My Quest to Change the Education System

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A normal school day in a traditional public school is full of many issues that go against Quaker values. These issues tend to have a negative impact on students and, therefore, the world surrounding them. The issues include, but aren’t limited to, the ineffective use of textbooks in the classroom, students unconsciously being taught to hate certain subjects, students losing their love of learning, rushing in the classroom, over-reliance on standardized testing, and the ineffective use of homework. These issues and many others led me, a student, to focus on transforming the education system to make it better for both students and teachers.

My quest to change the education system started when I switched from a Montessori school to a public charter school that used the California core curriculum and then to a traditional public school. Math was always my favorite subject, because in a Montessori school, the teachers use many tactile materials that make learning fun and easier to comprehend. So, you can imagine my shock when I arrived at the charter school and found that math was only taught out of a textbook – if you can even say, “taught.” Since then, I have found many other aspects of public education that impact students in a negative way, and I have decided that I will do everything in my power to not only reform public education, but to transform it. I hope to do this by becoming a teacher and then working my way up and eventually being in a position where I can make a change. But until then, I take every chance I have to share my views and hopefully raise awareness that this system that has become normal isn’t helping as much as we think it is.

The issue that started this leading in me was the overuse of textbooks in the classroom. I’ve noticed a few problems with this. For example, no matter how great the textbook is, when a teacher uses a textbook instead of actually teaching, the student will never learn as much as they would if someone was actively teaching them. I’ve also noticed that when an assignment goes along with the reading, students will “search and find” the answers to save time and still get the work done, as opposed to actually reading the section assigned. In my experience, many teachers have used textbooks to the point where the only interaction they have had with the class has been to tell them what section they are completing from the textbook that day. According to a survey that I created last year (with over 200 responses from students who are mainly in public schools, but also a few in alternative schools, and a few who were home-schooled), 86 students (43.2% of people who took the survey) said that they are not enjoying the use of textbooks in the classroom. The only place that I have found textbooks helpful is in math to get problems to work on.

Coat HooksThe overuse of textbooks might be one of the reasons why in many cases, students are being taught subconsciously to hate certain subjects. This contradicts the Quaker value of stewardship and valuing the gifts we have been given. I’ve noticed that “I hate math” is a common phrase in any typical school building. I believe the reason for this is primarily the way that math is taught and how we unconsciously learn as students. When the teacher is trying to cover material in a textbook within a certain amount of time, the teacher is also going to be more rushed and less likely to find a more creative or visual approach to teaching.

Another thing I have realized is that in many cases, students lose their love of learning and creativity, or at least part of it. One of the explanations that I have found for this, along with learning to “hate math” or other subjects, regards the loss of divergent thinking in students. In the book, Breakpoint and Beyond, George Land and Beth Jarman present a series of studies they conducted on divergent thinking in 1,600 students. Divergent thinking is a thought process used to create and explore many possible solutions to a problem. When the students studied by Land and Jarman were in kindergarten (three to five years old), the researchers found surprisingly that 98% of the students scored in the “creative genius” category of divergent thinking. The interesting part of this study is when they re-tested the same children five years later (eight to ten years old), only 32% scored in the “creative genius” category. Many people believe this drop in divergent thinking ability relates to the way many schools teach and operate.

Lunch TablesOne simple way to think about this concept is thinking of how a toddler will learn to talk and walk without incentives or punishments. No one gives a toddler a grade on how they take their first step. Just saying that sounds ridiculous, so why is it normal for students? In a school that uses grades, students are frequently viewed differently by both staff and their peers based on the grades they receive. In my survey, 77 students (38.3%) said that they felt discouraged or less smart if they got a bad grade. This was the highest percentage for any response to this question, and to me that shows a lot. Another high percentage from a question about grades was to the question, “Do you think that your grades reflect what you think you have learned/ improved on?” To this question, 84 people (42%) said, “No.” When asked about positive ways to improve this situation, over half of the students (61.4%) said that they would do better with a feedback-based system as opposed to grades. This helps bring a solution to this problem.

