DSE) should enter a reformation to better accommodate students and to protect their mental and physical health and well-being whilst striving for academic success. Even without a reformation, it is imperative for students to understand that there is more to life than academic results, and they should be striving to have a well-rounded life.
In 2016, 68128 candidates took the DSE- 24611 students met the minimum requirements to enter any of the universities in Hong Kong. Despite this, the universities only offer a maximum of 15000 places, leaving some students to apply to courses from the Vocational Training Council. Students who “fail” should recognise that although there is a high emphasis on academic success, there is still a place in society for what they are capable of doing.
A student should focus on their growth mindset – focus on the skill-sets that they aren’t familiarised with and strive to get better. They shouldn’t fix themselves to thinking that they are inherently worse than others in a certain subject or skill. After all, the main goal of school is to teach students skills that they can bring along with them later in life. Although our exam culture breeds high pressure, it is important to not focus all the attention on the negatives of the education system in Hong Kong. Focusing on the negatives will not help rationalise suicidal behaviour found in adolescents in Hong Kong, and it will not normalise suicide especially stemming from difficulties and the high pressure environment.
There are many means to help alleviate the situation on the suicidal behaviour found in adolescents that are inadvertently caused by society. It is imperative for the media to stop simplifying what suicide is- stop labelling and rationalising suicides that are from our exam culture. It is the duty to stop the normalisation of the act of suicide from a student. It should never be “common” for a student to commit suicide because of the environment they were bred in. Educators should discuss the implications of suicide and should take an active role in the student’s’ life- students need to recognise that suicide is not the “exit” from our exam-culture. Finally, parents should remain seized in their child’s life- share what your child loves, and most importantly, let your child know that they are loved regardless of their academic success.
As the times shift, it’s inevitable that the city progresses alongside with globalisation, resulting in Inevitably, there are consequences that follow with such a shift. We can all contribute to the effort of protecting our youth in this culture – encouraging the youth to shift to a growth mindset. Assist the youth in understanding that there is much more to life than academic success- don’t dwell on the failures that they meet along the road. The ability to learn from a failure is much more valuable and precious than beating yourself up over one minor setback.
Chiu, Peace. “More than half of Hong Kong secondary school pupils show symptoms of depression, quarter display signs of anxiety.” South China Morning Post, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education-community/article/2108850/more-half-hong-kong-secondary-school-pupils-show. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.
Popova, Maria. “Fixed vs. Growth: The Two Basic Mindsets That Shape Our Lives.” Brain Pickings, Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/01/29/carol-dweck-mindset/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.
“Presence, Not Praise: How To Cultivate a Healthy Relationship with Achievement.” Brain Pickings, Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, http://www.brainpickings.org/2013/05/23/stephen-grosz-examined-life/. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.
Yip, Paul. “Put an end to stereotypes for students’ sake.” South China Morning Post, http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/2061683/put-end-stereotypes-students-sake. Accessed 12 Nov. 2017.