The world’s largest assessment of teenage students suggests happiness is crucial to learning

But are they happy?
But are they happy?
Image: Reuters
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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.

Students in the Netherlands, Finland, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico were among the happiest, with more than one in two students reported being very satisfied with their life (reporting life-satisfaction levels of 9 or 10 out of 10). In some of the highest-achieving countries—Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong—fewer than 20% of students reported similar levels of satisfaction.

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?”

There wasn’t a clear link between how well students performed on the test and their happiness. In countries whose students did well on the test, the top and bottom performers reported similar levels of happiness. In the Netherlands, Finland, and Switzerland, where achievement and life satisfaction were high, schools “are not about putting a lot of pressure to be an overachiever, but to…be less pushy and more caring,” Ramos said. Students in those countries did not report wanting ”to be the best” either, unlike their less happy counterparts in the US and UK.

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.” On average across OECD countries:

  • 59% of students said that they often worry that taking a test will be difficult
  • 66% said that they worried about poor grades
  • 55% reported feeling very anxious for a test, even if they are well prepared
  • 37% report getting “very tense” when studying
  • 52% reported that they get nervous when they don’t know how to solve a task at school

Among the most stressed out: students in Brazil, Colombia, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Students in Finland and Switzerland, by contrast, reported low levels of stress.

Once again, girls reported being more stressed out. Sixty-four percent reported feeling very anxious, even when they were well prepared for a test, compared to 47% of boys. The anxiety about schoolwork, homework, and tests comes with a price, the report says: It correlates with worse performance in science. The most anxious kids also reported lower levels of life satisfaction.

The number of tests had less of an impact on anxiety than the perception of whether the test was “more or less threatening,” the report found. In other words, the way teachers and parents treat tests matters a lot.

Kids fare better when they’re self-motived

More girls than boys reported wanting top grades, but they are less likely to say they are ambitious or competitive. This supports what previous research has shown about the complicated narrative girls hold about competition: They want to compete but often feel they will be punished for doing so, since ambition is often celebrated in men but not women.

On average across OECD countries, 68% of boys and 62% of girls reported that they want to be the best, whatever they choose to do.

But motivation has to be internal, not external. Students whose parents reported that they “help my child with his/her science homework” or “obtain science-related materials (e.g. applications, software, study guides, etc.) for my child” at least once a week scored at least 23 points lower in science, on average, than students whose parents engaged in these activities less frequently. Spending time “just talking” was the thing most associated with wellbeing, a relieving finding for parents keen on ways to help.

Teachers play a critical role in mitigating stress and encouraging achievement. The report showed that kids who think their teachers will help them when they need it report lower stress levels:

A stronger focus on classroom and relationship management in professional development may give teachers better means to connect with their students. Teachers should also be better supported to collaborate and exchange information about students’ difficulties, character and strengths with their colleagues.

Bullying is rampant, and keeping kids out of school

Bullying is prevalent in schools across the world, the report found. Rates of bullying were especially high in Latvia, Singapore, and Australia. Ramos said these levels were ”unacceptable,” and called for more action.

On average across OECD countries, around 11% of students reported that they are frequently (at least a few times per month) made fun of; 7% reported that they are frequently left out of things; and 8% reported that they are frequently the object of nasty rumors in school, a sign of the rise of cyberbullying. Boys were more likely than girls to report being victims of all forms of bullying, with the exception of being left out of things on purpose and being the object of nasty rumors.

More than a quarter of frequently bullied students reported relatively low satisfaction with life compared, to 10% of students who said they were not frequently bullied. Victims of bullying often decide to stay out of school, which argues for more policies that target students’ wellbeing, not just their academic success.