Apr 052023

The Ontario government may be open for business but it’s not helping prepare Ontario youth for the working world. One example is the move to eliminate final exams as a requirement to pass any courses. Apparently final exams take too much of a toll on the teenage psyche.

The mothers at the table next to us in the ski lodge were having none of it. “It’s too stressful? LIFE is stressful…”

Does de-stressing high school student life mean eliminating final exams? It shouldn't.

They’re right, of course. And not just because they were probably using it as cover for wanting their kids in school studying and writing the exam just that little bit longer. They’re right because the benefits to the child (to the extent there are any) are immediate and personal while the harm is delayed and societal as well.

But is it the kids or us that is to blame? Maybe “the call is coming from inside the house.”

In a microcosm I, too, have been guilty of not putting more pressure on my child. (And, by contemporary standards, my child’s experience was pretty demanding unless the standard is that of an abandoned inner-city child fighting out of poverty. In which case, my child loses… by a lot.) It make me, certainly, feel good to bat away some of the harder things I had to deal with and learn from in my youth. It feels good to let my child benefit from some of what it took me a lifetime of experience and effort to gain–be that monetary or moral… or mere fortitude.

Sadly, it was probably more to my benefit than my child’s. But I take solace in knowing that relative to peers my child is far more “worldly” in a fundamental way. Even though the bar appears to be a lot lower than when I was a youth.

Tempering: it’s not just for steel and glass

I presume everyone knows that “tempered glass” or “tempered steel” is harder and more durable.

Tempering is the process of giving hardness or softness to a substance; especially steel. It is essentially the application of artificial (extreme) stress to the substance so that it will be stronger under real stress.

If it works for knife blades and diving mask glass (and shower doors), why would we not apply that same logic to education and development of people. I can’t be the only one that has heard the adage that “Tough times don’t last; tough people do.” How exactly do people get “tough.” Is it genetic and if you weren’t born with it you’ll never have it, so we (as an education system) are loathe to challenge you?


Children are naturally resilient. Why do we insist on sponging that out of them? Wouldn’t it be better to build (or “nurture”) those natural tendencies to make more resilient, and mentally capable/durable adults? Isn’t it sufficiently proven over millennia that those qualities are selected naturally through the generations?

In any case, let’s attempt a simple pros/cons assessment.

Benefits of Structurally “Destressing” High Schoolers’ Lives

To be clear, this is only about limiting, if not eliminating final exams. It does not contemplate the many other ways that we avoid teaching the next generation. Usually these techniques are given cover under the aegis of “modern” teaching or “experiential” learning. I’m referring to not compelling a student to perform at a chalkboard (whiteboard) because of the anxiety, to not compelling memorization of multiplication tables even to 10; to not addressing or focusing on fundamentals of language and mathematics. All to the extent that there seems to be nobody under the age of 45 that can estimate change at a retail counter or tabulate a 15% tip in their head.

  • High self-esteem – This personal plus is the unblemished self-esteem of naivety. If we don’t have to endure the exam that’s good. To be unaware of how we might fare is bliss.
  • Less supervisory work – This is a personal benefit to the teacher or proctors. If some students write the exam, it’s a truly marginal gain though since supervision is required anyway—only for fewer students
  • Less marking work – Again, for the teacher, saved time accrues because the time needed to mark an exam is freed. Both this and exam creation, let alone supervision, can be a 100% gain to the teacher if/when the exam is completely abolished.
  • No dread and stress leading up to the exam – For the student, this gain benefits the individual’s mental well being, freeing up capacity to be concerned about important things like the state of social engagement.
  • Parents narrowly and society more broadly don’t have to endure angst-ridden teens complaining about how “ridiculous” and “unfair” having to write a final exam that tests knowledge of the whole course, and (of course) how hard it is on them.

Costs of Structurally “Destressing” High Schoolers’ Lives

On the other side of the ledger, there are costs—most of which will not be revealed for years or decades.

  • A generation of innumerates and illiterates – This is both a personal and societal cost that I’ve noted above. Of course, not everyone will be so, but the entire enterprise of a basic education that would bulge the middle of the capabilities normal curve is being decimated. The curve is likely to regress to a more U-shaped one with those (many) who are falling behind and those (fewer) that are both relatively and maybe empirically gaining ground. The impact here will be to all aspects of a more riven society: political, economic, social/community… At a personal level, those who would be in the middle will be in a middle that is at the bottom.
  • A generation wholly unprepared to deal with life – This is arguably the point of the ladies lunching at the ski hill. If we aren’t prepared to put this controlled level of stress on students as part of their education about numbers and letters—with its knock-on effects on resilience, durability, (time) prioritization, perspective (on relative importance and so forth), is it reasonable to expect that when these baby birds are released from the nest they will magically have those capacities. Do we believe it’s instinctual? This very real personal and societal impact should be a concern to everyone. It’s outcome would be general regression and the juvenilization of the nation.
  • A society where the blind lead the blind—or where the one-eyed (wo)man is king/queen – Today we can always count on an old fogie, who had been forced to stay in school and held back grades until (s)he passed with required knowledge, to step in as necessary. That level of knowledge and information provided a higher baseline and bar for leaders to exceed. So they did. Years ago that meant there were a lot of “adults in the room” for serious discussion. More serious discussion had even more serious and more educated adults. Anybody notice that happens less frequently these days?
  • Are national competitors gaining ground in this respect? – This is definitely a societal impact and one I can only speculate on because I have no interest in finding out what is happening around the world. But, and I know I’m going out on a limb here, I would bet that Asian nations are being a little more forceful about fully educating and preparing their youth. (And not, I really don’t want to get into a debate about the morality or philosophy that’s being imparted. I’m referring only to numbers, letters, and “stressors” to help prepare youth for independent adulthood.

So what?

Well, I seem to land decidedly on the side of applying some degree of stress. In school, there is nothing that could be deemed a life-threatening level of stress. (At least not in Canada; the USA is another matter, but that has nothing to do with curriculum.) Nothing that a healthy child should not have to face, will overcome, and will be a better adult for it.

On that basis, precious little recommends the alternative.

But then again, I have unusual views.

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