True learning values exploration. It values resilience and risk-taking and indeed, mistakes.
In my family, education has always been a priority. My parents taught me to care for education, and I learned to read, tell time, and recite my multiplication tables before I entered kindergarten. I knew at a young age that good grades and academic achievement were crucial variables in my later success in life. From my very first day of kindergarten, I vigorously strove to please my parents through my academics: I blindly pursued gold stars and high exam scores, proudly informing my mother and father when I had attained a perfect score on any test. I gave no thought to the “learning” aspect of my education. All I wanted was to make the grade.
Thankfully, my personal story is one that ends well. Though for the majority of my education I focused entirely on test scores and report card grades, I learned to care for the art of learning when I attended a program for high achieving secondary school students this summer. I learned to enjoy exploring and discussing challenging topics, and to thirst for a better understanding of our world. I learned to take risks and that having the wrong answer is not something to feel ashamed of. I learned what the pursuit of knowledge was all about, and I will forever be grateful for this transformative experience.
My story is not typical. In fact, my story played out in reverse chronological order to that of the average student’s. The average student will enter the education system bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, a mind brimming with curiosity. However, all too often, that same student will graduate from high school with dull eyes and a complacent mind, no longer interested in questioning and exploring the world. What happened in those 12 to 13 years?
True learning values exploration
I believe that the problem lies not in the student, nor her teachers and parents. It lies not in her friends or a natural lack of interest. The problem lies in the education system itself.
The way our education system is structured, students sit in a classroom and listen to a teacher lecture on the day’s lesson. Homework is assigned to help the students get further acclimated with the material. Later, a quiz or exam is administered to gauge the students’ understanding. Then the cycle starts over.
Sounds logical, right?
In a way, it is. Our education system was never designed to be centered on grades – certainly those dedicated to educating others truly do want to help their students learn and succeed. Scores were meant to give teachers a way to evaluate their students’ familiarity with the topic; they’re meant to be merely a system of measurement. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, we replaced actual learning with academic achievement as the focal point of education. We started to concentrate too much on the result, and too little on the process. It became less about growth and progress, and more about quantification.
Everyone involved in the educational experience – the teachers, the parents, the students – know this fact. Maybe not entirely consciously, but each person believes that good grades are essential to later success in life (whether or not this is true is an entirely different argument all together): good grades in primary and secondary school leads to acceptance into a good college leads to a good job and career leads to a happy life. As such, both teachers and parents tend to emphasize the importance of scoring well on schoolwork, be it a homework assignment or an exam. They only want the best for their kids, and getting good grades seems like the most straightforward path to success.
Students likewise concentrate on making the grade, because that is what they are taught to do. They are taught that the best way to get ahead in life is to score well in school, never mind the learning process. The scores are what matter. The scores are what will make their parents proud and unlock the door to success. Naturally, they end up losing sight of the actual educational experience in favor of the easy path.
No one is at fault here. Or maybe everyone is at fault. But either way, the education system’s modus operandi is undoubtedly having the opposite of its intended effect. When students enter school, they are curious, and they are not afraid to be wrong. But by emphasizing the right answer and the “right” way of doing things, we end up neglecting to communicate the value in risk-taking and wrong answers. Students learn to avoid exploring and possibly coming up short, because those qualities aren’t emphasized and rewarded in our education system.
True learning values exploration. It values resilience and risk-taking and indeed, mistakes. Thomas Edison, the renowned inventor and scientist, tried more than 1000 different techniques before perfecting the light bulb. Instead of viewing these botched attempts as failures, he regarded them merely as methods that didn’t work. This is the message that we must communicate to our students, for exploration, resilience, risk-taking, and mistakes are crucial components of progress. An education system that emphasizes the result more than the process can never properly inspire its students, and will only serve to dull the mind.