In this Collaborative Feature, three pairs of KidSpirit writers from around the world met over video chat for one-on-one conversations about education in their communities.
When people ask me to describe my discussion late that night, I feel the need to tell it as a story. And so I begin:
I had rehearsed it a dozen times in my head. Ask the questions and make some small talk. That was all I had to do. So why were my insides churning as though they were at an amusement park, sitting on a rollercoaster? A voice broke me out of my thoughts and I saw a girl on the other side of the screen, calling out to me and introducing herself as Lucy Liversidge, the 16-year-old I would be interviewing that night. I smiled shakily, trying to collect myself as about a dozen thoughts raced through my head. I managed to get a meek “hello” out of my mouth before Lucy, evidently noticing my discomfort, helped us climb the ladder onto the ship to adventure.
Our first stop on this sea of discussion was our school life. Now Lucy is three years older than I, so she had already learned the ropes and how to handle the wild seas while in high school, whereas I was a first-time sailor, finding it difficult to even hoist the sails to catch a breeze. But I slowly advanced, and began to see the similarities between my dinghy and her ship. We talked about how in our countries, academics and grades are highly valued, but in our lives it is the skills we learn that truly matter. Skills like communication, teamwork and creativity. Skills we were both using while sailing on that sea.
Lucy then steered our ship into a talk about our interests. So I started talking to her about my dreams of becoming a director or writer. Surprisingly, I found that she too had an interest in story writing, particularly non-fiction. It seemed I’d found a treasure chest when I wasn’t even trying. Our similarities extended further into a talk about wealth disparity. As a girl living in the developing country of Pakistan, I had witnessed the poverty, child labor, and overall difference in the social classes that made up our country. The pain of not knowing how to help them and at the same time knowing how unjustly this “social hierarchy” functioned was something Lucy and I bonded over.
After our discussion I felt odd. I felt as though I had seen only a fragment of the world and Lucy had somehow unveiled the rest. So how would I describe my discussion with Lucy that night? It was as fascinating as learning to sail.
In the midst of my standardized test preparation, I was surprised to hear of the mandatory SATs Pakistani high schoolers take in their senior year. The ACT, the SAT, the ISEE all seemed like such Western bureaucracy, misplaced in a country that struggles with primary school education. It was at this point in my conversation with Iman that I realized I had approached our time together as I would expect most Americans to: I anticipated Iman’s discussion of Pakistan’s low literacy rate and modest enrollment with little regard to this American hypocrisy. While the United States boasts ascendancy, 32 million Americans are illiterate and 1.2 million American high school students drop out each year. It is all too American to critique and lament the shortcomings of other nations, particularly those still developing, while ignoring domestic issues and falsifying supremacy.
Iman and I are both the exceptions in our respective homelands. Like Iman, I attend a private school with well-trained teachers and an emphasis on our futures. We both play the piano, participate in club gatherings, and study Shakespeare. The two of us have high hopes for ourselves; we expect to pursue at least a tertiary education and go on to work fulfilling jobs, start families, run businesses; the list goes on. For the millions of teenagers without their high school diplomas in America and in Pakistan, however, life can be constricting, and the list may stop short. Government corruption and a lack of investment in education seem a mutual influence. In both countries, childhood education is required by federal law, yet a lack of state schools and severe underfunding undermine such legislation and isolate quality education to the rich neighborhoods of Lahore, Islamabad, Southern California, and New England, thereby perpetuating a growing class divide. The education systems of Pakistan and the United States, separated by East and West, third world and first world, are joined in their mutual need of drastic reform.
With my point being made, it is also only logical to recognize the great differences between Pakastani and American dialogue around education, access to schooling, and even female existence. In this country, white females are nearly as likely to complete the same level of education as their male counterparts in the same socioeconomic demographic. In my schooling, I will likely not be pressed to choose marriage instead. The American freedom granted to my own demographic is one Pakistan cannot afford Iman. Devestating child labor keeps millions of primary-aged Pakastani children out of school each day. Gendered prioritization of young boys’ education prevents female autonomy and professionalism. The United States allocates 7.3% of its GDP to education, while Pakistan spends only 2.4% on schools. There are inhibiting variations in state-wide access and cultural precedents, particularly for lower-income and female students in Pakistan, yet with a multiple of the Pakistani education budget in hand and “freedom” at the core of America’s dogma, the shortcomings of American education make it difficult to believe that mine is a country committed to equal opportunity in schools and out.
