A is for Anxiety

I worry we are taking two steps forward as a society, and one step back — all without looking past the smartphone in our hands. I believe that with each breakthrough in communication technology, the world becomes more connected…and more disconnected. Take, for example, online grade-books.

Recently, Julie Jargon wrote an article for The Wall Street Journal (“The New Parental Obsession: Checking Kids’ Grades Online”) which mirrored an op-ed I wrote on the same subject a few years back.  Here’s an updated retelling of that piece.

In essence, online grade-books – increasingly used by schools across the country — make the grading process more transparent, providing parents and students with the opportunity to track, test score by test score, each step toward a final mark.  Proponents say this helps students self-monitor their progress, encourages teachers to stay current with grading and provides parents with an easy way to connect to the classroom.

Opponents think online grade­books remove a vital human element to education, negating the need for teachers, students and parents to meet and confront difficult issues or discuss good work, to form relationships that have value beyond the classroom.

Jason Kurtz, a father, psychoanalyst and author, agrees with the opponents: “One of the essential tasks of childhood is to learn how to deal with increasingly complex emotional situations,” he states.

“Many of us, as adults, remember the anxiety of coming home with a less than stellar report card, wondering how we would break the news to our parents. Though this was unpleasant, it was an important learning moment.

“It taught us how to face our anxiety, and it taught us that there are consequences to our actions. We learn and we grow when we face difficulties. Now, with this new system, we’re taking the onus off of the children and putting it on the parents, which I think removes a potentially formative learning experience.”

Limiting the future development of a child is one thing; adding pressure in the classroom is another.

Online grade­books have this potential, especially for students nervous about test-taking, their anxiety heightened by knowing that their parents might have access to results not long after they put down their pens.

Sometimes, the stress is equally felt by the parents.

Clare Sievers, a mother of two sons, is familiar with online grade-books.  Also a development consultant who helps raise money for nonprofit educational programs, her take on the topic is experiential and nuanced.

She elaborates: “Our school utilizes an online service that makes it possible to log on anytime to see what grades the teachers have put in — from homework assignments, which might be worth as little as 1 point, to test grades.

The problem is that the grade­book gets difficult to interpret because each point added can change the overall grade dramatically.

“If I check the grade­book too frequently, I get worked up thinking about how my boys’ grades are going. At the same time, I want to know if a problem is developing when there is still time to help. It is hard to find the right balance.”

Building on this concern, many people feel that online grade­books encourage “helicopter parenting,” a term that describes mothers and fathers who hover over every aspect of their children’s lives and get overly involved in ways that prevent their kids from learning how to take responsibility for themselves.

Alarmingly, new studies are revealing the potential damage to children caused by helicopter parents, including higher rates of neuroticism, lower self-esteem, and a decreased ability to manage life and its stressors.

Moving forward, we will do a disservice to our children to discourage the use of new technology in schools, but we will also do them no good if we see new technology as the ultimate answer to educational problems.

What we need to do is find the meeting ground, both in the classroom and beyond, where technology is just a tool, and not the workbench.

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