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Schooling Needn’t be Depressing

A recent story that made newspaper headlines stated that Cheltenham Ladies College is set to review its homework policy over the next five years to help protect students from suffering depression.

It is a very worrying statistic that nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression and the number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s.

When faced with these facts, the decision by Eve Jardine-Young, Principal of Cheltenham Ladies College, to review whether homework should be set seems necessary and timely.

Children are put under great pressure to perform well in exams. This leads to stress (or dis-ease) eventually leading to depression, self-harm and other mental health problems. Simply abolishing homework is, in my opinion, the wrong way to tackle the problem. What is necessary is to engender a genuine love of learning in students. So how do you do this? There are three keys steps to take:

1) Learn how to Mind Map 

The more you know, the easier it is to learn new stuff. Existing knowledge acts as a framework onto which you can attach related facts or information. Learning skills also benefit form a context into which they can fit. A Mind Map is a structured network of associations. It provides the necessary context to make sense of anything that need to be learned, contemplated or planned. Because of their use of images colour and curvilinear branches, Mind Maps are aesthetically pleasing. Just as drawing is pleasurable so is learning with a Mind Map. Another huge benefit is that Mind Maps, if reviewed (see point 3), are memorable. You can recall everything when it comes to an exam.

2) Use memory techniques 

Memory techniques, more properly called Mnemonics derive their name from the Greek mnēmonikos, meaning “of memory, or relating to memory”. Mnemosyne was the name of the goddess of memory in Greek mythology. The most powerful mnemonics rely on imagination – Making up wild creative stories. Children do this naturally. It is an innate skill that is educated out of us so by the time we become teenagers, study is dry, dull, boring and daydreaming, imagination and fanciful stories are frowned upon. We need to remain childlike, filled with wonder at the world and playful with our imagination. With the right techniques anything can be memorized effectively, quickly and enjoyably.

3) Review appropriately 

If you don’t review you eventually forget, even if a memory was strongly laid down when first learned. You must review to keep memories alive. What is poorly understood is how important it is to correctly space your reviews. Schools advocate two poor strategies. Students are advised to look over their notes one day after writing them. How many actually do this is debatable. The other universal element of schooling is revision. Schools give pupils ‘study leave’ before exams when they are supposed to revise everything that the have covered over the entire course. If you’ve been making notes for 24 months and haven’t looked back over them you are not revising, you’re re-learning. It is impossible to learn two years’ worth of material in a few weeks. Little wonder students get depressed!

What is needed in ongoing revision in tandem with learning. If you leave your first review for 24 hours, 80% of the details will already be forgotten. It is vital to reinforce memory far earlier. The first review should be at the end of a lesson. The second review can be the next day. Keep recall high by making a further three reviews after one week, one month and 3-6 months. By making ongoing reviews throughout two years of study it will be easier to connect new material to well remembered earlier content. When it comes to exams you know everything and minimal revision is required. Just sit a few past papers to practise the style of questions you’ll be asked and plug any small gaps in your recall.

If these three simple strategies are put in place in schools then ease of learning naturally follows. If learning is easy it becomes more fun. Everyone wants more fun, so studying becomes a passion, exams are a breeze and depression disappears.