Subject choice: To assess or not

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It is that time of the year: The adorable little offspring who has turned into a not-always-so-adorable fully fledged teenager faces his first big decision: Which subjects to choose.

The mere thought can cause palpitations for any normal parent. Why? Because for us adults, subject choices are not as innocent as they seem. We pile on complex layers of implications and outcomes:

“’You enjoy what? Seriously? Why? Do you need it? Will you cope? I’m quite clever and I hardly passed matric. Do you know how much work you’ll have? …’”

Matric! Oh my goodness. We’ve got to plan this right. What does he need for a good matric to get entry for medicine? Or maybe for engineering? What if he sticks to this crazy band idea? He won that bridge building competition in primary school – we really should encourage that more. Oh, but he sings like a nightingale…poor child, how will he earn money with his voice? No, he should definitely go into engineering… But what about jobs? What if he doesn’t get a job?! All the time, all the money… In fact, how will we afford varsity? Accommodation is ridiculously expensive. He should study from home. Yes. But still, which field will secure him a job? Unemployment is growing. It’ll be ten times worse because of Covid-19. If only the government did X, Y and Z, everything would be different. Our government….”

By this time, your neck is in a spasm. Understandably so. We pile all our fears for the future onto a relatively simple decision about school subjects, leaving us completely freaked out. So we pick up the phone and make an appointment to spend several hours and several hundreds or thousands of rands to have said adorable offspring assessed. But if we look at the matter honestly, we have to admit that the fears are mostly ours. The affirmation we seek, is mostly for our own peace of mind. And most importantly: those fears will remain, even with a detailed assessment report in hand. But at least then we’ll have an ‘expert’ to trust that things will turn out rosy.

As a species, we hate uncertainty. We want someone to give us clear direction in order to feel better. So our knee-jerk reaction to find answers is understandable. And there is time and a place for getting professional guidance. I am, however, of the opinion that assessments for subject choice is overkill, and that there is a better time for your child to explore his interests, personality, values, etc: when he is more mature and those constructs have had time to form. In general, the less assessments the better. Our kids are over-assessed as it is. A thorough, supportive discussion with a caring adult – whether yourself or someone else - about school and subjects, in which the right questions are asked, is mostly all that is needed to make good subject choices.

Remember that the challenge is not for your child to choose SIX subjects. He already has his two languages, and Maths / Lit. Those who can, often take Science to keep the doors for certain career fields open. Then there’s usually another subject or two that he likes. Which leaves many kids with only 1 subject to choose, e.g. Arts or Accounting? Biology or Geography? If we can therefore peel off the adult layers of fear that complicate this decision, we can perhaps see that the monster of subject choice is but a mere kitty – a relatively simple decision between two or three subjects.

School is there to prepare you for life. Tertiary education is there to prepare you for a career. This decision right now is not going to make or break your child. Hold it lightly. Yes, surely certain subjects prepare one better for certain careers. Certain subjects, especially Maths and Science, open doors for certain degrees. Apart from those two subjects, the principle is usually straight-forward: if your child now hates a specific subject, e.g. Biology, it is unlikely that he will pursue a further education where Biology is crucial. Allow your child to choose subjects that bring him joy. That will inevitably prepare him for a satisfying life.

Fifteen-year olds shouldn’t be making career decisions. I believe that formal assessments for career guidance should happen as late as possible – not before Grade 11 or 12. Subject choice assessments in Grade 9 are based on career enquiry, which is in my opinion too soon. Let me explain why. We have a 4-year old whose bottom still needs to be wiped. She wants to wipe her own bottom. We want her to wipe her own bottom. Life will be easier for everyone if she can wipe her own bottom. There is just one problem: Her arm is too short. Physiologically it is an impossibility. For now, she can’t yet wipe her own bottom, because her body has not developed adequately.

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Similarly, a career choice in Grade 9 will make your and your grade 9 child’s life easier. All uncertainty about subject choices will be gone. But physiologically, she can’t make that decision.

At 15 years, she is right at the beginning of the middle adolescence phase. Largely, she’s still driven by the limbic brain, where it’s all about me, right here, right now. It’s still difficult for someone that young to consider future risks and rewards. Furthermore, she is in the early throes of establishing an identity separate from her parents: who am I, what do I want, who do I want to relate to.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is the last part to develop, and reaches full maturity only around 25 years of age. This is the part we use for complex decision-making: long-term, big picture, abstract ideas, what-if scenarios. To consider a career, is a strategic and complicated decision-making process for which your 15-year old is physiologically not ready. Choosing between 2 subjects is about all she’s wired to deal with right now. You know this! On Monday, she wants to be a ski instructor; on Wednesday, she wants to be a rocket scientist at NASA; on Friday all she wants is world peace, and by the weekend she just has to be rich.

