If Gen Z got its way, in-class presentations would be joining napkins, doorbells, J. Crew, and Buffalo Wild Wings on the list of things the youths have killed. They say standing up in front of the whole class and reciting some speech, or walking through a powerpoint, can be a traumatic experience for many students and that teachers should do away with them.
This was the thinking behind a tweet that went viral last week:
stop forcing students
to present in front of the
class and give them a
choice not to
\ (•?•) /
— leen (@softedhearts) September 8, 2018
The Atlantic's Taylor Lorenz dug into the issue, interviewing students who claim that speaking in front of the class gives them anxiety. Some used the language of trauma, triggers, and mental health, which suggests that the kinds of psychological harms college students complain about are afflicting younger students as well:
Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable," says Ula, a 14-year-old in eighth grade, who, like all students quoted asked to be referred to only by her first name. "Even though speaking in front of class is supposed to build your confidence and its part of your school work, I think if a student is really unsettled and anxious because of it you should probably make it something less stressful. School isn't something a student should fear."
"It feels like presentations are often more graded on delivery when some people can't help not being able to deliver it well, even if the content is the best presentation ever," says Bennett, a 15-year-old in Massachusetts who strongly agrees with the idea that teachers should offer alternative options for students. "Teachers grade on public speaking which people who have anxiety can't be great at."
"I get that teachers are trying to get students out of their comfort zone, but it's not good for teachers to force them to do that," says Henry, a 15-year-old also in Massachusetts.
Speaking in front of the class is indeed terrifying for a lot of young people (it was for me). But the argument that teachers should make kids do this anyway is fairly straightforward: We don't overcome our fears by running from them. Sometimes, immersion therapy is the correct course of action. Practice giving presentations in front of large crowds, and you eventually get better at it, and less afraid of doing it. Learning to be a better speaker will actually prove quite useful for almost every student (unlike, say, learning higher level math). People in a wide variety of jobs need to give presentations that involve speaking in front of groups.
That said, I'm all for choice in education. Increased implementation of voucher systems—which allow families to pick the school that makes the most sense for their child, regardless of zip code—would provide more options for teens with abnormal levels of anxiety and allow them to opt for a school with a more relaxed, non-traditional learning environment. And if teachers want to experiment with alternative learning arrangements, they should feel welcome to do so. There's no need to follow a one-size-fits-all education policy.
It's true that young people today are a lot more stressed out than previous generations. Much more is demanded of today's K-12 students, and the competition for spots at elite colleges is more brutal than ever. Students have massive homework loads that keep them up late, and still they must get ready for school as early (or earlier) than most adults. They are often involved in a punishing number of extracurricular activities, since good grades are not enough to make a college application shine.
There are good reasons to address many of these sources of stress. The Centers for Disease Control, for example, has warned that 93 percent of high schools begin classes too early, against the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics. But abolishing in-class presentations seems like the wrong place to start, since they impart an actually useful skill.