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Don’t Blame Me.

September 6, 2010

This blog post is written in response to the September 6 Newsweek article “Why School ‘Reform’ Fails: Student Motivation is the Problem.” You can view the article online here.

In his September 6 article, Robert Samuelson blames lack of student motivation for the inability to reform the American educational system. He faults students as the reason educational reform has become a “disillusion,” saying that the “adolescent culture” has corroded teacher authority. I couldn’t disagree more with his analysis.

As a recent public high school graduate and now college freshman, I will be the first to admit that laziness and slacking off has become a normal routine by high school and college students alike. Heck, I know that I’ve felt unmotivated to study or do homework a myriad of times. Further, I know that I could have certainly worked harder on some assignments or projects in high school, instead exerting the minimal effort required for a passing grade.

But blaming me, the student, would be a grave mistake. Not only does Samuelson’s article end with a doomsday report that contains no real solution – he shrugs away the idea of reform as “disillusion(al)” – but it ignores the reasons students become detached from their studies in the first place, the inherent flaws in our educational system requiring our attention.

Perhaps if Robert Samuelson went back to school for a year he’d know what I’m talking about. While technology is rapidly increasing its presence in society, and while the attention span of children is diminishing, the educational system is still based on antediluvian learning tactics. These learning tactics, relying primarily on textbooks and only worsening the more inner city one goes, create a system that is cold and disengaging for most students. The system provides no, or limited, opportunities for practical application in the real world of textbook knowledge. With no tangible reason to read the same textbook that has been read thousands of times before, it’s no wonder many students are turned off by education and end up dropping out.

This problem requires real solutions, something Samuelson fails to offer in his piece. However, when you hold the system to blame for failing its clients (my parents did, after all, fund my education), one can make real progress and develop concrete solutions.

First off, we must make learning more engaging. We must not look at the shrinking attention span as a constraint but, rather, an opportunity. Knowing that students are now more engaged in technology and interpersonal interaction than ever before, we must shed the textbooks of the past and provide teachers with the opportunity to create truly captivating classes. One form of this learning is called “expeditionary learning,” and was employed by the middle school I attended that was recently recognized by Arne Duncan for its successes in education.

Secondly, we must establish programs that help students connect their classroom learning with its application in the real world. This issue can be addressed a variety of ways. For example, at the private elementary school I attended for two years, the students ran a sandwich-making business and one of my projects was building a chicken coop for a student’s family. Through both of these ventures I was able to synthesize my interdisciplinary studies and see how all of them – math, writing, gastronomy – could be employed in the real world. That creativity is a far cry from a high school math teacher’s typical response when a student asks them how their studies can be practically applied (often the answer is: “it’s good to know, just in case”).

Lastly, we must equip students with the tools needed to excel after high school. However, focusing solely on those students planning to attend college would be a misstep since these students typically need the least motivation. Instead, we should make sure that students entering the work force have essential knowledge in balancing personal finances, interviewing, and formatting résumés and cover letters.

There are many different types of learners in our country today. However, if we blame them for failed educational reform and don’t address the real underlying problems, we’ll never make any progress. And progress, in America’s increasingly competitive and internationalized economical landscape, is absolutely vital.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Andy permalink
    September 6, 2010 5:53 pm

    Well, I think you’re somewhat wrong.

    The point is that US high school education is more hands on than high school education in a lot of countries that are scoring better than US. In US, people do actual chemistry in chemistry class and actual biology in biology class. In US, there’s a lot of sports and a lot of projects. In US, high school students can take courses from colleges and count them towards degrees. There are literally loads of very creative things to do in US schools, and the system is generally very good. This is why, I think, good students from US schools are at advantage compared with their peers elsewhere.

    The big problem is that in most of other countries, high school and colleges are really integrated. In Germany, there are a few tests that are geared to select “bright” kids from the general population, one of them in middle school, one of them in high school. In Japan, at the end of the middle school students write a test to get admitted to high school, and high schools are very picky and not location based, and the university admission and social connections are quite affected by what high school students went to. College admission and high schools are intergrated by definition, since a lot of judgement is passed based upon these test results, as well as a lot of social opportunities, so students are under constant pressure to perform well in school.

    Not so much in US. US school system is mostly funded by local taxes, so, effectively, there is little or no competition before the days of SAT comes. What’s even worse, because high school systems are so diverse, students and teachers don’t really know where they are compared to the general population of the US. There is simply no carrot or stick to guide the schools nationally. Yes, there is SAT, but SAT comes into play very late and is not directly connected to the school curriculum, and effectively the lack of national standards help the rich turn their high schools into prep schools while really not letting anyone else know where they are compared to them. However, the competition for the college admission is national, so here’s one of the big problems. It happens so very often that top students from inner city schools end up in crappy colleges – not because they didn’t do their part of the deal, but just because what they were taught didn’t allow them to perform well on SAT in the first place.

    Even in the presence of national admission programs the rich make sure their kids go to the prep school, largely because the initial act of admission to the right school determines so much in the modern world. However, the fact that everyone else don’t necessarily understand where they are on the curve, and the fact that, in particular – for inner city schools, there is relatively little opportunity for the kids who want to learn to move to the school where all the kids are similar, really makes things a lot worse.

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