Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On Formal Education...

I'm not going to pretend to be super-informed on this topic, but I'm becoming increasingly aware of it and increasingly passionate about it, and I would like to become more informed. The pitiful state of the American educational system is an issue that crosses partisan lines and is having a serious, continuing impact on education at all levels. I want to do something to help, but I'm not sure where to start.

I'll begin by sharing my experience in this situation. As far back as third grade, I remember people telling me that I was smart, but that I needed to focus and work harder, and that I had "so much potential." But I wasn't motivated to work harder (resulting in leaving my advanced "cluster" reading group in third grade, because I didn't like the research project). Starting in my sophomore year of high school, I began taking honors and AP (advanced placement) classes and finally felt challenged again in school; maybe I was motivated then by boredom or by the reward of college credit. Fortunately, these classes did make me work harder to learn the material, particularly in my AP U.S. History class, where I had a very thorough teacher who covered "the big picture" as well as the important figures, dates and events. But for the most part (especially considered in retrospect), I feel kind of like I coasted through high school, somehow managing to get a 3.8 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) without exerting much effort. When I got to my first semester of college, I realized very quickly that I didn't actually know how to study and work hard; I was good at taking tests, but failed miserably at motivating myself to do homework or essays. A large part of that is my personal inadequacies, but I wondered what kind of system we have that lets that kind of thing happen. How could I have "successfully" gotten through 13 years of public K-12 education without learning better how to discipline myself and invest effort into my learning?

One thing that I've since learned about, which I feel is very significant, is the heavy emphasis on results. For one of my college classes I job-shadowed an elementary school teacher for just one day, and that conversation changed how I view teaching in public schools. That teacher (my roommate's mother, and a veteran teacher) shared with me some of her frustrations about teaching in her classroom. She said that with all the testing they do to measure results in the classroom, she doesn't have much time for real teaching anymore. I feel like that's how my "education" largely went - I learned the material well enough (and just long enough) to gain an understanding and pass the tests with high scores. That kind of education didn't really have any bearing on what kind of person I was - "an education" was a box that I checked off my life to-do list, and not a crucial formative process of my person. It was a matter of doing something, not becoming something.

I don't know that I would make a very good teacher under the system that we have right now. For starters, I would have to relearn everything that I had already learned in years past; I've been in college a while now, and I can't multiply two 2-digit numbers together in my head within a reasonable amount of time. But I think our schools (teachers and students) are suffering in more than just academics.

There are many wonderful teachers that I've had who have cared about me and been inspiring. However, there are also many teachers - especially in my non-honors classes - who seemed to go through the motions of their duty and did little besides that. The ideal that I envision is smaller classes for everybody where teachers form individual relationships with each student, and where teachers challenge themselves and their students to high standards and put in the work towards achieving those standards. I think that to accomplish that, teachers would need to work with their students for longer than a single semester; I believe that our current system, where students might switch teachers within the same subject every semester, leads to a more factory-like approach which is based on achieving specific, standardized results, and where struggling students are passed on to another teacher, to "become someone else's problem" for yet another semester of their life. That's how I felt in my junior year of high school, when I felt like I was falling behind in math; even though I had the same teacher for both semesters, I felt lost and alone in that class, and like my teacher didn't care, which really hurt me academically and emotionally. In this aspect, I feel like I could be a really good teacher, in caring about my students, believing in them, and challenging them to stretch themselves to do better. We need teachers to mentor and be positive role models who inspire students by their example, by being what they encourage their students to become.

One thing I would like to do over the next couple years is invest time in researching possible reforms and alternatives to our current educational model. I learned a little about the Austrian (general European?) educational system while I was there. One thing I admire is how a group of students has the same teacher all the way through elementary school. That would require the teachers to expand their breadth and depth of knowledge to cover all that material (and it would be really unfortunate to be stuck with a not-so-good teacher for that long), which would require a massive shakeup in how we train teachers in the U.S. today. But I really admire the investment that the teachers have to make in forming a relationship with each student, and I think that the investment and duration would inspire/necessitate greater attention to ensuring that the students actually learn the material. I've also been told and have seen some differences in teaching styles between American and Austrian teachers; Americans are a lot more hands-on and application-based while Austrians rely on rote memorization in the classroom and doing the actual learning independently outside the classroom. I can't say which is better because they produce different results, and I don't have much experience with the Austrian style. I plan to take classes, read, talk to people, and otherwise inform myself more about what other people think could be the root issues in our American educational system (and in our social era) and what options there may be to resolve these issues.

I've still got some time before I graduate. I'm strongly considering adding a Sociology minor and working for Teach For America after graduation. I'm not sure what are other ways to be involved and be a force for change in education, but it's something I want to do. I want to help change people's lives by getting young people off to a good start - by giving them knowledge, and the tools to use it well, and by giving them the love and confidence they need to believe in themselves and enable their own success. Everyone deserves those, and I strongly feel that our current system is increasingly failing in this aim.

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