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Why School is Bad for Kids

by Rachel Grobstein

The following Op/Ed article appeared in the December, 1999 issue of The Spoke, the student newspaper of Conestoga High School in Berwyn Pennsylvania, and appears here by permission of Rachel Grobstein, who was a sophomore and Spoke Art Editor when the article appeared. The article orginally appeared both in print andon-line

Once upon a time a child is born who, after spending many days blissfully watching how his fingers move and poking at the cat, enters the first year of what will be the focus of the next decade of his life: school.

And so, as he embarks upon his educational career, he learns many things.

First of all, he's taught that there's a difference between learning and living - as if learning is here in the school building, and living is outside, and there's no correlation between the two.

As if what he did for the first five years of his life - like discovering language - wasn't learning at all.

He learn that to be confused or wrong is a crime. The school wants Right Answers, and he learns countless ways to con the teacher into thinking he knows something he doesn't; he learns to bluff and cheat.

He also learns to be lazy. Before school began he worked for hours and hours, with no thought of reward, to make sense of the world. But in school he learns that no one does anything they don't have to and he learns to be bored.

Poor guy.

The ideas above are essentially those of educator and author John Holt, who believes that our educational system misdirects the youth of today. I agree.

Don't get me wrong. Education is vital. But the system is - like many things - imperfect. And the problem comes with the misconception that learning begins just after the first bell rings and stops after graduation.

Education is a lifelong process and by showing kids that the reward for learning is not knowledge but a good report card, there's no wonder that the problem is lack of motivation.

I think that the point of education is not to teach what to think but how to think. That way, even if we don't remember, say, the quadratic formula, we still know how to problem solve. And that way, the FAQs of the classroom - Why should I care? What's the point of this? Why do I need to know this? - will disappear into oblivion.

Follow the assumed Path of Motivations:

Why do kids learn? To get good grades. Why get good grades? To get into a good college. Why a good college? Because then, as everyone knows, we will be more likely to lead a happy, successful, and fulfilling life.

What a motivation.

Frankly, I think that if people are not learning for the sake of learning itself, they're missing the point. Why come to a place 180 days out of your year if you have no interest in what you're doing there besides basically preparing for the rest of your life?

I think that the problem of a whole bunch of ulcerous people run ning around their entire lives worrying starts with the incredible expectations and pressures we're taught to deal with on a daily basis. And speaking of stopping to smell the flowers, I think it's impossible when one has four hours of homework a night plus sports and music and art and whatever else one happens to be involved in.

But that's a separate issue. It's what comes from going to a successful school - a high stress, high anxiety, AP freshmen, 7 possible majors - successful school.

So much for criticism. What do we need to do? I think, for one, that learning should be a more active process. It's a bit of a paradox to learn about the world by being taken out of it. We should have time to take more field trips and learn things hands-on in the "outside" world.

There's something even simpler: we should spend more time working with other students. I'm sure that, with all the criticism of this Main Line environment we life in, no one actually takes the time to appreciate the diversity we do have. And don't kids learn best from each other?

Let students take more responsibility for their own learning. Does anyone really believe that students won't notice mistakes unless they're pointed out or correct them unless we're made to? In such a case we become less independent and less confident of our own abilities.

And then there are grades. How is it possible, students ask, to stick a number on a piece of writing or a piece of art? Or even more importantly, how is it possible to work and think so hard for a class and then be presented with a load of percentage points?

Because essentially, however grading may be justified or supplemented with explanations, it shows the student that what counts in the end is not whether he has learned the material and will apply it or use it to enrich his life, but that a high number will get him into a good college.

How do you truly measure what someone knows? In the words of Holt: "Let the child learn what every educated person must someday learn, how to measure his own understanding."

What, after all, is the goal of education? Making honor role? Or making sense of the world?

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