students and learners

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on education for a book I’m writing. As part of my research, I’ve been watching a number of speeches by Sir Ken Robinson. His insights on learning have given me a lot to think about, and a lot of inspiration behind the world building of my book.

I’m still at the beginning stages of research, so this is just the dough of what will hopefully one day be fully-formed and edible thought, but let’s watch me ramble for a bit about some realizations I’ve had.

In America, but also in school systems all around the world, the focus is on the “hard knowledge” classes like math and science. When the time comes to find cuts in the budget, the arts are almost always the first to go. And you rarely see dance integrated into the curriculum.

The arts are largely seen as leisure activities. Someone I admire has told me repeatedly that my interest in the arts is less valuable than if I had chosen something more marketable. That’s the outdated belief that school systems are laboring under: that creativity is less valuable than conformity. If you score high on standardized tests, you’re viewed as smarter and more valuable than someone who scored lower than you did. But as (does one always use Sir to refer to a knighted person? Is he Sir Ken? I know I always call Sir Ian McKellen “Sir Ian,” so) Sir Ken pointed out, companies want people who are creative, who can help them adapt to the world as it changes by thinking outside the box.

But our education system teaches us conformity, not diversity.

[THIS IS WHERE I START TALKING ABOUT ME]

I enjoyed some stages of school. I loved elementary school, I liked middle school, I really liked junior high, I disliked high school, and I loved university.

I think what I loved most about elementary school and what I took most for granted was the freedom of being wrong. When I think back to elementary school, I think of bright hallways and smiling teachers and vivid colors and laughing and running and games. I think of recess and concerts and time to play. I don’t remember any red marks on my papers or feeling so nervous about going to school that I’d look up ways to induce vomiting so I could fake sick and stay home.

That didn’t happen until junior high, and as I said, I really liked junior high. But after I left elementary school, I didn’t love school again until I got to university.

What’s maybe the most ironic moment of my academic life was in third grade when I heard we would be marked with more specific grades than the ones we’d been getting before. I was excited. I liked learning, and I liked being praised, and I assumed grading would be encouragement. When I’d gotten an answer wrong before, the teacher had said, “You’ve almost got it, try again.” When I got to third grade, I entered the world of grading and testing.

At this stage, if I got something wrong, I couldn’t be taught how to correct it and earn that point back. If I got a question wrong, I was stuck being wrong. Even if I’d only written the wrong answer by mistake, the mark at the top of the paper told me, “You were wrong, and now you have to carry the weight of being wrong.” Suddenly, I was fixated on my grades, far more than learning anything.

By fourth grade, school made me nervous. I didn’t want to do dry, boring pages of homework, and after a year or two of getting bad grades, I was used to it and found little motivation in the threat of getting a bad grade. All good grades meant to me was a lack of people angry with me, and that wasn’t motivation enough either. Instead, I found ways to avoid both homework and making people angry by cultivating a stronger sense of humor. It’s become a life skill, a defense mechanism, and a recreational hobby that’s probably been my single most powerful tool. Not just making people laugh, but learning to laugh things off.

Fifth and sixth grade were worse academically. I got used to seeing Cs on my report card, and I stopped caring entirely about math and science. I’d once quite liked science, and when I was very young I’d liked playing math games. By sixth grade, math terrified me and science just seemed insurmountably dull. On top of that, I heard people everywhere talking about “creative vs. logical” and all the right/left brain clichés and I started to think my disillusionment with math and science just meant I wasn’t smart enough for “hard knowledge” and just the “soft knowledge” of the arts and humanities I excelled in. I thought, “I’m just wired differently, and I never would have been good at those subjects anyway.”

But I don’t think that’s true. I think had someone showed me things exploding (from a safe distance) or let me mix chemicals or something visual, I would have caught on. If someone had started off explaining science to me in creative terms, if they’d told me stories about scientists and how they’d discovered their incredible work, I would have loved it. I’ve always loved the stars, and I love listening to explanations by scientists, and I love finding out how machines function and how gravity differs from planet to planet. I love theories about parallel universes and I love doing research and finding out things I don’t know. I want to know as much as I possibly can, and when I’ve learned all that, I want there to be more that I still don’t know, because the potential of the unknown is just as exciting as learning something new.

I would have loved science. I know I would have.

Instead, my clearest memory of fourth grade science is the C I got on my report card because of one project. The teacher told us to write a paper on a scientist of our choice and gave us a list of names to choose from. The only person left when the list got to me was a female scientist who, at the time, only merited a paragraph in one of our library’s encyclopedias and two sentences in the whole of the internet. I couldn’t find more information, and, when I asked my teacher about it, she frowned at me and told me to look harder in the library. The librarian and I couldn’t find more, and I handed in a paper half the size as the one she wanted. I got an F, and my A plummeted to a C.

What’s worse is that I liked the teacher. She had always been patient with me, and when my classmates called her scary, I felt a rush of pride and gratitude that she was nice to me. I wanted to impress her, I wanted to do well, and I liked when I got good grades, but I don’t remember being excited to learn anything. After that project, the project that singlehandedly sunk my grade beyond resurrecting, I felt even less excitement to try. Because why bother now? My A was gone, and the best I could hope for now was a C+ or a B-.

University was incredible. For the first time in my educational existence, I had choices. I didn’t have to study Math/Science/English/Religion/Art/History. I could, but I didn’t have to, once I’d filled my required credits. At the very earliest possible opportunity, I enrolled in courses that covered ancient cultures and writing and anthropology and philosophy. And then I found theatre, and my world became infused with the light of happiness and knowledge and culture and NEW YORK.

…I went to college in New York. I think I missed that detail. Ah, well. Anyway, university. It was awesome. I got to pursue my passion, and I got to make writing the main focus of my education. That was game-changing for me.

[THIS IS WHERE I STOP TALKING ABOUT ME]

I want to start doing more research on what they call “alternative” methods of education, because I think there’s a lot of merit to be gained by changing the current system of education.

People are naturally curious. We’re naturally community-driven. The fact that so many people see their desire to learn snuffed out is a disappointing fact of life, but it’s one that can be changed. By changing the approach to education, students can become learners.

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