by Mario Piacentini
Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills
What do 15-year-old students really need from school and what can school give them for their personal growth? The third volume of PISA 2015 results on students' well-being shows how important it is that education helps them develop not only knowledge and cognitive skills, but also the social and emotional competencies and resilience to thrive in the face of present and future challenges. Schools can attend to these needs, and making schools happy and caring communities is a feasible and worthwhile pursuit.
Happy schools are places where children feel challenged but competent, where they work hard but enjoy it, where social relationships are rewarding and respectful, and where academic achievement is the product but not the sole objective. Creating happy schools is the joint responsibility of teachers, parents and students.
All of us have memories of at least one teacher who made a difference in our life. My first teacher in elementary school not only taught me everything I wished to know about ancient Egypt; he also helped me to overcome some of my shyness and find my own way to express myself, in personal relationships as in writing. Emanuele, my teacher, used to hide short personal messages in our notebooks, and from these messages we all knew that he cared about us. My other good teachers had very different personalities and taught in very different ways, but all had one thing in common: they established good personal connections with students. If not every single student felt inspired in the same way, the class, as a community, was on the teachers’ side and willing to learn from them. And perhaps this is the main reason why these teachers looked so passionate and seemed so confident about their work.
The data from the latest PISA report confirm something that might sound obvious but whose implications are often underestimated: teachers educate for life, and their work is more effective if they can establish rewarding relationships with students. For example, PISA data show that students' anxiety related to school assignments and tests is a big issue in all countries, and that this anxiety is negatively associated with students' achievement and their perceptions of the quality of their life. On average across OECD countries, around 64% of girls and 47% of boys reported that they feel very anxious even if they are well prepared for a test.
Students who perceive that their teacher provides individual help when they are struggling were less likely to report feeling tense or anxious. By contrast, students were about 60% more likely to report that they feel very tense when studying if they perceive that their teacher thinks they are less smart than they really are. These data do not imply that teachers are not doing their job well. Rather, they confirm that teaching for the development of the “whole child” is a very difficult job. It requires that the school's objectives and how to achieve them are clearly understood and bought-into by everyone – the whole school staff, parents and students. It also demands that education policy acknowledges and supports the efforts of school communities to build positive learning environments.
Positive relationships with parents are another form of social support that enables adolescents to cope with stressful life situations and thrive. PISA 2015 data show that the majority of students in all countries feel that they can rely on their parents if they have difficulties at school. But those students who do not perceive this type of support from their parents, or do not spend time just talking with their parents, are more likely to feel isolated and disengaged from school.
Parents can find in teachers important partners for their children's education. Close communication between teachers and parents is essential for conveying consistent messages and supporting children and adolescents in all contexts. For this collaboration to happen, it is important that schools find ways to encourage all parents to participate in school life, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Teachers, school leaders and parents who work together can also reduce the incidence and consequences of the most dangerous threat to students' happiness: bullying. PISA 2015 shows that, in many countries, verbal and psychological bullying occurs frequently, with possibly devastating consequences on the present and future lives of too many children. On average across OECD countries, around 11% of students reported that they are frequently (at least a few times per month) made fun of, 8% reported that they are frequently the object of nasty rumours in school, and 7% reported that they are frequently left out of things. On average across OECD countries, around 4% of students reported that they are hit or pushed at least a few times per month, although this percentage varies from around 1% to 9.5% across countries.
PISA does not provide simple answers to what schools, teachers and parents should do to end bullying and improve the quality of life at school. Nor does it establish a ranking of countries regarding students' well-being. This new report gives a snapshot of the life 15-year-old students around the world are living. The large differences in how students – even within the same country – describe their life send the message that well-being is not just about personality and culture, it is also about life experiences at school that teachers and students can improve, together. Learning is a social activity; let's make it work.