Recently, I read 10 Ways Schools are Making Children Stupid and Depressed which was shared by a friend on Facebook. As I read many things came up for me – memories from my own school days and from my career as an educator. Here is what I read and my thoughts on each.
- Their individuality is not treasured in school.
I love learning and I know that it’s the one thing that made all of my school days bearable. We sat in orderly rows and were expected to be silent and polite and biddable. Heaven forefend that any of us should question what we were being taught or how we were being taught. There were few opportunities, when I was a student, to create my own assignments to demonstrate my learning in ways which were meaningful to me. It was ‘read the book, answer the questions, do the test’ and repeat in every subject I was required to take.
As an educator, I strove to give my students choices when they were completing assignments. They could choose one of my creation or they could create their own with some input from me. I had the chance to create a course titled, “Gifted Independent Design”. And for the three years that it was offered at my school, the students who enrolled in the course could create their own independent studies to explore topics which were of interest to them. For me, it was inspiring to be part of that experience with those students. Given freedom to choose what they wanted to explore, they were liberated. Unfortunately, the demands of the provincially mandated secondary school diploma requirements eventually asserted themselves and the course, which did not fit into any one slot in those requirements, was abandoned.
On balance, I don’t believe that the educational system privileges or lauds individuality over the demands of curriculum.
- It teaches children to live for the future rather than to seize the day.
As I read this, I was reminded of an experience I had at a retreat several years ago. Each day started with a mile ‘run’ before breakfast. The first day, I ran the course. And, when I had completed the run, I wondered why I had chosen to do it as I had. For the rest of the retreat, while I watched and heard others running through the underbrush, I chose to walk the route and marvelled at the sun, listened to the wind in the trees and looked for the birds I heard. I enjoyed the moment and it changed the entire experience for me.
There is nothing wrong with planning for the future. However, when we learn to sacrifice the moment and the enjoyment of ‘now’ for the possibility of the future, then we lose sight of so many things. There is a great deal to be said for revelling in the moment and enjoying the experience for its own sake and not just for how it might be useful in the future.
As an educator, I used to remind my students that there was no reason why they had to complete high school in four years rather than five; there was nothing gained by doing only what was required to achieve a diploma and not exploring other interests; there was no reason to not take courses because they were of interest but only if they were what was needed to pass the finish line and receive a diploma. For so many of my students, this was a hard sell. They and their parents were focussed on the diploma rather than on learning and exploring new things.
- It equates money with success.
When I was in school, it was always stressed that we had to do well and get good marks so that we would be able to get into the post-secondary programme of our choice so that we would be able to get a good job so that we would make good money so that we would be able to purchase everything that society considered needful for a good life.
And I know from talking with all of the students I taught over the course of my teaching career, that they’ve held the same belief. Whether this belief came from their parents who had learned this in their lives or from school or both, the goal of education and learning was money and not understanding and exploring.
When I consider this, I am saddened that learning has been reduced to the simple equation: a good education = making bucks. How limited and narrow that is when nothing is more important than money.
- It teaches them to doubt themselves.
I remember the frustration I felt as a student when I would be given an assignment and whatever instructions or explanations my teacher decided were necessary and then was expected to complete it as per their expectations which were often unstated. If I completed the assignment and submitted it and it did not meet my teacher’s expectations, then I would usually be questioned à la why did I think what I submitted met the requirements of the assignment. What I learned from this was that I should depend upon my teacher for everything – what to do, what my work should look like. I learned to doubt my ability to demonstrate my knowledge in any way which was meaningful for me.
As an educator, it was frustrating for me to deal with students who waited for me to ‘lay the good news on them’ regarding every assignment given in class. It seemed to me that they were looking for me to tell them not only what to do but also how to think. They did not trust themselves. Since I believe that one of the goals of education should be to encourage independent thinking, part of my work as an educator became overcoming my students’ entrenched beliefs that they could not possibly make their own choices.
- It stifles creativity.
