Do the top achieving students hate the education system? It seems unlikely – paradoxical almost. But I am convinced that most of them do. And you would think that they wouldn't. You would think it would be those who struggle with school, and to a degree, you would be right. But in my experience there is no single group who despises school more than those who seem to have mastered it. But they don't loathe being there and they don't resent learning – their contempt is for the outdated psychological and pedagogical systems which underpin education.
By the end of their schooling, these gifted students think about school like they do a squashed bus ride: something to be endured stoically, and gotten over as soon as possible so that they can step out into the fresh air, stretch their arms and breathe.
And so they hunker down and wait for it to be over. Teachers praise their outstanding results, and everyone concerned thinks that the system has served them well. And then they rush off to do great things.
But we don't ever hear their honest thoughts about the system which claims to have served them so well. I'm sure many of them would like to tell us – but they move on to do great things – and never look back. The trick is to give them a platform just before they go.
Cecilia (not her real name) is one of those wonderfully insightful and empathetic thinkers a teacher comes across a handful of times in their career. I have taught her for five years. She is amongst the top 2 or 3 most incisive thinkers I have ever had the priveledge of teaching. I work at a very liberal and very progressive school… but even we are part of 'the system' Cecilia despises. I think her comments are more far-reaching and fundamental than just what goes on at one school. The only solace I draw from all of this is that I think I may have had a hand in helping Cecilia to develop the capacity and confidence to express these thoughts. For the rest, I am deeply embarrassed.
These are her thoughts:
The school system is inclined towards one type of student. The type that can sit still and listen to lessons, do all of their homework and obediently throw everything they've memorized back up for their teachers in a test. The system only pretends to cater for students who have different learning styles and who can’t study a meaningless set of facts printed on black and white paper – not to mention trying to listen to a teacher drone on for hours. This often leaves students disengaged and thus at a disadvantage because their grades incorrectly portray their “intelligence”. Worse, it affects the psychological well-being of the students for the rest of their lives. The whole education system looks to manufacture one type of student and doesn’t take into consideration the fact that students are individuals, each with their own set of strengths.
We all have specific and different needs that aren’t always catered for because the school system is so driven towards conformity and 'results'. We’re encouraged to produce something that looks like a memo in a test as we are expected to think and respond in a certain way. Any innovative thinking we do manage to sneak in is hardly recognized, and, more often, we are penalized for our originality.
Schools need to stop trying to manufacturing doctors and accountants and lawyers. More than foot specialists and chartered accountants and corporate litigators, the world needs global thinkers and problem solvers. Schools train students to look for the generic “right” answers to problems. They’re so focused on ticking off a checklist drawn from the curriculum guideline, that they seem to forget that the world doesn’t work to a syllabus.
The best world-changing ideas come from people who can think independently and innovatively, but schools don’t simply don't encourage originality in any real way. An education should nurture students' own passions and interests, and to help us to develop and test great ideas of our own, not just to learn about Newton’s or Shakespeare's. The teacher’s main objective seems to be to cover everything that will be in the final exit exam and not to deviate from the curriculum. But how does this fit with what students want, and with what the world wants? Students should be free to explore and ask questions, not just be given pre-moulded answers.
The education system teaches subject-confined skills. An experiment write-up for Biology is Biology specific and the skill cannot be transferred to Physical Science because the process of writing a hypothesis or setting out a table is completely different. A Business Economics essay has its own format and is written in bullet points, a practice which is unforgivable in English. All of this teaches students to put things in a box and file things separately in their mental library. LIFE DOESN’T WORK IN BOXES! Everything is linked and interconnected in life and school doesn’t ever seem to mention that. We isolate each component and we never learn how to make links and see the bigger picture. We focus on the nitty-gritties and the details when we should be broadening our horizons and learning how something like a war in Syria doesn’t only effect Syrians but South Africans too. Nothing in life is ever isolated like the sections in a Geography exam.
Teachers are given too much power over students. It’s a tyranny where if the teacher doesn’t like you, your marks will be affected. They can be extremely biased towards students because they have a set opinion of certain kids. It seems that you create a reputation at school early on, and that reputation follows you for the rest of your time at school. Teachers never check the 'Straight A' kid’s homework because they just assume that they’ve done it, and they always nag at the underachieving kids to work harder. Surely they must see that this constant badgering only destroys their self-confidence. Teachers are there to build up, not break down. Teachers seem to be oblivious as to the influence they have over your self-confidence and thus your future. (Or maybe they know, but don't care.) It’s like when your Grade 10 English teacher tells you that your creative writing skills are bad and from then on, you have a constant mental block where it comes to anything creative or any task that has to be written in paragraphs. They can make or break a student, and the problem is that teachers 'know better', so students believe them. Teachers shouldn’t be allowed to grade and criticize “intelligence” or “creativity” – they simply don't know enough. Rather, teachers should try to help develop those skills constructively.
And there are many other problems with the 'education' system. We should stop being put into classes according to our age. Everyone develops at different rates and have different needs. Some need to be able to skip ahead, some need extra time. And boys are so completely different to girls – giving them different teachers and separate classes can only be a good thing. It’s unfair that boys should suffer in classrooms because teachers tend to prefer the girls because they “work harder” and are capable of “studying” and “behaving” and have “neat handwriting”. And it's just as unfair to be reinforcing the fact that girls are 'better behaved' because this makes them into stereotypical 'meek and mild' women instead of independent go-getters.
I'm going to be leaving school soon and will be stepping into the big wide world – hopefully to make my mark on it. And I cannot wait for my future to begin. And for school to end.
I would like to thank Cecilia for sending me her thoughts and for allowing me to publish them. Schools will not change into the student-centred hubs of authentic learning and personal growth without young people like her agitating for change. She may be all set for a bright future herself, but her concern is for the younger sister she leaves behind, and for her friends and school mates – and for other young people in South Africa and around the world. And it is a concern I very much share.
Cecilia reminds me a great deal of Erica Goldson speaking at her valediction. If you haven't seen it yet, please take a few minutes to do so:
The full transcript of the speech can be found at: http://americaviaerica.blogspot.com/2010/07/coxsackie-athens-valedictorian-speech.html