Also, grades don’t show much besides a few numbers and letters, which takes away the value of learning. They do not represent what the student has learned, only what was handed in. And grades are not always correctly distributed. Some teachers are biased, and even if these teachers are acting unconsciously, some students may get lower grades than others just based on their teacher´s perceptions. Used in this way, grades can take away the love of learning, the need for creativity, and the motivation to learn in students. Once a student comes to expect an award or punishment, they start learning only when an award or punishment will result. This being said, many people do agree with the use of grades in the classroom as a way for students and parents to have a good way to track progress, and so students have motivation to do their work. I believe that since grades aren’t an accurate depiction of learning, they shouldn’t be used as a way of tracking progress. Also it has been proven in many cases that intrinsic motivators work better than extrinsic motivators in a classroom setting.

Rushing has become the “norm” in many classrooms, and often the pace of teaching is set by the teacher’s need to reach a certain point by a certain time, whether that point is a page in a textbook or a new unit. This not only brings stress to everyone involved, it also makes the classroom more dependent on how long it takes to teach something and not how long it takes to learn it. Rushing classes in this way goes against the Quaker value of integrity, by teachers “covering” material instead of fully teaching it.  I attribute this problem to the standardized testing that has taken over our schools. Teachers and schools get funding from their scores on standardized tests, which means that teachers have to cover a certain amount of material by the date of the test. This results in teachers rushing through material during class and then assigning more homework to make up for what wasn’t taught in class. Consequently, students are not able to go deeper into their learning.

Besides causing teachers to emphasize rushing as opposed to the depth of learning, standardized testing also causes other injustices to students. Many important consequences result from these tests – school funding, teacher evaluation, and most importantly, students’ academic futures – but student performance on these tests is swayed by little things like the time of day and the student’s mood that day. Also in my survey, 63 students (32%) said that they did not think that quizzes or tests are a good way to assess knowledge on a given topic. Further, often students don’t try on standardized tests because the tests don’t have any impact on them, which makes these tests even more unreliable. Unfortunately, despite what students think about them, these test score do impact students; many of students’ future opportunities depend on these scores.

In addition to rushing, another common practice in public education that tends to undercut students’ love of learning and creativity is how “honors” and “AP classes” operate, or at least how I have seen them operate. In many cases, they affect the way students view themselves. If students are in the higher classes, they see themselves as smarter, and if they are in average or below-average classes, they start thinking of themselves as less smart. Putting some students ahead of others in this way is telling them that some students are smarter than others, which is bound to be discouraging or stressful for students; discouraging because they want to be in an advanced class, and stressful because if they are in a high class, they want to keep themselves there. It does not help anyone’s learning when they only think about the levels of their classes and grades. This mindset pushes actual learning aside, and places students’ focus on seeing who is doing better. My solution for this is having students being at the right level for their learning, but not telling students how their levels relate to other students.

Sadly, public schools send all of these problems home with students in the form of “homework.” Over-emphasis on textbooks, rushing through material, over-concern with standardized testing, and student “tracking” – all of these problems are reflected in homework. And ironically, even while it takes away time to live life and creates stress in students, homework often doesn’t even help students learn. In my survey, students reported that homework helps their learning very little. The one exception was math homework, which students found to be more helpful than homework in other subjects. This is easy to understand because math does require practice.

All of the factors I consider here contribute into a system that seems to promote conformity, which sometimes seems to be the ultimate goal of education, when really, the ultimate goal of education should be having each student in the environment they learn best. Luckily for me, I have been able to switch to an alternative school that almost fixes all of these issues for me. For example, my new school operates without grades and promotes students to be themselves. Although my personal education story has come to a beautiful place, I know that many students still have to work in schools that are barely helping them. That is the reason that I will continue on my quest to make others’ education more valuable.  ~~~

Elise Enochs is a high school student who attends Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver (IMYM) and lives in the mountains of Colorado. She is also the founder of the “Changing the Education” page on Facebook.