Purpose of Education Misunderstood

Andie Cohen, Staff Writer

With all the emphasis on getting into college, students and parents seem to have lost sight of what’s actually important: The process of learning and developing skills.

Instead of nurturing a love for the process, students obsess over the outcome.

The education experience has become so much about the grade, with little consideration for the purpose grades actually should serve within the context of healthy academic development. There is a misguided belief that having straight A’s is the ticket to the “right” college and a “successful” life.

This is an illusion, a sham.

While setting goals like earning a certain grade can have a positive benefit, grades, in and of themselves, do not guarantee that a student has truly acquired the skills necessary to learn, problem solve, and innovate in real world situations.

According to history teacher Lindsay Webb-Peploe, “The grade system forces students to make choices about what they should focus on rather than learning the material.”  In other words, the concern for achieving and maintaining a certain GPA is discouraging kids from taking risks, exploring new subjects, or following a passion.

In immediate, practical terms, students have become conditioned to follow the path of least resistance, which is, unfortunately, often also the path of least learning. Students prioritize their efforts based upon the points.  Yet, the real, authentic learning is usually the result of those “ungraded” activities, like reading the text or participating in a discussion with classmates.

Students mistakenly assume that the purpose of an academic activity is to earn a grade.  They, and their parents for that matter, have forgotten, or perhaps have never learned, that the purpose of school is to learn how to learn, and grades are just one way to articulate assessment results.

Rather than immersing themselves in the content, thinking deeply about the material and developing skills for learning, students have become slaves to short-term memorization and regurgitation.  Like the rest of our culture, school has sadly turned towards serving up short-term gratification at the expense of meaningful, useful development.

If students were assessed on their progress relative to themselves, on their demonstration of learning skills, and on a meaningful understanding of material, we would not be having these national freakouts over our country’s poor performance relative to other 1st world powers.

Our society, and the world, needs people who know how to learn, how to explore, take risks, and yes, how to deal with failure.

Obviously, instruction needs to change as well as student and parent priorities.  Teachers must strive to provide content in meaningful ways and assess student learning with methods that reward critical thinking, innovation and progress rather than just checking for the memorization of facts.

Cheating has become an epidemic at schools like Campolindo, where students feel such pressure to accumulate perfect grades.  Some of that is the responsibility of the family and community, and the values that are actually being instilled into the kids.  Some of it is the responsibility of instructors, and the methods by which material is presented and learning measured.

Thankfully, there are students who are able to see through the grade hysteria and hold themselves accountable to a standard of ethics. Senior Beth Evenhuis said, “I know a lot of kids that have cheated their way through a class to make sure that they have a good grade to get into a good college, and that’s sad to me, because you don’t actually invest yourself in the class or get what you really need out of it to get a good grade.” 

One way to ensure authentic, meaningful learning is to include more project activities, where students must investigate, process and synthesize material by teaching it to their peers.

In an article titled “Lectures Aren’t Just Boring, They’re Ineffective, Too, Study Finds,” Aleszu Bajak writes, “A new study finds that undergraduate students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students in classes that use more stimulating, so-called active learning methods.”

Albert Einstein was arguably one of the smartest people ever to live, and ironically, he was also considered a poor student in the context of the traditional scholastic environment of his time. We should all be thankful that he managed not to be sucked into the game to which so many students are addicted today.  Where would we be had he devoted himself to rote memorization and grade grubbing?  Where would we be without his willingness to explore, innovate and, of course, fail?

As Albert Einstein once said, “Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.”  It’s a tragic thing to realize that nearly a century after Einstein’s school days, so little has changed.