Iman and I spoke for nearly an hour on Pakistani and American education in English. Our conversation ranged from what literature our English classes have had in common to what selective colleges we hope to attend to what our standardized testing preparation will look like.
Though everyday and mindless to us, the brand of education Iman and I subscribe to, the kind focusing on cultivating the individual, analyzing 17th century scripts, and recognizing the importance of playing a musical instrument, is not the education granted to millions of equally deserving peers across my country and across hers. Iman’s perfect English, in particular, has given her the opportunity to interact with a teen-run online magazine based in New York City. What we have, and appreciate, is an education so far removed from what is traditional - or state run. I had a great time speaking with Iman and recognize the insight we both shared, but it is clear we are both, to some degree, incapable of offering all the details, the big picture. I look forward to filling in the holes in our stories.
I was a little late to my call with Archie, but luckily we were able to get comfortable right away. We started talking about writing and editing for KidSpirit, and I learned that a Beijing branch existed — it struck me again just how awesome it was that I had the opportunity to connect with teens literally all over the world.
I got to hear a very different perspective about education within the first minute of the call. Archie goes to public school, while I go to a private school here in India. I learned that private schools are a new concept in China, and that the best schools are public schools, something that I can't even imagine myself saying about India.
Public schools in India are under equipped and over capacity. However, from what I heard, those in China provide opportunity for children who want to study, while private schools are for the spoiled, rich kids. I always thought India's public schools weren't great because of our huge population — but China has a larger population, and here I was talking to someone who really likes public education there!
Otherwise, our experiences in school sounded pretty similar and relatable. Both of us have good relationships with our teachers; we consider them to be friends! Both of our schools are places which give us room to be creative and encourage original thinking, rather than just reading out of the textbook, by giving us access to resources such as student led clubs, where we discuss and learn about something everyone is interested in.
The importance of the Gaokao test seemed crazy to me — that single test determines what a lot of people are going to do all through their lives. However, I soon realized that we have a similar test, the JEE, in India. Archie and I talked about how just one test shouldn't be able to determine what we do in our lives, and Archie emphasized the value of an all-rounded assessment. With that, we started talking about the very purpose of education and schooling.
We know that not everything we learn in school is going to be useful in our future, but we still see its purpose because we’re viewing school as a sandbox to life. Archie put it eloquently: Education is learning how to learn. We're going to be learning throughout our lives, and in these years we're learning how to do it — education is a framework for how we're going to live our lives. It teaches us about how we should approach problems we face in life, and how we should react when things just don’t seem to make sense. The way we see it, most things we’re going through in school are slowly building up our experience and will influence how we make decisions in the future.
Education, a way of changing one’s fate and social status, has been heatedly debated by educators across the world. Having similar situations in his mother country, my Indian pal Samarth and I had a scholarly conversation upon the merits and defects of our current educational system. In exchanging ideas, I formulated a more comprehensive understanding in terms of the positive and negative effects of exam-oriented education in nurturing younger generations.
To begin with, exam-oriented education fails to nurture talents or bring out creativity among students. Both Samarth and I recognize that conformity, the opposite of creativity, is inevitably pervasive in our educational systems, as standardized testing is arguably the only feasible way of assessing millions of students in a densely populated nation. When testing becomes the only means by which students can obtain education, students become exam-taking machines. Traditional Chinese students devote their entire senior year to heavy memorization to ensure their best performance on the three-day Gaokao exam, during which they almost lose their sense of self and anything else apart from exam preparation. The same thing happens in India. According to Samarth, Indian senior students also have heavy test preparations, like monthly exams in all subjects. It is like students must take the SAT test every month. That would be extremely tiresome! Most importantly, “hell-like” exam preparation leaves no space for creativity and individuality, which ought to be cultivated from adolescence. Thus, the exam-oriented educational system, which derives from the difficulty of accurately assessing a massive student population, is ultimately futile in nurturing talented and creative people for the nation.
