In addition to helping process school memories, Reschool Yourself involves raising questions about the practice and philosophy of traditional schooling in general. I want to be clear that I love and respect all of my schools, and although I’m using examples from their campuses, I’m talking about school in general. I’m truly curious about why schools tend to operate the way they do, and what changes are possible within their circumstances.
This week, I’ve noticed a few underlying assumptions about students — which I’ve noticed at other schools, too — that give me pause. Whether stated or not, they seem to be taken for granted, and include the following:
1. Students wouldn’t come to school if they didn’t have to and are therefore thrilled to have days off.
My observation: The general merriment around the Veteran’s Day holiday. When one teacher reminded the students about it, one guy said sarcastically, “Oh yeahhh, I almost forgot. It’s not like I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks.”
2. They hate homework.
My observation: Groans and complaints when teachers give too much homework, and teachers’ statements like, “If we take our quiz Friday, then you’ll have no homework over the weekend!”
3. Beginning their junior year, they have academic priorities that are more important than physical fitness.
My observation: P.E. is required only of freshmen and sophomores. This article from The Onion, “Majority of Americans Never Use Physical Education After High School,” might explain why.
4. They must follow guidelines that don’t bind adults.
My observation: I’m going to single out one my former (and favorite) teachers by sharing this observation. When I was snapping photos in the hallway with my digital camera, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to hand over the camera. When I turned around and he realized who I was, he looked sheepish, apologized to me, and said lightly to the students nearby, “She’s authorized.”
5. Everyone expects that they won’t remember or use most class material after they graduate.
My observation: Teachers and students tend to be surprised that I remember any of the high school curriculum at all. In order to show how poorly a typical adult does when quizzed on curriculum, I’m willing to risk personal embarrassment. While shadowing in both middle and high school, I’ve taken several quizzes cold, without having studied or attended class. I’ll write a separate post about this experience, but I can tell you that I remember very, very little of middle and high school material in most subjects. Even the fourth and fifth grade lessons on photosynthesis and long division would have stumped many adult professionals. Why do students have to spend so many hours memorizing this material if they’re expected to forget it shortly after being tested on it?
Teachers, when asked, will often admit freely that they know most students won’t ever do say, problems with cosines or joules, after graduation. In fact, one of my teachers said these three surprising things to me:
Two: “It’s a shame that students are required to take Algebra II in high school” (usually to meet the admissions guidelines for the University of California.) He’d rather they invest the time in studying something of interest to them.
Three: “During my senior year of college, a professor told me that I’d forget 90 percent of what I learned in college two years after graduating. Well, I swore that I’d prove that professor wrong, and I did: I forgot 90 percent of the material a year and a half after graduating.”
Think back to all that material on all those tests you studied for, even in subjects that interested you. Honestly, how much of it can you recall on the spot, and how useful is it to be able to do that? If you happen to be an E.R. doctor, it might be good to know the anatomy of the respiratory system without having to Google it, but the rest of us normally have the luxury of looking things up if the need arises.
I’m sure that we’ve all had certain learning experiences that have sparked our interest, introduced us to new perspectives or new subjects; we may have even had teachers who helped us “learn how to learn,” which has become a popular saying. I’m curious about the situations where this happened for us, and how we can have more of those and less of the stuff that we did because we had to. Perhaps there’s a way where, from an early age, we can each spend our time in school on what we love to do.
Inspired by my observations this past week, I’d like to pose a few questions to you. I do so with the utmost respect to my teachers, and to teachers everywhere. I’d like for readers — teachers, students, and alumni alike — to remember their own experiences and answer whichever questions they like by posting a comment.
1. What elements would your ideal high school have, so that you would have attended purely out of interest and enjoyment?
2. What impact did homework have on you?
3. Did it make sense to you to have to take P.E. only until a certain age? What impact did P.E. have on you?
4. Which rules at your school applied only to students and not to adults?
5. What did you study in school that you find useful today, and what is not very useful? How much material can you recite from memory, versus what you look up as needed?