That is normal. She doesn’t need a demarcated path yet. She needs time. That is why tertiary education only starts after school.

Allow her to be in the developmental stage she’s in. Don’t start zoning in too early, in a time of her life when she isn’t equipped to foresee the future. Rather just discuss her subjects with her, as they feature now, in school. Ask the right questions. If you do the whole think-about-your-future exercise, you’re forcing her into a state of mind she’s not ready for, and her decisions cannot be based on an understanding of herself and what she wants from life – because she doesn’t know herself yet! She hasn’t become herself yet!

You might argue: I’ll put her through an assessment anyway; what harm can it do? A psychometric assessment is a seriously impactful and psychological exercise. Don’t do it lightly, and never do it unnecessarily. The first time that you hear your own inner self tell its story, it has to be meaningful. You must be ready to be exposed to who you are and what you want from life, from an assessment point of view. Being assessed many times dilutes the experience and impact. I’ve been contacted by a mother whose 16-year old had been assessed for career guidance THREE TIMES already, and she wanted to book yet another assessment, because they (she?) still felt unsure. I feel for that child.

But what about aptitudes? How will I know if my child can cope with the subjects he wants to take? Again, that information can easily be determined without the time, cost and ‘test’ element of a formal assessment.

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I do cognitive testing only where there is an academic difficulty or challenge in mainstream schooling which needs to be addressed. With regards to aptitudes (what your child is able to do), you have access to all the school assessment feedback, and all the teachers who know your child. The information you’ll get from those two sources are probably more valid than the scores on one aptitude test. Her current marks are the best indicator of what she’ll cope with in the next few years.

You can also learn from teachers about her motivation, her insight, her memory – all things that are valuable when making subject choice decisions. We all know by now that there is much more to performance than pure ability. If your child likes a subject, she usually does well enough in that subject to continue with it until matric, even if more input will be required. Vice versa, if your child hates something, she probably doesn’t perform well and it will remain a challenge going forward. You don’t need a score on verbal aptitude or mechanical insight to tell you that. What people love, they invest time and effort in, which usually leads to good performance.

Where there is doubt about the ability to master a difficult subject, again, have the discussion. Speak to her and to her teacher about it. Be realistic and be informed by what is already happening at school. An external aptitude score is unlikely to make the decision easier. If her aptitude ‘score’ is average, then what? You will still wonder about her ability. And if it’s below average – then what? How many stories do we know of people who overcame huge obstacles in pursuit of a dream! Are you going to let her try? Those kind of discussions will have to happen, regardless of what aptitude scores say.

But what if my child makes a ‘wrong’ choice?

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A tsunami is a disaster. A fatal car accident is a disaster. Having to re-consider a subject that isn’t working out, is not! When a child learns to walk, and he stumbles and falls, we don’t tell him that he’s a loser and that he’ll never be able to walk. We clap hands and say, well done, you’re learning! (Thanks Gillian Doná, for the analogy!)

Similarly, when you reach a point in your senior years when the choice you made in Grade 9 regarding subjects needs to be re-considered, it will feel like you’re falling. You might not get applause. But you should. Because you’ve tried something, you learned something about your likes, dislikes and strengths – you’ve grown. Now it’s a matter of getting up and learning some more. In most schools, teachers will be supportive if you’re willing to put in the work to change subjects. You might have to have extra lessons and put in extra hours to catch up, but it’s something that you’ll do if you are convinced that you need to change. The entire process of adapting will be a learning curve for you. In Mandela’s words: base your decisions on hope, not on fear!

If you and your child have the kind of relationship where you can have an easy and open conversation, then guide him how to think about subject choice. If you think another adult will facilitate a more meaningful discussion, that’s just as good. Remember where he is regarding brain development, and focus your questions mostly on the here and now. Don’t ask a 15-year old where he sees himself in 5 or 10 years. The answer is unlikely to be helpful, and might just upset you!

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These are some of the questions you can use as basis for your discussion. Try not to fire the questions one after the other like in an interview, but rather follow where the conversation leads.

Listen well, don’t interrupt, and don’t give your opinion! (That can come later.)

Be supportive. You don’t have to agree to fully understand what your child is saying. Really try to listen in order to understand, and distance yourself and your own life from that of your child. Respond to answers with more questions to fully probe the insights that come up.

 

  • Which subjects do you like? Which do you dislike?
  • What about those subjects do you like / dislike?
  • What role does the teacher play in how you feel?
  • What will you miss out on if you don’t take that subject?
  • What are you scared of?
  • What can be done to address that fear?
  • What excites you about matriculating with that subject?
  • How will this subject prepare you for life?
  • Why do you say that?
  • What is the worst that can happen?
  • How bad will that really be?
  • If our roles were reversed, what would your advice to me be?

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