A New Take on the Conventional

Often the common interpretation of education gets lost in the rote memorization and standardization necessary to survive in today’s schools. The freedom and creativity allowed at younger ages virtually disappear in higher grade levels as structured curriculum and standardized tests plague the lives of students. These facts and figures serve no purpose in the long run, where they have been long-forgotten. All that will remain is a selective assortment of skills and the experiences that taught us valuable lessons. The process of being educated goes beyond the simplistic retention of information. To be educated is to be knowledgeable with a purpose. This purpose may be to become a valuable contributor to society through service, intellectual advancement, as a means of entertainment, etc. And this definition takes those aforementioned students beyond the confines of a traditional classroom setting and K-12 grade structure. As cliched as it may be, those who are truly educated are lifelong learners.

Education is supposed to have a sense of fluidity or adaptability that is glaringly absent from modern school systems. Classes are structured around facts and disciples instead of being exploratory and probing with projects, questions, and research. Having completed my junior year of high school, I have had experience with both structured classes and more self-directed courses. In most of the Advanced Placement classes I take, there is the pressure of finishing the course material before the AP exam. Since the exam is the final indicator of course mastery, it takes precedence over learning for a passion. From essays to tests to weekly quizzes, there is so much expected from the student, that the initial curiosity that prompted the student to take such a challenging course is gone. AP courses do provide valuable challenges, but intrinsic motivation is sacrificed simply for a higher number on a 1–5 scale. My experience in my sophomore year history class served as a contrast to my AP classes. In this world history class, pairs of students were allowed to choose a country and complete research, participate in mock UN conferences, etc. on behalf of that nation for the entire year. This class structure not only allowed for individual exploration, it taught me to analyze issues from a shift in perspective. The skills of evaluating credibility or the complexity of world issues carried over to my other classes and subsequent history classes. The minimal structure in this class was more beneficial to me, as I felt I had developed important research skills and progressed at my own pace.

Grades remove the spontaneity and applicability of most learning. When students have curriculum standards to answer to, their priorities shift. Instead of learning for themselves, they are extrinsically motivated. They equate their success with the letter grade that represents a narrow subset of information that they retained for a small period of time. This directly contradicts what their successful education should be — refining the ability to think independently and critically. In order to ensure that a student develops effective learning habits, evaluation of their work should be more feedback driven with strategies on how to improve. This instills in them the practice of making careful judgements of their work and learning from their mistakes.

Education need not be constrained to a formal and traditional classroom setting. Valuable lessons come in many shapes and forms. I have a distinct memory of my grandmother taking me on a walk after dinner when I was a young girl, no more than eight or nine years old. While walking through the winding pathways of my neighborhood, she recounted a story. A story of the hardships my grandfather faced and the maturity he had to gain in order to become the success that he is today. Starting out as a serial troublemaker with limited prospects, my grandfather faced a difficult life situation that prompted him to mend his ways. He essentially “buckled down,” studied his way to the top of his high school class, financed himself through medical school, and eventually became a top ranked osteopathic doctor that is still in demand after his retirement. However, the information that captivated me from this story was not my grandfather’s successes, but the emotional maturity and commendable work ethic he developed. When he was young, there was nothing anybody could have told him that would have made him show up to class on time or do his homework. His life experiences and self-realization were ultimately what caused him to turn his life around. The passion and investment in his education, and eventual mastery, stemmed from a place of failure, which provided valuable lessons that cannot be replicated in a traditional classroom. For me, as a relatively young student, this one story shaped my perspective and habits in a way that no formal education could have.

As it is graduation season, there is a barrage of fresh-faced graduates continuing on to college or emerging into the job market. They are met with “Congratulations!” and “You must be so proud!,” as they have reached a key milestone in their life — a degree that symbolizes an attainment of education. While I do not devalue such an accomplishment, I do believe that credence must also be placed on those that fulfill the unconventional definition of education. Those who accept a challenge to a long-standing belief after a conversation. Those who choose to pick up a book, not for an assignment, but for their own interests. And most of all, to those who take what they have learned, and are able to positively impact the lives of others.

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