Epic Failure: The Demise of Education (Part One)

This week represents the final week in my second year of teaching. I thought that after the first year, the learning curve would be minimal, but I have actually learned more this year than last. And while I am no means perfect, there are issues that I commonly see with my students that are alternately shocking and disheartening. Recent reports show that American students are not just middle of the road when competing with the rest of the world; they are dropping in to the lower half drastically. The question is, why? I’m no expert—only a novice teacher with observations. But they represent a repeated pattern with my students that might help explain some of the issues. Over this next week I’ll be posting some ongoing thoughts on the issues of education.

Issue One: They can’t or don’t want to think for themselves.

In preparing my students for their final exam, I gave them an 86 question review with questions that gave them direction as to the things that will be on their 50 question final. I did note that the questions would not be verbatim from the review, but they would cover the same topics and ideas. I then gave them an entire class period to work the review together and made myself available for any questions they did not understand. The next day I received an email from one of the students telling me that he does not know how to study for an exam where he is not given the exact questions and answers in advance and that it is unfair for me to ask them to study 86 questions when they wouldn’t all appear on the test.

Part of this is just plain laziness (we’ll talk more on that later), but the idea that a student who is supposedly advanced enough to take college level courses in high school does not know how to study for a test when they do not have exact answers and questions from a multiple choice test in advance is staggering to me. I think this relates to something another one of my dual credit students said earlier in the year:

“In high school they have spent all this time telling us what to think. You’re the first person who bothered to teach us how to think.”

On the whole, my students don’t engage in critical thinking. They have trouble with problem solving and struggle when asked to analyze or interpret anything on their own. As a literature teacher, analysis and interpretation are the core of my work. Yes, “Young Goodman Brown” is an allegory, but how do we know that? Why did Hawthorne write it that way? What do these elements represent? What is he really trying to say?

Blank stares. They want to memorize plot points and character names—basically concrete facts—and not actually think about what the author is trying to say and why they are doing it in this particular way. They want to pass a test and get a grade, not bother with any sort of understanding.

This leads to several sub-issues. The example above shows a student who does not understand how to study for a basic exam. They cannot make arguments because they can’t detect what the components of the argument are without being told. They struggle to form opinions based on anything other than “I just didn’t like it” or “It was boring.” Logic and making connections are things that they avoid. And when all else fails, they just cheat.

I believe that much of this issue begins with our teaching system. Many teachers do just as my student said—they tell them what to think without bothering to explore the reasoning behind it. Everything is about results rather than process. What good are understanding results if you don’t understand how they were reached?

One of the things I desperately try to do is to make my students think. I rarely lecture, but instead discuss literary works through question and answer. I ask follow up questions that require the students to tell where they are getting ideas from and why they believe what they believe. Last semester one of my students told me:

“You have a very tricky way of dealing with us. On one hand, you tell us that you won’t ever tell us that our answer to your question is wrong. But then you loop back and always want to know where we got it from and why we think that. Then we figure out our own wrong answers.”

Trying to teach students to think is exhausting. There are days where we sit in silence because no one wants to talk. Then I have to start calling on people. Or if no one read the story, I send them home to read it with a written assignment that covers the questions I would have. I feel like that’s a bit of a fail because most of them just don’t do it.

This relates to one of the biggest sub-issues related to this topic and calls back to the student complaint about the final exam. After years of being trained to parrot, these students not only struggle with being asked to think, they resent it. They call me too hard, complain that I expect too much, don’t do the work, or cheat. It gets pretty disheartening. But I refuse to give up, mainly because of my final example.

This year I have had a student, who I will call Julie, both semesters. By her own admission, she graduated from high school around the time I was potty training. She struggles in class, but asks questions and tries really hard. This semester I required her class to read a book outside of class and compare it with the movie version in an analytical essay that looks not just at the differences, but at why those changes were made and how well the movie captures the essence of the book. She told me the other day when she first heard the assignment, she thought it was stupid because how different could they really be? (She also hates reading.)

Last week she told the class that she sobbed her way through the end of the book, even more so than the movie, and for the first time she really got how books can be so engaging. She said she finally understood the assignment and it made her look at reading and movies in a different way.

What I loved most about our conversation was that she didn’t approach it as a compliment. She was literally flabbergasted by her revelation and just wanted to share that experience with her classmates.

They didn’t care. It was one of the best classroom moments I’ve had all year.

Look for Part 2 in the coming days.

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