Education, Where Even the Winners Lose

At IHD, we do not hide our criticism for what Shane and I conversationally refer to as the Standard Model. Simply put, the Standard Model is life as we know it. It is the promise of happiness and fulfillment if you only just follow the expected and “normal” path through Western life.

Our critique is not anarchistic. Shane owns a home and is happily married. We both attended universities and had middle class upbringings. We would never disparage any particulars of an individual’s life as inherently wrong or bad (although, in many cases, I have no problem stating that certain patterns and habits for certain individuals are unproductive at best, and destructive at worst).

Our primary critique of the Standard Model is that many societal institutions and cultural ideas serve vastly different ends than their stated goals. The list abounds, but no where do I feel this is more prevalent than in the school system.

Recently, Shane published an article denouncing our overuse of ceremonies. His role as both a teacher and a coach offers a perspective rarely considered by parents busy promising their children the world and by students who expect no less. Shane’s piece was timely as the school system enters “ceremony season.” It also struck particularly close to the heart for me. I’ve long desired to share my own account of public education and feel more compelled than ever to do so.

I hope never to enter the unfortunately common realm of criticism without offering a solution. I conclude with a paradigm shift I would like to see in our education system.

Education: Where Even the Winners Lose

Ostensibly, I won school. I was Valedictorian of my large public high school, never receiving a “B” until college. I studied Mechanical Engineering at a university that always sits comfortably in the top 3 public engineering programs in the country. I had a full-time job offer at the start of my final year, negotiated more favorable terms, and signed that offer several months before graduation.

This is not to boast. This story says far less about my intelligence than a few unique quirks. I happen to have many qualities, some that I don’t actually care much for, which set me up for success in school.

The implied goal of the school system is to educate youth and imbue them with all the requisite tools to become responsible citizens who contribute to the health, prosperity, and future of the nation. Paramount to students’ development should be independence, creativity, problem-solving abilities, and rational yet flexible minds. I came away from my public education with a perfect grade point average , yet little development of these far more important qualities.

While I loved my engineering program (I can only fault  myself for not realizing that it wasn’t my calling sooner)it is of my experiences in public education that I am most critical.

While I did come away from public education with technical skills and practical knowledge, the greatest takeaways were more unintended, if not negative. I realized very early that superficial short term memorization was far more important than how much, if any, of the information you retain. I learned that in many situations a teacher’s fondness toward you contributes more to your success than the content of your work.

Particularly  in my early schooling, I was an exceptionally conscientious student. I cared deeply about finishing each and every assignment to the best of my abilities. This had very little to do with my parents. It was an intrinsically driven desire to be in the best possible scholastic standing. On countless occasions, my mom had to calm me down from tears and anger while scrambling to finish an assignment the night before it was due. Perhaps most telling, the only time I have ever lost control of my emotions was during grade school out of anger and disappointment in myself over the state of some silly assignment. While perhaps not healthy, this drive led me to win the game of school.

I say “the game of school” because, in retrospect, that is exactly how I treated it. I could not understand why most of my fellow students did not value academics as I did, with objective and undeniable importance. I asked questions in class clearly aimed at my teacher’s sensibilities and  crafted assignments concerned most with how they would be received. I couldn’t imagine not paying attention and taking notes, let alone skipping class or talking back. I understood that teachers were the ultimate gatekeepers to grades. While quality work was paramount, playing to their favor could be an equally important strategy to advance your standing. I didn’t like it at the time but it was a piece of the system, like studying or doing homework and I was “just playing the game.”

My focus was on the outcome. Getting an “A” proved that I had gleaned what I was supposed to from the experience; deep learning and critical thinking be damned.

Conscientiousness is a virtue. However, taken to an extreme, I came to place tremendous value on outcome when all of the benefits from school come from the process. Correct answers in mathematics mean little compared to deep understanding of the concepts that allow you to find them. A grade on an essay means nothing compared to deep examination of the subject matter and your best effort to express novel and creative conclusions.

Superficially, we pay lip service to the fact that “grades aren’t everything” and “SAT scores don’t tell the whole story.” Yet, no factors contribute more to college admissions. Few, if any, other factors, other than athletics, are celebrated by the school system, parents, or society at large.