Secondly, educational resources are unfairly allotted across social strata. While exam-oriented education is meant to shape students into test-taking machines, private schools and international educational programs provide relatively looser and more liberal environments for students in India. According to Samarth, students in these nice private schools can spend their free time in a variety of club activities, playing sports, or extending their academic interests through doing research with teachers. They have access to a variety of courses taught in English, provided that their parents can pay the expensive tuition. While it’s acknowledged that education is a basic human right, the cost of a liberal arts education functions as an invisible barrier that excludes the economically underprivileged, enforcing the existing social gap by providing students with different forms of education: one that promotes scrupulousness, one that nurtures creativity. Kids in the exam system won’t necessarily fail in the future, but they may have a more competitive experience on their path towards success than those who are born at the top economically.
Aside from disapproving of the current educational system, we also agree that there is a certain merit of exam-oriented education. While the knowledge memorized during exam preparation may not last forever, fading away in the edges of our memory along with fleeting days, the spirit of perseverance and mental strength developed through heavy exam preparation will benefit a person throughout their entire lifetime, enabling them to overcome the difficulties or setbacks they may face in the future. In a year’s preparation for Zhongkao, a counterpart of the Gaokao for middle school students, I personally faced many setbacks and disappointments. While agonizing in the short run, these experiences ultimately taught me an important lesson on maintaining courage and overcoming challenges in the future.
I truly believe that education should not be oriented merely towards scoring higher on standardized exams. The right to education should be made equally accessible to everyone on this planet, regardless of social and economic status. Even if this idea is optimistic, potential social and educational reformers like us may keep moving it forward.
It was a unique opportunity to be able to chat with another student about their educational experience. I was privileged to speak with Samantha, a seventh grader from Minnesota. While our schools are quite different, we realized we had more in common than we originally thought. We learned our beliefs about education are similar. Education should empower you, as a learner, to make a lasting impact on the community you live in. Education is a spark that allows me to create change in my school, community, and state.
Samantha and I both believe that education gives you the tools to become the person you are meant to be. Samantha thinks the purpose of education is to teach us fundamental skills and help prepare us for what comes after graduation. To her, a good education should challenge students, and help them discover themselves as individuals. Samantha hopes that education will help her navigate the real world and become a well-rounded and caring person.
While I attend a small school in rural Kentucky, Samantha attends a large public school. Her day is organized much like mine. We both have required courses we must complete. Samantha’s typical school day consists of her taking core and encore classes. The core classes are math, English, science, and social studies; her encore classes are art, spanish, cooking, and health.
Bullying seems to be a bigger problem in her community than in mine. The difference in our school population is one reason for this. However, Samantha did say the majority of the problem is cyberbullying. This is not the experience that I have. There is some cyberbullying in my area, but traditional bullying is the norm. We both agreed that teachers try to help and talk to students, but it usually doesn’t relieve the situation. She stated, “Sometimes the teachers can’t pinpoint where the bullying started, so it usually just causes more drama.” I agree that when it isn’t obvious who the bully is, it typically makes it worse. All students end up getting another lecture on bullying without getting to the root of the problem. At my school, there is a policy in the handbook, but it is rarely followed except in serious cases.
If Samantha could change one thing about education, she would have teachers trained to resolve conflicts. She said a lot of older teachers don’t understand cyberbullying and other methods of bullying because they didn’t grow up with it. Samantha and I agree that education has changed a great deal from when our parents and grandparents were in school. While technology has created new and creative ways to bully, it has also created new opportunities for learning. We think teachers are more creative and entertaining than they were even a couple of years ago. Teachers seem more aware and use technology to enhance each student’s individual learning experience.
Our communities stress the importance of different subjects. Samatha stated that her favorite subject is math and that her school favors STEM. Samantha has two communities that are important to her. In Minnesota, she lives in a community where most people feel as though liberal arts and philosophy are the most important subjects; yet, in her Indian community, mathematics and science are seen as the most important.
Samantha’s school prepares students for major tests like the ACT/SAT, but does not prepare them for what comes after the test. When it comes to testing, most people focus on teaching for the standardized testing and not the student. This is a commonality between our schools. The test must be taken seriously, but we believe the individual goals of students should be important as well.
