“I cannot figure it out!” he said in frustration. My son was distressed. After a long gruelling schedule which started at 5:30am, by the time he started working on maths at 7pm after late and gruelling tennis training, the homework just seemed too much. He could not concentrate; the exhaustion was plainly clear in his body language: slouched shoulders, long face, and heavy eyelids.

I asked him how much homework he had to do that night. He had to work on maths and history. I suggested he does history first, but he wasn’t enthused by the idea. He wanted to do the more difficult part first. Despite the frustration and lack of progress, he did not want to back down and give up. He was not ready for that yet.

I offered to help. He insisted we start with the exercise which was causing him so much grief. After reading the problems and the first question, I realised it was in fact quite easy. His issue was mental blockage; he got stuck in a negative loop. I asked him the same question in a slightly different way and his face suddenly lighten up. The tiredness was gone like magic and the frustration disappeared as if it never happened. He answered the question so quickly, I could not follow him. Next, he hurriedly wrote the answer and in a flash the entire exercise was finished.

We talked a bit more that night about how they get the homework. I thought the teachers would guide their students about which exercises they should focus on as a minimum together with some problem solving strategies. It turned out that it wasn’t like that. In some cases, the system leaves it entirely up to the students to do their homework as they see it fit. If they learn something about geometry, the teacher would describe the homework for the next day by giving them a broad list of questions from which they can choose; nothing about individual problem solving strategy.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The traditional routine homework is the mirror copy of one way lecture in the classroom: a monotonous activity for etching knowledge in the students’ memories. Drill, drill, drill! The homework effort is considered linear. You work more, you solve more exercises and you get better at it. You work less, and you are not as prepared in answering the same type of questions in an exam session. It sounds logical. But is the effort linear? Is the student ready to spend energy in equal portions of effective effort during the homework time? The anatomy of a school day shows too many variations and stress points to support the hypothesis of a linear study. What happens when the student doesn’t know what to do? What happens if the student is not motivated or if it takes too long to solve one problem causing a mini time crisis?

If skill is required to solve a particular type of exercise, which is not covered or explained in the manual, how would the student overcome that hurdle? I am not suggesting that students should be hand-held all the way to save them of any pain, but in the current situation of information and tasks overload, students need a different kind of support.

The key is to teach thinking strategies, the art of coping with stress, how to think in different ways, be effective and stay sane. In the current model teachers give students the homework without any of these personal tools, there is nothing about how to think and how to deal with difficult situations. They teach them no ‘tricks’ about how to deal with frustration and how to recognise their own abilities and talents.

Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy said in a Ted conference presentation that the schools should let the students read the theory at home and do the homework at school where teachers can help them to learn how to think, and how to solve problems. It makes sense.

How damaging could this be for students that get stuck in some of these issues? “I feel so dumb!” my son told me before he solved the exercise. Why would he say that, when he is one of the best student in his grade? Because when you don’t succeed at working out something you feel dumb. What happens with students that don’t get to see other ways of thinking and the experience is repeated over a few weeks pushing them into a negative and self-downgrading belief? I am wondering how much of this could be attributed to the attitude of disconnect from school that some students have.

Anyway, I would argue, that schools should teach students how to deal with stress and recognise when dangerous thinking habits can form and take them down. Very often, students, and this goes for any adult too, cannot find solutions not because they don’t have the capacity to, but because they lack the emotional and cognitive tools to deal with difficult situations.

Why don’t schools teach thinking smart?

The problem with schools is that they have superimposed a different agenda. The performance indicators are not designed to measure improvements in students thinking and positive attitude, but scores at maths and literature assessment. For example, the National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) in Australia is the dominant metric used for measuring school and student performance. The NAPLAN results are used for public show and tell for everyone to see which schools perform better. On My School web site, the school performance is measured using the NAPLAN results. The information presented invites parents to judge a school based on NAPLAN results and financial profile.

An entire industry flourished under NAPLAN, “to capitalise on their [students, schools, teachers] anxieties” as Christopher Bantick put it in an article published in The Age. These assessment scores have become the focus of the public perception inching out other learning priorities (“Why teach a Shakespeare text at year 9 when it will be interrupted by a month of trial tests, spelling lists, endless grammar exercises and punctuation: sonnets out, NAPLAN in.”

There is no time for learning about thinking.

We talk abundantly about 21st century skills, but schools are too busy calibrating their operation in compliance with industrial educational standards. Everybody knows this, but it is just not enough time and the system doesn’t seem to find the resources and the determination to make a drastic change.

Will the next generation of students be able to cope with a world that changes dramatically when the static knowledge absorbed during the school time might be of little use? The Knox Grammar School headmaster John Weeks stated once that the focus on NAPLAN results “threatens to make us factories for one-dimensional students“. 40 years ago the education system was giving students tools which they could use with confidence to manage a career in organisations with fixed hierarchies, with prospect of lifetime employment. Today, the system is still giving students the same tools, but they are of little value. Back then the school classes were a rehearsal of future work place scenarios. Now, the class monologue of lecturing teachers and the linear homework are a rehearsal that prepares students for a scenario that is increasingly irrelevant in the real life.

Higher education faces similar problems, even at the top of the food chain. In “The Organization Kid”, published in The Atlantic in 2001, David Brooks describes what has become of most students studying at top universities in US: “… at the top of meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious”. It doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with being “bright, morally earnest” but if this is the product of a sausage factory like education system, it is a problem. When education is like a massive train where everyone is on board set for the same destination (get the exams right) no one will know what to do when the train needs to stop at a different destination.

Maybe the grades are the culprit? Having a measurement system locked onto a model that is as relevant today as it hand crafting is to computer programming forces everyone to focus on the wrong outcomes. At the core of what we need to possess as a skill is the ability to figure out the answer to a complex question by interacting with data sources and other people.

I don’t mean that in a ‘trick’ way. I mean it as an ability to understand what is going on; what are the personal preferences, talents and experience and decide how to get information, learn and apply that knowledge to produce an outcome over time. This requires a capacity to evaluate the environment, but also to self-evaluate. Schools could teach students the art of self-evaluation and give them tools to deal with difficulties in ways that suits their condition.

The focus on grades, takes the focus away from how to become more productive, how to be confident, how to deal with your own difficulties, and how to adapt. The grades are artificial and encourage toxic competitiveness. Instead of grades we should have a system that describes personal attributes and skills. As an example, this system could give the following value “marks”: student X is agile, fast and detail driven while student Y is methodical, perceptive and creative. Student X had a preference for sports, mastering kinetic skills, and has an interest in operations; she has worked on organising sport events, robotics or public transport management. Student Y has interest for research in human sciences, social behaviour and organisation of enterprises; he has worked on writing essays and organising surveys.

By focusing on personal growth, mastering learning, self-discovery, problems-solving, creativity and collaboration, the students would be given tools they will be using for the rest of their lives. The grades are not that important anyway.