Friday, April 16, 2010

Why We Hate School, and Why It's Not "Cute"

Ironically, I'd like to start this post off by saying I may not be very active over the next couple of weeks due to school activities. Anyway, as a high schooler, I have a complicated relationship with my school. Many students try to pass it by with as little effort as possible, some put in so much work they go into clinical depression, and others still take the middle road: they put in only as much effort as they think they will benefit from. I like to characterize myself as the last category; when an assignment seems unnecessary, or stupid, I either copy it or do not do it (and for those thinking "*gasp*, plagiarism", wake up, because I can say with experience that I am one of the few kids in my school that actually does a significant portion of my homework, and I go to one of the top-rated schools in the nation). Anyway, Holden Page (@holdenpage) recently posted about his hatred of school, with an interesting response from Steve Hodson (@stevehodson). (I recommend reading both before continuing with this post.)

Holden's main argument is that education is repetitive, many classes are unnecessary, and we spend too much time in school. While everybody acknowledges that education is important, repeating material across many grades seems unnecessary, and not useful for actual learning. In his second point, Holden illustrates how classes like physical education, art, and so on, are completely useless to him, and do not serve him any purpose. Finally, he criticizes the rants that teachers often go on in class that take away from time that could be spent doing something else. Steve Hodson, in his usual sarcastic tone that I did not catch on to the first time around, checks off this list one by one. (Come on, Holden, you made it too easy for him. :) ) However, his responses are just as interesting as Holden's original comments. For the repetitiveness in school, Hodson says:
Holden’s first point is about how education is important but repetitiveness isn’t and to a point that may be the case but if there is one underlying fact about school is that it isn’t so much about education per se but more about preparing one for when they have to deal with the real world.
Well, Steve, thanks to school (specifically my AP English class), I can declare that this is the perfect example of non sequitor, a logical fallacy. He never says exactly how preparing for the real world has anything to do with the importance of being repetitive. One could argue that life is very repetitive, so to an extent Steve is right, but the repetitiveness you experience in high school is nowhere near the same you might experience in the real world. Holden is talking about how grade after grade you are learning the same thing. Students probably learn American History twice in elementary school, and once in both middle and high school. This type of repetition is absolutely useless, as the only reason you would not remember what you learned previously is if you never used it, and if that's the case, how would learning it again make you use it? The better approach would be to teach the students a subject right before they are about to apply it to their lives. But of course, we must not ignore Steve's point of how education is not about education, but about preparation for life. Somebody explain to me how repeating material a student does not care about prepares you for life? (Also, might I add, Holden's copying directly from the textbook example of homework is absolutely right: repetition from copying the textbook will be just as useful as only reading the textbook will be.)

Anyway, for the next point, he is actually right. He says that the classes Holden declares as "useless" are actually useful (at some point). I hate English, physical education, American history, but I know for a fact that material I learned in these classes has and will become useful later on in life (just look at the beginning of the last paragraph). Though Holden does make a point that classes should interest students, being uninterested does not imply being disinterested (the difference between those two words being another thing I learned in AP English). However, I do agree with Holden with the fact that we should have the ability to choose more classes that interest us. The most important thing in ensuring a student performs well in school is motivation, and interesting classes promotes motivation, so we definitely do not want to give a student nine boring classes and zero interesting ones. (Boy would I love to take a computer programming course right now...)

Finally, we get to the rants. Teacher rant all the time, sometimes the rants are boring, sometimes interesting, but always time wasters. While I agree with Holden on repetition and with Steve on the usefulness of classes, this argument constitutes of two correct points. Rants waste time. There is no way to avoid that fact. Last year, my AP World History class was mostly rants, and all the work of learning was done in homework. And trust me, if a class is interesting or hands-on, I would love to skip the rant and jump straight to the work. Unfortunately (here's where Steve jumps in), rants like this do occur in real life, and modeling the real world is probably in the best interest of the students and the teachers. Furthermore (here's where I jump in), relating back to the last point of uninteresting classes, if a student does not like the material being learned in a class, rants often liven up the class and make it more appealing. (In fact, most of the classes I say I hate or am not interested in are due to the teacher rather than the content.) Going back to the AP World History example: sure all the hard work was out of the classroom, but I can say with certainty that it was my teacher's long in-class rants that motivated me to even consider doing the work at home. A good rant with a little structure and pathos thrown in can be just what a class needs to have both successful and educated students. But before we completely ignore Holden's point, it is true that we spend too much time in school. High school is supposed to prepare us for college, and in college most of your work is homework, while the class is all lecture (or rant, if you consider the previous example). So how does reversing this structure prepare us for college and, in turn, life? School should be shorter, not because teachers should not be going on rants, but because students should be given more time to complete homework, which, if structured correctly, can actually be helpful.