Herein lies my criticism. The stated aim of school is to prepare kids to be prosperous and fulfilled adults by nurturing their creativity and natural curiosity about the world; to uncover and nourish their passions so that they feel emboldened to pursue them. We, of course, need to funnel grandiose dreams into realistic avenues, but the school system we have now squelches exploration for favor of grades and “good” behavior. We might agree what school should truly promote but when we continue to celebrate outcomes, and very specific outcomes at that, we cannot be surprised when kids aim their sights at these, often to the neglect of education’s true aims.

I’ll concede that I look back to my schooling with cynicism. But, I also look forward to what schooling could be with optimism. I cannot offer a specific plan to reform the school system, but I know that it needs to stand upon a shift in the cultural idea of what “school” is. There are many amazing educators in the world and I have been fortunate enough to learn from many of them, both within and far outside the public education system. However, even the most passionate and well-intentioned teachers must operate within the confines of rigid guidelines and minimum, “common” standards.

We absolutely need to require basic learning of specific fundamentals; mathematics, basic biology, and certain historical contexts for example. However, I believe that the most beneficial opportunity we can give young students is that of exploration. Outside of a few basics, allow them to direct their course of study. Allow them to read and learn about topics that peak their interests. Offer guidance and direction. Ask leading questions that inspire further inquiry. Put them on the path to create their own futures, rather than a track promising vague “success.”

Humans are naturally curious and only resist learning when the subject matter is forced upon them. Give me any “bad” student and I will show you someone who’s passions have never been considered legitimate by their teachers or parents.

A telling example is of studying history. I had almost no interest in school “History” curriculum. Today, I love historical books and podcasts, but this interest only followed an interest in modern politics. Historical context is the best way to frame modern-day political discussion and my earnest interest in political discourse opened my eyes to a passion for history.

From an early age, however, I have been fascinated with skateboarding both as an activity and a culture. Since age six, it has been the most enduring passion of my life (I had to tear myself away from skateboard videos on YouTube to finish editing this). I incessantly devoured books on skateboard history, back issues of skateboard magazines, and old skateboard movies on VHS (after skateboarding until dark, of course). Skateboard history was and is a huge passion of mine, yet it had no place in my schooling.

Is my knowledge of skateboarding and its cultural origins practical or profitable? Probably not. However, as my partner and closest friends will attest, no topics fire me up as much a skateboarding. Had I been encouraged to pursue it, my passion for skateboard culture could have led to some unknown career.

If I had been encouraged to learn more about skateboarding, I would have had a completely different relationship with “History.” Traditionally, the study of history is primarily of warfare, politics, and differing philosophies of governance. I cannot image a subject more irrelevant to a 10-year-old. History is interesting only in proportion to its relevance. We should be encouraging exploration into the origins of fields, activities, and ideas that kids find interesting. Those early years should focus more on developing a general historical interest than on any specific historical events. There is ample opportunity to discuss the nuances of political science and governance later, and to those who show interest.

We can take this approach to most other fields as well. Every child has a passion, probably many. Education should primarily be exploration and encouragement to look deeper into fields that peak interest, and using that interest to as a context to develop learning skills like reading, writing, logic, analysis, and synthesis.

We could set up a school system that spends a few days each week discussing the basics. This would look like school as usual but whittled down to information that is most relevant and important to the given age of the students. The rest of the week could be focused on exploring fields that the students find interesting. Rather than structured lessons or assignments, teachers would simply need to have regular, one-on-one meetings with each student to discuss what he or she has been exploring and provide structure to guide the inquiry. Teachers would need very little experience in the fields in question as all required of them is to ask leading questions to compel the student towards investigation and discovery. Teachers could then direct further exploration down specific avenues and give assignments to these ends.

A class could devote the final week of each month to student presentations on their unique area of study. This is an opportunity for each student to share what they have learned but more importantly to share their excitement for their passion. This serves two deeply meaningful ends. First, it celebrates and validates their chosen passion. We are all weirdos in our own way. The best thing we can offer kids is support for what makes them unique. Second, the other students gain exposure to a field that may have never crossed their awareness. There is no better way to peak interest than to learn from an individual who is deeply passionate about their field.

By honoring each students natural curiosities we can transform our education system to create and nurture individuals. Rather than narrow the confines so that only a few win, we can create a game that everyone wants to win.