Friday, December 2, 2011

What purpose did all the failing serve

During my first year of teaching physical education, I had a kindergartner three times a week without fail always ask me "why are we doing this?" His question was rooted in genuine curiosity, not to necessarily bring attention to himself. When I think about this student, I smile at that memory because it made me a better teacher. I learned from him that whatever I teach, to whomever I teach it to, there needs to be a practical reason for it. If I have to stretch for an answer or cannot give an immediate real world application to them, then I need to improve my lesson.

As a student I hated hearing my elementary school teachers telling me that we need to know something  because "we might need to use it someday." Is telling a fourth grader that they need to know fractions because they "might need to use it someday" a great motivating tactic? How is it relevant to them today (other than for the standardized test)? Why would they want to try to learn about fractions?

Too many classes in my time at school were  required. A required course in my experience seemed to be set in isolation. You learn about grammar in English, how to spell, punctuation, etc but what is the immediate application? When I was in school it was implied that learning proper English was necessary so that people wouldn't judge you as poor. As an adult who has held a job of some sort since in I was sixteen, I can tell you that I have heard some of the most eloquent bullshit come out of people's mouth. What does that mean? Which is better for society, a well spoken liar or an honest person who makes the mistake of using "who" when it should be "whom?"

While in college  I noticed that each major had its own set of  required courses. This makes sense when one is eighteen, nineteen or twenty for a parent, professor, or advisor to inform the student that if you want to follow a certain major  you will need to achieve a designated level of math or science or whatever else to attain such a degree. There is a seemingly tangible reason as to why the student would want to learn the material. 

I am very aware of the mantra from high school students today to take certain classes to get into a good college. To take a class to get into college is not really a real world application other than the application of being obedient.  According to the students chronicaled in the book "The Overachievers" by Alexandra Robbins, some of these high achieving kids are more interested doing whatever it takes (including cheating on assignments they view as a waste of time) to receive an "A"   than gaining actual knowledge. 


I had a dream recently that I was back in my high school Trigonometry class, but instead of being sixteen again, I was my current age of thirty-one. In this dream I was sitting at my desk listening to the teacher talk over my head about sine, cosine, and tangent. As I was sitting there I was very much trying to follow the teacher, like I did when I was sixteen. However this was not the nightmare I was used to having as a struggling student. I was aware of one very important thing: I already have a job and I do not need to be an expert at trig to do my job. That defies the "one day you are going to need to know this" argument. Not only that, I use very little if any Spanish in my daily activities. That was another "one day you are going to need to know this" class. In reality, I use Latin in my life more than Spanish and ITS A FREAKIN DEAD LANGUAGE!
Just about every word we use is a derivative of Latin. Because of my knowledge of Latin, I am able to use context clues better when I come to a word I am not sure of while reading; something I do everyday.

When I woke up from this dream it dawned on me, as poor of a student that I turned out to be, was all this failing necessary? What was the point of taking and subsequently failing classes that I didn't even need in the first place? Why was I (and others) required to take so many classes that translated very little into adult life? Of all the education I have received, my elementary education has served me the most as an adult. There were some higher level classes along the way that were beneficial however. I have found relevance from my history and geography classes. Taking economics and personal finance classes have served me very well too, for obvious reasons.

I reflect about my educational experiences often because I have two girls who one day will go to school. I have fears that they will be like me in the fact that they will have to struggle needlessly throughout their entire educational career in courses not necessarily germane to real world experiences and then made  to feel inferior only to realize how smart they are once they step out of the school doors.

My other fear is that they will do SO well that their identity will be solely linked to academics and feel like the only place they fit in is school. If humans are  living to be about seventy-six years old,  two thirds of their lives will not be spent in school, the only place they identify with. What will they do then when their GPA's mean nothing?