I absolutely have to dedicate a paragraph to homework. It is the abomination of a student's life. I hate it, and studies have shown it does not help students to learn. However, this hatred and inefficacy is only caused by improper execution. Similar to Google Buzz, they had a good product, but poor release strategies. Homework does not help a student if they have two hours to do it in their spare time between extra- and co-ciricullar activities and class itself. Work gets rushed, or not done at all, and the entire cycle becomes useless. Furthermore, when homework is repetition of what is done in class, students get nothing out of the activity, since they are forced to follow the structure set by their teacher (creativity is a student's greatest tool in learning, as it helps the brain tie the information to something). Instead of the current system, high schools should model colleges: you do the homework before you go to lecture, and then the class is just an interesting (or uninteresting, depending on professor) rant about the subject. With this infrastructure, students are first allowed to experiment with the subject, see what works best for them. Then when they get to class, instead of repeating what the student just learned for homework, the teacher can offer insight not extractable from the homework, information learned from experience as a teacher that boosts the student's confidence and understanding in the subject. Take, for example, basic electromagnetism as taught in high school physics classes. With numerous equations to choose from, there are usually more than one method to solve a certain problem. In the current system, a teacher will explain either one method, two methods, or, in the case of a multi-step problem, each of the separate steps. The student then sees another way to solve it in the homework, and gets utterly confused. For the sake of understanding, it is similar to forcing a student to solve a puzzle, where the teacher only gave him half the pieces in class, the other half being hidden somewhere in the textbook alongside copies of the pieces the student already has. With the new method, the student constructs his own strategy from the homework, then uses the teacher's rant in class to patch everything up. Here the student has all the puzzle pieces from the homework, and now only needs the class to put them together. In conclusion, by putting the homework before the class, and reducing class time to allow students to complete such homework, natural human creativity takes over and makes for an overall better learning experience.
A logistic function on a graph.
But out of both posts, I think the best summary of what school is falls into the last sentence of Steve's post: "you only get out of something what you put into it and that includes school." You can only learn what you put in the effort to learn. However, I have to add a corollary: what you get out of something over how much you put in is a logistic relationship (see picture). (For those math dunces that do not know what a logistic relationship is, that is when the graph moves slowly upward in the beginning, spikes up in the middle, and levels off at an asymptote.) This is because there is a point when the inefficiency of the school, the institution itself, gets in the way. As I showed with the homework dilemma, when given a few hours to do a lot of work and figure a lot of things out, you can only get so far before those two hours run out. Furthermore, I know that a lot of what I get out of school is from extra-curricular activities, which also take up time. In summary, your net benefit from going to high school really depends on how much time a student is given to do something on his or her own. In the most ideal world, classes do not exist: students can go from classroom to classroom and do whatever they want, as long as they complete their assignments on time. But where are the teacher, you ask. They act not as teacher, but as mentors, that start the students off in the right direction, and guide them on that path until they reach where they need to be. Unfortunately, I am not much of an idealistic person, and factors get in the way, like unmotivated students who do not want to go to school much less learn on their own. So school ends up a balance between releasing the free spirit of the eager student and caging the frustrated one of the unmotivated student. In the case of high schools as of now, that balance has tilted way too much to the unmotivated side.

Before I get to the conclusion, I'd like to make a few more points from the peanut gallery (the comments). Moe Williams says high school is basically daycare, and no real learning takes place until college. Think again. I have learned so much in high school I just barely understand how my brain holds all that information (and that bare understanding, by the way, probably comes from a combination of my biology and psychology classes). Manielse makes a good point in saying that even though high school is supposed to "prepare" you for a 9-to-5 job, the college method of education is actually much more efficient and effective (see rant above concerning homework). Finally, lulocateli describes the most important problem of all: we can rant as much as we want, but what are the chances of something actually changing? Well, to end on a good note, Steve says in his post, "To put it simply – if you are whining about this what the hell are you going to do when you join the work force? Seriously." Well then, Steve, what do you call blogging?


  1. All this is fascinating. I found myself agreeing with EACH of the three blogs. Just had a thought: Teachers went to high school, too. They KNOW school stinks. And yet they keep on...

    Really the best preparation for the "real world" is understanding that effective learning (or production, at work) isn't actually top priority.

    Figuring out what IS top priority, getting a grasp on why classes are like that, what parameters teachers have, what requirements they have to meet, and exploring solutions based on those needs, THAT'S what prepares you for "real life."

    On a side note, found this blog via BoN and I'm really enjoying it.

  2. Thanks, Rae. And I totally know what you mean. But I think the reason why teachers tend not to adjust their practices with their previous experiences is they often forget what they went through in high school, and once they've been a teacher for a year or so, they are too accustomed to being the opposite role in the classroom environment to try and put themselves in the students' shoes and think back.

  3. It's nice to know that there are fellow bloggers (and high schoolers for that matter) out there that are going through the same flawed system that I'm going through. I read each of the three posts by you, Holden, and Steve, and for the most part I agree. Here's what I feel on the situation:
    I take a college-based learning class for United States history at the same time as all of my other classes which are high school based, and I hate it. The part where you talked about this is absolutely true: college-based learning is so much easier to learn...the only problem is, with taking a college course in high school along with high school courses, there's no time for you to learn on your own! I find myself thinking all the time, "If I had the time to learn, I would let my curiosity go wild. Think of all the amazing things I would read, write, see, and do." School kills the inherent instinct of all children to have a curiosity for learning by bringing about mundane repetition as an assembly line of information. I just recently found a quote that sums this up pretty well:

    "We're drowning in information and starving for knowledge."
    - Rutherford D. Rogers

    Anyway, I hope what I said makes sense, because the school system we're in sure doesn't. But, like Steve said, we have to put into school what we want to get out of it, no matter how annoying it is. Good luck with the rest of your schooling.

    Neil Hiddink
    The Baggage Claim

    I believe.
    That one day,
    I will be great.

  4. Very true. My college-level courses are really tough not because I cannot keep up with the work, but because I have no time to do the work. It is as if high school classes have meaningless work that takes a lot of time while college classes have meaningful work that take a short amount of time.