Samantha has great relationships with her teachers. She likes her gifted and talented teacher because she gives Samantha opportunities she would not usually get. Her school tries to push creativity and uniqueness, but also critical thinking. I have had a similar experience. A wonderful teacher asked me to be a part of the KidSpirit Editorial Board at my school. My involvement in art and other creative paths was encouraged by a teacher who believed in me.
Talking to Samantha was great; we both had a lot to say! Samantha and I concluded that the most important parts of our education have been great teaching and inspirational teachers. Samantha and I agreed that our geography has influenced some parts of our education, but not everything. Central to both of our schools is the opportunity to make an impact and strive to be a better version of “who you will become” than when you first entered the school building.
"What does education mean to you?"
It was the starting question that sparked a conversation filled with questions and understanding between Annalee and me. The starting question that sparked a change in my mindset.
To make some formal introductions, Annalee is a soon-to-be ninth grader from rural Kentucky, with approximately 400 kids in her middle school. I am a soon-to-be seventh grader from suburban Minnesota. My middle school has over 1,000 kids. For two hours, I related to and empathized with Annalee about something that we are both deeply passionate about: the education system.
At first glance, Annalee and I may not seem alike, but we've managed to discover our similarities. We are both too friendly and too trusting. We are both looked upon as weird, expressive geeks. And we are still trying to find our own unique selves. But, the core connection between us was our steady belief in reforming the school system for all Americans.
Education is not a privilege, but a right in the United States. Education is used to get into a good college, get a well-paying job, and overall lead a stress-free and financially secure life. According to teachers, prosperous businessmen, and my own family, success requires loads of work ethic (a set of values regarding the importance of work) for a rewarding life. But does education and work ethic equate to success? Annalee and I probed this subject.
Because education is a tool, we wondered how successful people used this tool. Steve Jobs, Ellen DeGeneres, and Dave Thomas (the founder of Wendy’s) are or were all billionaires and extremely successful by society’s standards, but they didn’t finish college. Obviously, college is still an integral aspect of a secure life, but these successful entrepreneurs are proof that the education curriculum isn’t the key. So this means that good education doesn’t teach you how to be successful, rather it emphasizes the following traits: critical thinking, curiosity, and creativity. But, we believe that the American school system doesn’t stress these traits.
Annalee and I agreed that both the teaching methods and curriculum aren't teaching us these traits. They are not emphasizing curiosity, critical thinking, or creativity. Instead, they teach us to get A’s on tests and to fill out worksheets. They teach us to be robots, not functioning humans that must one day contribute to society’s welfare. The sheer amount of standardized testing and hours preparing for these exams in the classroom only serves as proof. Curriculums need to be modified and include newer aspects that teach traits like flexibility, self-reliance, and adaptability.
But it isn’t just the lack of personal skills being taught. Annalee and I have both felt like we have been let down by the school system in other areas as well. The curriculum is inadequate, as it doesn’t teach you how to proactively think on your own, engage in the real world, or learn enough about careers and jobs. The work etiquette that needs to be taught was never taught, as students are being lost in their careers.
So how can we stress these work standards and raise the curriculum bar? We believe that the curriculum has to expand and allow different lessons that can teach children a different work ethic. We agreed that the curriculum needs to be taught in an engaging way, where students will think on their own and gain independence.
With these reforms, we can seal the cracks in our fractured education system.
Iman Monnoo is 13 years old and in the ninth grade at Lahore Grammar School in Pakistan. If no one has seen her for the past half hour, sheʼs most likely in the alcove of her room, engrossed between the covers of an Agatha Christie novel! Lucy Liversidge, 17, is a member of the California Editorial Board and lives in Altadena, California. Her interests include poetry, creative writing, sewing, and sustainability. Botao Ju is a 17-year-old from Beijing, China. He enjoys reading, writing, cycling, rowing, and holding club seminars. Samarth Jajoo is an 11th grader at Riverside School in Ahmedabad, India. He enjoys making things; he has made many web apps and is now working on some hardware projects, too. More at jajoosam.tech. Annalee Whitten is a ninth grader who lives in Kentucky. Annalee enjoys many art mediums and practicing socially conscious art opportunities. Samantha Singh is a 12-year-old 7th grader who lives in Plymouth, Minnesota. She loves cats and has one of her own. In her free time, she likes to read, write, and swim.
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