Standardization: Education’s antonym

If I can custom build my phone or my shoes, why can’t I do the same with high school? The American version of high school is like walking into Nike looking for the new Air Jordans and walking out with wooden sole clogs – and everyone has them.

Ask any student beyond their sophomore year of high school and they’ll likely tell you that there’s something wrong with our education system. There’s a wide range of symptoms: some students are bored by the lack of rigor, others have no subjects that interest them, others find it exceedingly difficult in subjects they’ll never use again, and many feel as though they aren’t truly learning much – they’re regurgitating the information necessary for the tests.

I myself was one of the students who couldn’t wait to go to college, who couldn’t wait to get out of the intellectual doldrum known as high school. I would complain to my parents that high school was wasting my time, that a select few subjects really stimulated my brain and that otherwise I spent seven hours a day memorizing facts for the next exam. They asked why I felt so bored; I had no concrete answers. I just knew something wasn’t working.

Then I went to college. I loaded my schedule with challenging classes hoping to God I would feel as though I was learning. I promptly was broadsided by the most intellectually formidable weeks of my life and crawled to the end of the term.

“What happened?” I thought, “Did I forget everything I knew? Am I not ready for this?”

Of course, I adjusted my habits and selected a more reasonable schedule and my next two terms went fine. Not easily, but manageably. It was then that I realized I was learning an incredible amount of information at what seemed like impossible speeds, and I was enjoying every minute of it. What, I wondered, was so different this year?

The difference was that this was the first time in my life that I was able to choose what I studied. I wasn’t required to take a specific set of classes, I wasn’t required to take the exact same tests as everyone else, and it was incredibly fun. I was really excited by what I was learning.

It was then that I realized that the standardized education system I had been in my whole life didn’t make much sense. Here’s the concept: take a couple hundred kids who are all the same age, put them in exactly the same classes and tell them to learn at the same speed and only those kids who are good at all subjects and learn well in the classic high school format are considered intelligent. Not only that, but the classes don’t stress truly understanding the material; our whole AP system is based on getting really good at taking one specific test. How can that be called learning? I took a whole AP Chemistry class and did very well on the test. I’ll also be the first to tell you that I don’t know jack squat about chemistry – very little of what I was taught actually stuck.

It should be pointed out that this is generally no fault of the teacher’s. I’m a firm believer that teachers are one of the most undervalued professionals in our society and they really need more support for all their efforts. In fact, I have been blessed with some incredible teachers from grade school through high school, all of whom influenced me to be the man I am today. This isn’t about bad teaching. This is just the “accountability” system we have set up and been audacious enough to call “education.” Memorizing facts so you can write them down on a test is not learning. I can tell you that Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941. Great, but can I tell you anything about the international relations at that point, or the chain of events that led up to the war in the first place? Nope, because I didn’t learn these things, I memorized the important information.

Not only that, but the most important result of education isn’t necessarily what you know, but how you think. Memorizing facts doesn’t lead to thinking. It’s one of the most mindless tasks I’ve ever had to do in school. Learning should develop new perspectives, new ways to solve problems and new ideas. It shouldn’t just recycle old information from person to person. What’s the point of that?

Our education system doesn’t need to be reformed, it needs to be rebuilt. Our schools are too similar to factories – input kid, beat him / her with the strict mold we call “academic success” until they conform or break and ship them off, unprepared, into the world. It’s ridiculous, especially in a society that has so recently been focused on the individual and personalization. If I can custom build my phone or my shoes, why can’t I do the same with high school? The American version of high school is like walking into Nike looking for the new Air Jordans and walking out with wooden sole clogs – and everyone has them.

High school should be more like a liberal arts college. People say we need accountability? Fine, each student has to take X number of classes from a certain “area” of education. So do they need to take math? Probably not, there are plenty of subjects that stress the logical thinking associated with math, and if they interest the student more, there will definitely be more success. Now the student has the ability to learn what really interests them, rather than slacking off in a class they hate.

Will people disagree? Well naturally, everyone has opinions and I would be shocked if everyone agreed with me, seeing as our education system hasn’t been touched. Some will say, “But how will you know that each student has learned the right things? Will they be prepared for life? How is this accountable?” Well when it comes to education, I can’t say I really know what the “right” things to learn are. Classes that focus on real world skills like balancing a checkbook or maintaining a happy, healthy lifestyle aren’t even required now, and those seem pretty important. Will a future engineer who hates reading look back and say, “Man, I wish my school system had made me read Shakespeare.” Highly unlikely. Will an aspiring artist with no interest in math exclaim, “If only I had taken that integral calculus course!” while painting? Of course not.

“Well this system worked well for me, why change it?” Look at it this way. Southern plantation owners probably said “Well this slavery thing has worked well for me, why change it?” King George III probably read over the Declaration of Independence and cried, “Colonies work just fine for me, why change it?” Our own ancestors would scoff at education, saying, “Farming worked just fine for me, why change it?” Yes, our education system is clearly not as dire of a situation as any of those, but it’s clear that, “This worked for me, it’ll work for you” is really flawed logic.

So if we are really all individuals with different interests and varying abilities, and it’s become very apparent in modern research that we all have different learning styles, why haven’t we changed education to fit those differences? I’m a strong believer that education is one of the best gifts we can give to the youth of our society, so why not make it accessible to more than the “intellectual elite”? Why not give teachers the ability to really teach their subjects instead of preparing students for more tests? Why can’t I get those new Jordans?

It’s time for a change.


One thought on “Standardization: Education’s antonym

  1. Dear Josiah,

    I am wondering if you would have felt the same about a Montessori High School experience? I feel the same way about my college experience at a large state university. It wasn’t until my graduate studies, with smaller class sizes, that I felt I was really learning. Coincidentally, we just toured Kalamazoo College, potentially one of Kevin’s prospects, where SAT/ACT scores are optional in the application process due to the fact that research shows that scores correlate with students’ families income levels. There are also enlightened colleges offering “self-designed” masters programs. Things are evolving, however at a snail’s pace. Perhaps with more awareness, resulting from articles such as yours, high schools will follow suit. Best wishes for a great end to your summer and year ahead at Northwestern! -Dana Goodwin


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s