Real-world learning vs. school grades & credits. No contest.
Jack Hostager is a high school sophomore enrolled in an Eastern Iowa High School. His blog, Straight from the Desk, seeks to add the seldom heard voice of the student. Jack prefers to keep the name of the school he attends private in order to keep the conversation focused on the larger system rather than assuming any of his comments are strictly about his school alone. This week Jack contrasts “real-world” contributions with the consumer mentality of school.
At the beginning of March, I was lucky enough to spend five days with three friends in Washington, DC at the Coastal America Student Summit on the Oceans and Coasts. In order to go to the conference, we had to select and plan a project to carry out in our community. We decided to build a rain garden around the parking lot of our school to collect runoff and all the noxious oils, roadway salts, & chemicals on the lot so that they will infiltrate the soil and pass through the natural filter of soil instead of flowing into a nearby stream. After we enthusiastically defined our vision, we wrote an action plan, produced a video, and made a poster to “market” the project. Then we met with school and city officials to explain what we wanted to do and make sure the garden would be funded. When we got to the Summit, we met the 70 other attendees from across the continent and learned about the projects they have undertaken. We publicly presented on stage at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to a panel of federal officials, then wrote a proclamation to Congress and met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to discuss environmental issues.
It took a lot to get this project off the ground. We spent many evenings and weekends planning it, then missed two days of school to go on the trip. But our hard work paid off: this was indisputably the best learning experience I have ever had. I learned more than I could have ever learned in a classroom about how the planet works, ways in which humans depend on & impact the ocean, and efforts being undertaken to conserve them. Equally important, I discovered how to work well with others, connect with people, be persuasive, speak in front of an audience, answer questions under pressure, juggle competing priorities, and follow through with a project.
These all sound like skills that every student should have. Yet because I didn’t practice them in a classroom, I was punished by education’s systems of grading for this. When I got back to school, my grades had dropped (some considerably) since I missed a few assignments and a test. It was as if the whole experience meant nothing because I learned the wrong thing. But it would have been irrelevant even if it directly related to what I was studying because I still would have had to make up the work, listen to a lecture, and eventually take a test.
“Apparently my job is to shut up and study hard.”
After returning inspired and ready to change the world only to be thrust back into the invariable cycle of desks, worksheets, textbooks, and lockers, education’s expectation for me hit me painfully hard. I realized that apparently my job is to shut up and study hard. If I’m so inclined, I can go out for a sport or join a club, but my schoolwork should trump all. I’m not supposed to contribute anything noteworthy to the world, but instead lay low and consume it until after I’ve graduated. Sure, adults applaud when we do something great outside of school. But ultimately school only cares if it meets some curriculum standard that can be measured. Oh, and it has to be the one we are studying right now, and it has to be part of an assignment that’s going in the gradebook. If not, I don’t get credit and therefore it’s a waste of my time.
Only it isn’t.
The obtuse model of education leaves no room for learning beyond school. It makes it very difficult to be a so-called great student and do something meaningful outside of the classroom at the same time. I find this ironic: if education is really preparing us for the real world, then these should be synonyms, not choices. We are a far cry from actualizing the John Dewey quote we all know and love: “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”
Nonetheless, some of us are acting in spite of a system that tells us not to. So imagine how much more we could do if school allowed us to pursue our passions as part of our education instead of repressing them. Imagine how much more excited and motivated students would be if they could engage in real action instead of being told to conform and wait. Imagine if students had to explore and be unique in order to conform.
We refuse to wait to find our place in the world. The question is whether school is going to help us or continue to try to stop us. It shouldn’t take a trip halfway across the country to answer that.