I’m glad that I loved learning for its own sake and also that I was the kind of student schools like – the type 2 learner whose major question in learning is ‘what’ and whose focus is on the product. That made school bearable. I was able to create what was expected for my teachers even as I would usually learn so much more about the topic than I needed to create the assignment. My classmates and I were not given the opportunity to create our own assignments to demonstrate our learning.
As an educator, I gave my students opportunities to be involved in class structure and rules of operation. As well, I gave then choice and opportunities to create assignments to demonstrate their learning. For me, the learning was what was important and not conforming to the guidelines for each assignment. Conformity, to my way of thinking, stifles creativity. Unfortunately, there still exists an ethos of expecting students to march in step with their peers and to follow their teachers without question.
- It teaches them to fear failure.
When I was in school, even as far back as grade one, I learned that failing and getting anything less that a ‘C’ on any test or assignment meant that I was a failure – me personally. I had not measured up. I would not pass but would flunk out of school and, hence, I would flunk out of life. I over studied for every test and, eventually, developed some health problems [migraines and an ulcer] because I lived in fear of failing.
As an educator, I know that chasing the almighty ‘A’ still permeates the entire system. Oxford and Kumon and the like are businesses whose success is grounded in the concept of helping students to improve their grades in school and not helping them to understand and to learn. Every provincially mandated standardized test is based upon making the grade and passing. If a student doesn’t meet the provincial standard for the test, then the student has failed. The impact that the focus on marks creates for students is stress and depression.
Life beyond school does not give anyone tests of competency or comprehension, yet that is what our students learn about life in school.
- They teach you what to think and not how to think.
This smacks so much of Harry in Born Yesterday. “Do What I’m tellin’ ya’!” and it brings back memories of my grade 13 English teacher. When I wrote my essay on Antony and Cleopatra, she decided that it was her job to strike out the first two pages of my essay and re-write them for me. I did not appreciate that. Her red penning my work felt like she was red penning me. And then there was poetry. She insisted that any poem could only have one interpretation. It did not matter if any other interpretation was possible. Her understanding of the meaning behind the poem was the only valid interpretation.
While I may have accepted my teachers’ dicta when I was in elementary school, by the time I was in grade 13, I was not able to blithely accept anymore. Needless to say, grade 13 was not a fun year for me.
When I became an English teacher, I remembered all that I had experienced as a student. I told my students that as long as they could explain their ideas with sufficient textual support, they were not wrong. I knew that there was more than one way to interpret anything. And I took the time to conference with my students always explaining what worked in what they wrote and what didn’t fit or was confusing. That way, my students learned how to think for themselves.
Humans are creative by nature. To insist that there is only one way to think about anything shuts down that creativity so that all music ends up sounding the same, all art looks the same, and all ideas are the same.
- They are given ridiculous expectations that no child should have to meet.
I remember my oldest sister working to complete several hours of homework each night to the point where she would fall asleep while doing it. I remember having to complete 5 to 10 pages of math problems each night in secondary school. I used to wonder why my teacher couldn’t choose the top 5 or so problems which, when I completed them, would clearly demonstrate my understanding.
When I started teaching English, I found myself working in a department which required students to learn and memorize spelling lists, complete content tests ad infinitum, complete cloze assignments, and do worksheet after worksheet after worksheet. Again, it was ‘read the book, do the questions, complete the test’. I hadn’t enjoyed having to do that as a student and I didn’t enjoy that as an educator. When I let go of the need for constant marking and testing, I felt like the kind of teacher I had always wanted to have. And my students blossomed and did very well because they were set free from the testing ethos.
Nowadays, with the competition to get into many post-secondary programmes being so intense, students not only have to have excellent marks, they have to demonstrate that they will add to the community at the institution they hope to attend. To that end, they complete community service hours, they volunteer, and they take part in extra-curricular activities – all of which will be reported in some form with their application. As well, since post-secondary education is expensive, many students take on part-time jobs to save money to cover the cost of tuition and books.
