10 April 2013

Sponges to Zombies

It is sometimes difficult to explain to people why I am wholly dissatisfied with the American education system.  To be entirely honest, our education system frightens me.  There was a time when teachers, tutors, parents, siblings, and friends helped those few struggling children to get by, academically.  They were there to with encouragement and positive reinforcement, and took pride in being involved in someone's academic success.  

When report cards came around, you expected the kid to earn "average" marks... maybe even "below average" marks... but they were doing their best, and maybe "math" just wasn't their strongest area.  The "gifted" children, as they were often called, were often given the opportunity to progress into more challenging classrooms, with more challenging content which often required a more analytic approach to problems.  Teachers in the gifted classrooms often also taught the more "vanilla" variety, and you could expect any student graduating from the less challenging classrooms to receive an education worth your tax dollars.  They probably weren't going to grow up to be an astronaut, but they also weren't "stupid."

Today, however, the education system has changed.  I was lucky (or, maybe I was unlucky) enough to see part of this transition as it happened.  We have adopted the idea that every student is academically equal to their peers, and that in order to facilitate their learning, we need to foster their self-esteem.  While self-esteem is important, to a point, we have overestimated it's value to success.  Instead of using a student's understanding that they are below-par in a given area to motivate them, and using that motivation to fuel their education, we have reversed the process.

When I was in High School, I remember taking "Honors" Biology-- essentially one step up from "Vanilla Biology", and one step down from "College Level Biology".  Though I cannot remember the year I took it, my teacher's name, nor just about anything I learned there, one event stands out in my mind.  Instead of a mid-term test, the class was assigned an individual project to test our understanding of what we had learned.  We were to demonstrate that we understood the principles of life, ecology, etc. and write up a package for a hypothetical plant or animal as if we were submitting it to the scientific community.

Taking the class for what it was, and understanding that the assignment would be worth nearly a third of my grade, I immediately went to work.  I dreamed up an insect, which I named the "swamp flea".  I remember taking the time to explain everything from it's parasitic dietary habits to it's environmental needs, a symbiotic relationship with a host, and it's reproductive/life cycle.  In painstaking detail, I illustrated (as the assignment required) the project, and was barely able to complete my project before the due date.  It wasn't glamorous, but I was confident that it satisfied the teacher's expectations.

On the due-date, we were expected to present our projects to the class.  I hadn't had a whole lot of experience in public speaking, and so I nervously presented my project to my classmates.  After a decent reception, I returned to my seat before the girl sitting next to me was called up to the front of the room.  She reached into her backpack, pulling out the manila envelope we were provided.  On the front, literally drawn in blue crayon, was a sea-lion in a cartoon pose with butterfly wings superimposed on it's back, with the caption "Rupert the Flying Sea Lion" centered below it.  Inside the folder was a paragraph blurb detailing Rupert's diet of fairy dust and how he sleeps on rainbows.  We both received an "A" on the project.

Armed with the belief that effort is more important that success or results, we have stripped children of the motivation to be more than mediocre.  After all, if they get an "A" regardless of the content of their work, why should they strive to perform well?  Worse yet, if the student who is striving to perform sees his peers receiving equal commendation for their obviously lesser work, then why bother making the effort at all?  This teaches students laziness and complacency, and obviously does not prepare them for life outside of academia.

However, the immediate impact this has is on the academic environment.  By teaching children that they don't need to work in order to succeed, their grades will obviously slip.  Couple this with the demands of "No Child Left Behind", that each batch of students perform better than the one that preceded them, and we are left with a recipe for disaster.

In order to meet a student quota, we have adopted a system of teaching which prefers and rewards repetition over thought.  What started out as a program with good intentions, to revolutionize the way we teach our children, became what amounts to a propaganda factory.  Whether the information is true or not is irrelevant; we have resorted to teaching our children to accept information as factual, solely on the basis that came from an authority figure.  What's worse is that we actively discourage children from thinking critically, and questioning that information (and, by extension, the teacher's authority).  What should be an exercise in analytic thought and an opportunity for learning can sometimes be punished or condemned as a student "being difficult."

After all, when's the last time you saw an 8th grade algebra teacher try to explain the calculus behind finding the line of symmetry to their class?  When's the last time you heard of a student asking the question, "where are these equations coming from?"  In fact, I ran into a college algebra teacher who refused to grade my homework on the basis that I was "working down" from calculus to solve problems instead of just using the "tricks" he expected us to memorize; so unfortunately this problem is not exclusive to our compulsory education.

And so here we have the problem.  We have a system that teaches children that success does not rely on work, and that they need to obediently accept any information that an authority gives them.  This places a huge responsibility on those authority figures to ensure that the information they are providing is factually correct.  So... what happens when people start abusing that authority?

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