Schools are "missing the point" by flunking students.
|*NOTE: Due to several comments on the issue, I would like to clarify the objective of this piece. This essay was written in response to an article on the use of "flunking" as the sole motivational tool for student success. I decided to respond with a hyperbolic and sarcastic piece on the dangers of this point of view. I realize that teachers do not actually profess that there is no point to school, and that many times, they are working admirably on trying to rid the system of the simply-get-by mentality. I also realize that this piece is not a step-by-step plan on the answer to this problem, nor an in depth analysis of the actual issues. Instead, it is meant to be a satirical and punchy short essay that depicts some of the flaws of the current educational system, albeit in an exaggerated fashion.
What is the point of learning? What purpose does it achieve? The Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Fantastic. Denis Diderot wrote an encyclopedia in the mid-18th century. Good for him. This sentence has been written in a passive voice. And I am writing this one in an active voice. Stupendous. But the question remains: why know these things? What benefit is gleaned from storing them in the crumbling structure of memory? What effect will these have on normal, everyday life? These are questions nearly every teenager has contemplated. Why, why, why. Clearly, the next generation wants answers, not just for the exams, but for why to take the exams in the first place. And how do some American educators respond? It would be awfully convenient if I said they say something like, to grow in knowledge, wisdom, curiosity, and maturity, and to become well-prepared to be sent out into the real world. But no, the answer they actually give is far less conventional. Plainly, loudly, proudly, they respond: there is no point. There is no reason. They say, do not worry about the why’s and the so what’s, worry about getting good grades. The purpose of your education is not to learn, it is not to grow, it is to see if you are smart or if you are dumb. And then you will be thrown into whatever quarter of society you fit into. Good luck. Oh, and P.S: smart, in this particular case, means having time on your hands, a particular fondness for math and literature, and a peculiarly well-tuned audio-visual memory. Dumb, on the other hand, means not taking good enough notes, being in an immature stage of life, or taking too little time to study because of family problems, or laziness, or depression, or whatsoever it may be. Perfectly simple, is it not? The picture this gives us of the status of American education is bleak and depressing, and to many, surely not true. What grounds do I have for painting it so boldly? Well, it’s in the little things, my friend; it’s always in the little things. It’s found in that little black letter, small yet enormous, emblazoned upon that third quarter report card, screaming: you are a failure! The use of flunking as a means to motivate students and drive education is unproductive, and frankly, counter-intuitive. Giving failing grades does everything it sets out to stop.
The first trip-up involves the undue stress heaped upon students in school systems. Hey, they say, all this test does is dictate your future: can you afford to go to this or that college, will you ever get a good job, will you indeed reach your dreams, or will you end up poor, rejected, and completely sunk? No worries, now. I say, let’s be realistic, folks. By placing so much pressure on how one does in school, and making very clear the wide gates and broad road of failure, schools are tying teenagers down to unmanageable stress levels. If you fail now, you will dig yourself a hole you will never get out of. Sounds like a horror movie, does it not? Yet these words are implicitly dumped on American students every day, and the reaction is either to give up or to keep fighting -- buckling, sweating, and puffing in the process. The adolescent years are years of unmatched growth and raging emotions, is it really appropriate to rope these poor souls down to the unfading weightiness of doom? No. School should be a place of blossoming, not wilting.
And indeed, a place for growth it is not. With the ominous shadows of the dreaded “F” blacking out the classroom, how is a student supposed to spread his wings and learn to fly? If everything is about being on the defensive, staying on your guard for that one bad assignment or that single poorly written paper, is it really a surprise that no one (read: 0.01% of the teenaged population) comes home from school saying, “What a fun day of learning!” Of course not, because in many places throughout the country, learning is simply not fun. It is boring, and even a bit scary. While many adults regret not going further with their education when they were younger, their selective memories are whiting out the real situation in schools. Namely, students are not learning; they are memorizing. Choking in an atmosphere of only 1ppm (parts per million) joy, students have lost the right mindset to take on real and healthy learning. They are afraid to ask questions, they doubt every academic risk they make, and they become so bogged down by social pressures and grumpy resentment that they miss the point entirely. The desire just isn’t there, and largely to blame is that word beginning with F: Fear or Failure, pick whichever you fancy.
But more than just the repressive atmosphere, the whole kit and caboodle is off-kilter; the whole focus is broken, bent, and twisted from where it should lie. If we do not get these disrespecting young men and women in line, I hear, who’s going to stop their wayward ways? By flunking them, we are teaching those kids a life lesson! Well, whoopty-doo. A lesson’s only a lesson when something is learned, and all failing does is tell these young people that they aren’t fit out for school and school isn’t fit out for them. All it says is that they had better count down the days till they can leave the school system entirely and go eat, drink, and be merry with their friends. School is for growing, not grade-earning. When a system becomes all about failing or passing, however, this somehow gets lost in translation. A real pity. But this focus extends to the “good” students as well. Looking the other direction, these more capable students lose perspective of the purpose of learning and put all of their energy into the opposite of an “F”, the elusive “A”. Someone explain to me how a figure with two-slanted lines and a crossbar accomplishes the goals of learning? Anyone? That is what I thought.
So what should be the response to all of this? It’s clear: stop failing people as a motivational tool. Re-invigorate the school setting. Teach for growth, not top-notch scores. And put the focus on learning, not passing or failing. I think it’s about time the “F” word gets replaced with something a little more optimistic, a little more healthy. Maybe the “L” word. Learning?