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Weekly Contemplations of a Non-Conformist: Converting to a Classroom Conversation

By Alex Newhouse in Opinion & Politics

The American education system is broken. This fact is obvious in the precipitous fall from the academic elite the United States has experienced in the last decade. China, India, some European countries, and others have all surpassed America as the pinnacles of intellectual progress and prowess. China and India have created a school system based on an ultra-competitive set of principles that leave little room for error. To succeed in one of these nations of a billion plus people, a student has to excel. He has to stand out like no American student—to get into the Indian Institutes of Technology, for example, a student must be in the top two out of every hundred. This makes Harvard appear laughably easy to achieve entrance in comparison, with an acceptance rate of seven out of every hundred.

But I do not think, in any circumstance, that the Asian model is right for America. Instead, I believe that the European model should be liberalized and instituted here. We need less structure, not more. We need creativity, not hyperfocus. We need freedom. We need to stimulate curiosity. Lectures are necessary in some subjects, but they are also the origin of a motivational problem that has exponentially increased in relevance. Students are losing interest in school. Intellectual curiosity is squandered in the early stages of education.

We must create a system that values discussion over memorization. Growth and exploration are more important than test scores and so-called “aptitude”. Book smarts have become of the utmost value in students, and I believe this is to the detriment of American society.

There is nothing more important than discussion. A conversation between students engages them, sparks their minds, makes them take an active role in their own education. A teacher can tell a class what the theme of a novel is. But when the teacher sits back and takes a guiding role, allowing the students to come to their own conclusions about a novel, their interest is significantly greater and they learn about how the theme is conveyed, why the theme was chosen, how it is relevant, and other answers that they would never have found had they just been lectured.

And discussion is not just relevant to English. It can be applied to any subject area. Even math, the most traditional of classes, the most often lecture-based, can have discussion integrated into it. Instead of a teacher telling the class the mechanism behind the problem, then a couple examples, the teacher could instead allow the class to attempt to find the mechanism of a problem. To struggle, with the just the basics, and come upon the rules and theorems for itself. Discovery is important, and vital to interest. Curiosity begets motivation, and discussion can spark curiosity.

I also believe that we should depart from our obsession with textbooks, and instead focus more on teaching directly from the works of the academic pioneers. It is interesting to note that even while teachers often strongly recommend avoiding Wikipedia and using primary sources instead, they assign homework from the text versions of Wikipedia, textbooks. Textbooks are nothing more than generalizations, overviews of subjects that would be much better served by studying the original discoverers themselves. Instead of learning about Descartes or Darwin in a short paragraph in a textbook, instead we could read La Geometrie and On the Origin of Species, which would add both color and depth to our lessons on Descartesian math and natural selection. It would be an interesting departure from the dense, dull and watered-down pages of t he textbooks everyone hates.

Grades should also be hidden or even nonexistent. While competition can motivate progress, it can also destroy passion and camaraderie. Being an IB student, I have experienced the most extreme of high school competitiveness, and I know how dangerous it can be to the mental well-being of students. I have seen people resort to cheating, whether plagiarism or even drugs, to gain an edge, to get that A. I have seen friendships destroyed over test scores. Academic integrity is not prominent in the high school world.

But I have also seen how classes can be great. One teacher I have had did away with meaningful grades and gave his students a high degree of freedom. For a few months, I saw blank stares and oftentimes frustrated questions were common. It was difficult for IB students to reconcile this completely new system with the old standard to which they were conditioned. It is hard to know what to do when the answer to the question “What constitutes an A paper?” is meaningless. It is often hard to find motivation to work when an essay is critiqued, but not graded.

But no one in my class slacked off. No one ignored papers. Every student bought into the system, embracing the lack of grades with an enthusiasm I had rarely seen in school before. Papers became not so much a means to an end, a good grade, but rather an experience in finding the truth in novels, exploring the inner workings of literature.

Imagine what this system could do for math. Instead of each unit being a pain, without the pressure of getting a good grade on a test, the freedom is given to truly learn the math and to understand it. Grades are not good motivation. They are simply relatively meaningless rewards that create unnecessary stress and turn students aggressive and competitive. Collaboration becomes cheating, as everyone tries to glean some advantage from their peers. But without the specter of grades, collaboration regains its true value. People learn for the sake of learning, not for a letter.

One of the most fundamental changes we can make to our school system, however, is to socialize college education. That last sentence just made every capitalist on the planet angry, but it is absolutely necessary. We cannot continue to function as a nation with the most important experience for building a career exclusive to those with money. Financial aid is not sufficient. There absolutely must be at least a tier of college education that is free. Every person with the ability and the drive needs to have the opportunity to attend college. Post-secondary education allows generally disadvantaged citizens to rise the ranks of the American socioeconomic hierarchy. Colleges are the forges of new ideas, of tolerance, of compassion and understanding. In the happiest nations in the world, college is free for everyone. Just as the early Americans recognized the value of free education for children, so too must we extend their vision and apply it to college education as well. There is nothing more valuable than an educated populace. The more people know, the more they are likely to understand their peers, the more they are likely to cast aside their hate and move towards a future of peace. While truly universally free education is impossible in a society that values the free market, a free college tier must be made available so that people can achieve more and break the shackles of social discrimination. Although it might be long term, the intellectual payoff for the nation will manifest itself both fiscally and socially. This is the first step towards overhauling our educational program, and I believe we will soon take this small step for humankind. If Europe can do it, so can we.

I know these suggestions are idealized, but I believe strongly that variations of them could significantly improve our education system. This is not a hypothetical anymore; we MUST change the way we teach American children. Therefore, I suggest that we eliminate competition in schools so that America itself regains it.

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