Q&A Interview The pressure to do well in school

Standardised testing is any type of test that requires everyone involved to answer the same questions, and is the general way that students have always been tested. Recently, there has been much debate over whether this form of testing is fair, considering that everybody has strengths and weaknesses in different subjects, and just because we may not excel in one, it does not mean that we aren't able to excel in other ways.

Filmmaker Olly Blower chose to create his short film 'Their, They're, There' to reflect his own frustration with the way that schools measure students' intelligence. The film was commissioned as a result of a partnership between the Arts Council England and Channel 4, which works with and develops 16-24 year old filmmakers through a national initiative known as First Acts. Find out more about First Acts here.

Am I Normal spoke to Olly about his personal experiences with feeling pressure to do well at school, and he offered his advice to other teens in the same boat.

Olly, what inspired you to create your film ‘Their, They’re and There?’

All throughout my school life I have struggled with exams. I have always dreaded and hated them but have just been told to get on with it and that it’s ‘part of growing up’ or a ‘character building experience’. However I disagree, I’ve always believed that exams are an extremely unfair way of testing people and are rather a test of memory than knowledge. For me, ‘Their, They’re and there’ was an outlet and an explanation for my frustration at having to always sit exams, but also at our education system and the backwards way we approach teaching the youth of today and the stigma around creative subjects. However, although I am coming to the end of my education, I didn’t want to become part of the problem and just another person dishing out the well known saying of ‘We’ve all been there mate’. As history has proven, an acceptance of wrong doing will never change anything and just amounts to a larger problem. Therefore ‘Their, They’re and There’ was, and is, almost a start to my mini- revolution for the reform of the current education system which favours those with a good memory, good attention span and fast hand writing.

Do you feel there’s too much pressure to perform well in school?

I definitely think that there is way too much pressure put on kids to perform well in school. I believe that this comes from a society in which there is huge expectation riding on the youth to achieve success, however the path to success is always defined in the same way. I’ve always been told that the path to achieve it involves getting a full education, going to university, getting a 9-5 in the city, having a family and earning lots of money. However, I feel that this image of success is wrong and it places focus and over-importance on things that shouldn’t matter at a young age. In school for instance, there is always less focus and stress of importance on creative, or less academic subjects, such as art and sport. These are never focused on as much, as say Maths or history and are always just seen as ‘fun’ lessons that are not taken seriously. Right from an early age, the school system conditions you to think that being a good academic is the measure of success and that these are the subjects which will set you up for a good future. However, the large proportion of children who are good at art or natural artists will never be given the opportunity to flourish or encouraged to do what they love because as a society we do not consider being an ‘artist’ as a viable career. The creative subjects which bring so many people joy are instead stigmatised and people who excel in these areas end up being marginalised. The pressure to perform well in school is also very much associated with exams. These pieces of paper with a grade on are essentially what determine our future and this is drilled into us at a young age. The pressure on kids to perform to a high standard in these exams causes an absurd amount of stress, and is a lot to be placing on kids as young as 11. In my opinion, school should be a safe environment to experiment and learn in a fun and productive way. All subjects should be treated and considered equally and assessments should take place over a longer period of time and not rely purely on retention of knowledge.

How do you cope with the stress of exams?

I do get very stressed when I know that an exam is looming and I try my best to remain calm and collected. One thing that takes a lot of stress away and will probably apply to everyone, is being well prepared and knowing the content for the exam you're about to sit. Both my time management and attention span is terrible, so even if the knowledge is there, only half of the questions will end up being answered! The thing that I try and do most when I begin to get stressed is to exercise. If I have had a long day, I will go down to my boxing club and train, or even go for a walk around the streets. Personally, fresh air and exercise for me is my cure for everything and always makes me feel calmer. Even if it's just a kick about the park with my mates, it allows me to forget about my work for that hour and just live in the moment.

What would you say to other teens who might be struggling with exams?

The main thing that I would say to other teens that are struggling with exams is that you are far more than just a grade on a piece of paper. Exams are only a measure of certain skills and they test you in a confined way which relies on your memory and the correct way of answering the questions. Doing an exam is merely jumping through a hoop and is not really a measure of intelligence. This is because intelligence comes in so many different forms and it cannot be simply measured by an hour-long test. We are all unique human beings and all have wonderful and wacky skills and unfortunately school is not a place that allows those talents and skills to flourish. After the exams are over, the grades that were imprinted on that piece of paper and attached to your name may stay on your school record, but they do not define you. When you venture into the real world, those grades no longer matter and it is then a test of who you are as a person.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?

I am just finishing my final year of A-levels and have just completed my final media unit in which I made a documentary about female boxing. I am currently in the planning stages of a short film that I want to make next year, which is about a boy who feels isolated from the society he lives in and disassociated by the people around him. The only way he can escape from it and find peace in solitude is through his graffiti art.

What does the term ‘normal’ mean to you and do you feel that you fall into that category?

The google definition of normal is: ‘conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected’ but, I think that no one fits this definition. No one is completely normal, as we are all weird in our own unique way. I agree, there are some people who are certainly a lot more normal than others but i think we all fall on the spectrum of weird or abnormal somewhere. For arguments sake and if there was a scale with completely normal at 100 and completely bonkers at 0, I would put myself at a firm 35! I would say that I am far away from being ‘normal’ but I am one hundred percent proud and confident with who I am. I think that I’m not a very conforming person overall - when I was younger I had made the phrase ‘rules were made to be broken’ one of my own. I also love shocking people and doing things that no one expects me to do. I am proud to be an ‘Odd bod’ so to speak, and I think that my weirdness and creativity has created lots of opportunities and got me on the path that I’m on now. However, I think a lot of people that are not ‘normal’ - who do not have the same confidence within themselves - can find that they are easily alienated from people around them. This is one thing that I believe is the worst thing about our ‘all-inclusive’ society and that is how we ostracise those who we do not deem as being ‘normal’ enough and fitting the mould of a societal norm. Mary Shelley’s 1817 novel ‘Frankenstein’ comes to mind. The creature is created as an innocent being, but becomes a monster as a result of society’s treatment of him. Although written in 1817, the story and the messages that it holds are still very relevant today. So next time you think about making fun of a ‘not normal’ person, think again. Normal doesn’t exist!

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