The expectations placed on students today are tremendous to the point of being excessive. They are one hell of a load to have to carry. Is it any wonder that many students have mental health issues?
- It teaches them that play is bad.
Kids are full of energy. They are curious. They love to explore. When I was in school we were expected to march into the building in orderly lines. When we were in class, we were expected to be silent and still and studious. If we weren’t, we might be sent to stand in the corner for a period of time prescribed by our teacher. If that didn’t correct our behaviour, we would be sent to the office so that the principal might deal with our transgressions.
The only time we were given to run off our energy was at recess or in physical education class. Even then, we were watched by teachers to make sure that we were behaving within the school’s set parameters. And if we weren’t, we would be sent to the office for correction.
When I was completing my first practice teaching round, the class I was working with couldn’t settle down. They had just come in from physical education and their energy level had spiked. I asked them to stand up in class and yell at the top of their lungs “Yeah team!” and I asked them to do this a few times. The principal of the school came down to the room and would have entered and shut this down if my associate teacher, who was just outside the class, had not told him that she knew what I was doing and why and that she knew that I was in control of the class.
It strikes me that play in school is equated with loss of control. Play is something to be feared.
By the time students reach secondary school, they have had their energy and curiosity and exuberance well and truly constrained so that their innate nature has been subverted to meet the requirements of the educational system. Play is severely curtailed since it doesn’t fit into curricular expectations.
And, by the time that students become adults, they have learned that play is a bad thing because it fulfills no purpose. It does not add anything to the work place or to the quality of their work. In fact, it is deemed to take time away from being productive.
- They are grouped together like cattle.
When I was in elementary school, students were grouped together by intellectual ability. And even within each class, students were often grouped by teachers by such things as reading ability. In the elementary school which I attended, there was the ‘Opportunity Class’ whose students might now be identified as special needs learners with a mild intellectual disability.
As a student, I didn’t mind being grouped or streamed. Being grouped with students who were as academically strong as I was just felt comfortable. I never felt that I was lost in a homogeneous crowd.
When I graduated to secondary school, there were four high schools open to me. The students at the Vocational High School had usually been in Opportunity Classes. The goal for these students was that they learn a skill in order to go into the workplace. Those interested in pursuing careers in business fields attended the Commercial High School. Those who were interested in manufacturing, engineering and architecture attended the Technical High School. Students intending to go to university attended the Collegiate. Your career path determined the school you attended.
I went to the collegiate. Again, since I loved learning for its own sake, I didn’t feel lost. I asserted my individuality by the courses which I chose and by the extra-curricular activities I joined.
When I became an educator, there was a time when the Ministry of Education decreed that all students in grades 9 and 10 were not to be streamed into particular levels of instruction. While I understood the philosophy behind this, it created, for my students, some issues. With the dense and homogeneous curriculum which all students had to demonstrate mastery of, some students found it easy, some found it a bit challenging and were up for the challenge, and some students floundered. Some students expressed their frustration by acting out. No student ever chooses to be a ‘bad’ student: a bad actor. However, it’s easier to choose to be deemed a bad student rather than worry about being judged a ‘stupid’ one.
When the system changed so that students would be grouped by level of instruction, some of the behaviour issues with which I had to deal, fell away. However, students were recommended to a particular level of instruction by their grade 8 teachers using that teacher’s criteria. And parents did not have to accept these recommendations. So, some of my students were not challenged by their courses and some of them were absolutely lost by the material which they were expected to understand. Additionally, teenagers are very hard on themselves and judge themselves against the perceived ability of their peers. Some of them wore the label of their level of instruction and thought of themselves as able or not based solely upon that.
Grouping students by academic ability is one way to provide predictable structure in schools. However, once we graduate from school, life does not group us by academic ability. What’s important is not how smart we are. What’s important is knowing ourSelves as individuals and choosing to create a life which gives us joy and a sense of purpose and possibility.
I believe that’s the responsibility of education – to help our students know themSelves as valued and valuable.
Does the current system do this?