What Is the Most Important Quality of Education?

A Lens on LearningThe Big Question
Artwork by: Sean Velez

“What are we are supposed to get out of school?” I asked one of my closest friends earlier this week. “What’s the point?”

She looked at me for a moment, and then replied, “To produce a person who can form intelligent opinions on world issues, listen to other people’s ideas, and work together with them.”

“If everyone just finds one thing they love learning about, and pursues it…,” I added, “…then it doesn’t matter how ‘smart’ they are,” she finished. “Their interest will take them where they need to go.”

We continued talking about high school, college admissions, and what we would like to see changed in the general education system. I am a tuition-paying student at a public school district outside my town. One of the wealthiest districts in the nation, it is recognized for its excellence. Kids from our high school go to prestigious colleges and top institutions, spending thousands of dollars on their education. But, we wondered, is it worth it? What do students emerge as?

Ironically, this conversation happened in the first floor hallway of my school, as far as possible from the class I was supposed to be in. After informing my mom I had decided to walk out of school early and skip my three afternoon classes to work at home instead. Most of the instances in which I really learn are out of the classroom anyway, I thought, crossing the street on my way home. I didn’t think the benefits of attending class would outweigh getting home early and relaxing or working independently.

On paper my course load looks challenging and engaging, full of the most advanced classes offered to juniors. But most of my day in school bores and frustrates me. I’ve tried everything from writing with my left hand to memorizing Latin vocabulary lists to stay engaged. For someone who loves learning, watching teachers restrict the flow of information to what is covered on tests and standardized assessments is unbearable. Two ends of this spectrum exist: some teachers make their classes more difficult than needed, making students feel deceived and discouraged. On the other end, some teachers make their classes painfully easy, to the point where students take classes for granted and don’t gain anything from the experience.

I’d attribute this to the general structure of education rather than the teachers themselves. I greatly respect all of my teachers and often visit them outside of class just to talk about independent study material, or school life in general. Frustratingly, only a few of them seem to be the same people in class as outside of it. Because of the emphasis on numbers, their delivery of “classroom” information sometimes becomes a one-way stream. Somehow the focus becomes “checking the box” by getting high scores and grades, instead of real learning.

The few assignments in school that really motivate me end up being mainly self-driven. History term papers are the first example I can think of. These papers are self-assigned — students choose their own topics and then have up to 15 blank pages of freedom in which to make something of them. Without anyone dictating what I should be writing about or how I should be formatting paragraphs, I have ended up truly growing, and most importantly thinking, in the process of the writing and researching. For my paper this year I started off with an image of the poet Allen Ginsberg and eventually found myself exploring the roots of the Beat movement. In a few days I made a thrilling realization: independent readings I had been doing on two interests of mine, Existentialist philosophy and Buddhism, connected perfectly with the Beat movement. I know I certainly wasn’t the first to connect Beat counterculture to these two philosophical schools of thought, but what mattered is that I created the links myself without guidance from a textbook or historian. It is impossible to describe how it feels to read and research things with an open mind, and then suddenly see something “click,” and realize the nature of connections between areas of my life and subjects in school that seemed disparate before.

Last summer I was wandering through Vassar College’s Library as part of a sudden detour on a rainy day in upstate New York. The campus was hauntingly quiet, with one sole librarian on call and only a few straggling students walking past the buildings undergoing restorations. I lost myself within the stone walls and staircases wondering what real students felt like. Did they have the time to pull out a book at random and explore topics of their interest? How is their learning experience different from mine? After crossing a few aisles, I discovered a stack of catalogues as well as a bin full of free copies of the book Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind. It was the subtitle that caught my eye. I am all too familiar with the feeling that classes are restricting my potential to learn and “obscuring the life of my mind.” My only escape is to pursue learning in other ways outside of class.

Furthering a love of learning in students is the most important quality for education at any level. It’s universal — applicable to both an elementary school student studying fractions and a college graduate involved with higher level research. People need to find a passion for something to make their education worthwhile and applicable to areas beyond school walls.

Each teacher I’ve had has changed my life in some way, but most of this is because of independent interaction instead of what happens in the classroom. Students who don’t seek teachers out on their own miss out on experiences that aren’t yet part of the classroom setting. My sophomore year English teacher still helps me pursue literature by giving me access to the deliciously innocuous book room, where old and unused classroom books have been stored for years. Easily mistaken for a narrow janitorial closet, it is crammed to the ceiling with books in dangerously tilting shelves, tossed into stacked boxes, scattered on desks and footstools. By randomly picking up dusty classics that I might not have encountered otherwise, I’ve gained a new appreciation for literary genres and periods.

Similar situations apply to my other classes. My friend and I have started independently reviewing philosophy with a teacher we sought out just this week. I have been part of a small poetry circle, facilitated by my Latin teacher, in which we read texts that the class doesn’t cover. Her love for the language is infectious and unparalleled, combining creative discussion with academic stimulation. My math teacher, one of the most challenging yet respected teachers in school, acts as a mentor and friend to students; he is always available and has created YouTube videos for class and an interactive discussion setup via Google groups. Math is a subject that has never come as naturally to me as any of the arts, which makes working towards gaining a real understanding of it all the more rewarding. My teacher clearly puts in countless independent hours finding the right materials and methods for students to push and motivate themselves as far as they can. In any subject area it’s clear when teachers genuinely love what they teach, and want to help their students capture the same rush of discovery upon uncovering new ideas.

Gerald Graff in Clueless in Academe writes that people “…fail to see that talk about books and subjects is as important educationally as are the books and subjects themselves.” In order for kids to love learning their teachers have to push them to start thinking and talking about material instead of memorizing it for the short-term. For education to be worthwhile and knowledge to last beyond the “next test,” the individual interactions I have with teachers need to extend into the classroom. This requires some trust on the behalf of teachers — belief in the ability of students to succeed without strictly structured outlines, but also courage on the part of students, who have to take paths that are less clear and require more thinking. It is impossible not to acknowledge that everyone has different learning styles; for some my ideal independent study methods would not be optimal or even desirable. As someone who has felt restricted rather than pushed by most classroom learning during my lifetime, I can only speak from my own experience. Others who have had different backgrounds may function best in ordered environments with predictable work assignments and study schedules. But whether a student prefers a more self-driven and pliable learning experience or a numbered and structured one, finding a love and happiness of learning should be the foremost goal.

With enough routine practice and hard work most kids can earn good enough grades in school. But only a few of them can find the fulfillment in education that my friend and I discussed earlier — the ability to form intelligent opinions and work with others. Along with giving us facts and problem-solving methods, education needs to give us the passion to take these things to different levels and the confidence to present our ideas to others. And with a shift away from making school a numbers game and a little freedom of thought given to students, it is possible.

Vidushi Sharma is a junior at Ridgewood High School. She enjoys writing, reading, and discussing issues with other people — whether at the train station or the dinner table. She plans to chase those brief moments that seem to forge connections between different elements of life — whether academic, social, political, or philosophical — for as long as she is alive. Unfortunately, that isn’t a good answer to questions about college and career plans, of which she is largely undecided.