Rethinking Our Reasons

By HELENA WU, sophomore

When was the last time you came home inspired by a world history lesson, wanting to further research life during the French Revolution? How many times have you talked with friends about exciting new studies regarding the evolution of the Calvin cycle discussed in biology class? While such enthusiasm and industry should be fostered by our education system, the sad truth is that it is extremely uncommon to find students with these qualities. Grades and stress-inducing examinations promote the wrong kinds of attitudes, wrong in relation to both the health of the students and the purported mission of educational institutions. Unfortunately, today’s academic environment often stymies meaningful intellectual growth. However, within this system, we can deliberately sculpt another approach to help us rediscover the magic of learning and thereby make school more enjoyable.

It’s no secret that almost every student has complaints about school. Most, if not all, of us jump for joy at the prospect of delayed openings and unexpected school closings—after all, it means less time in school! The tests we frantically cram for promote mechanical strategies of studying such as using checklists, flashcards, and spreadsheets rather than focusing on actually comprehending information. Likewise, we often talk of assignments and homework in a negative manner; we dread any kind of work, both within the classroom and outside of it. Such attitudes toward the pursuit of knowledge are fundamentally flawed, inhibiting the true love of learning that would greatly ease our academic troubles. But this isn’t necessarily the fault of students. For a lot of us, the habits of drilling facts into our heads through memorization and of mechanically plowing through rigorous, structured exams reduce the mind to a crude survival state, until it seems like it’s “them (grades and assessments) versus us.” Feeling battered and harried, we tend to remember only “key” facts and prepare to meet the bare minimum for an acceptable performance. The motivation is not passion—the powerful catalyst of success and mastery—but rather a kind of ritualized, systemic fear.

Fortunately, there’s. a. fountain of revolution that we can tap into, one found among our own resources, to help us succeed in the larger school system. You may frequently hear the message—from character campaigns to inspirational quotes—that attitude and aim are the pilots for achievement. It may sound cliché, but these ideas are so significant that entire books have been written about the subject. Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Blink, for example, which investigates the scope of unconscious thinking, cites an intriguing study: two groups of students were asked to take sets of words and unscramble them into sentences, then were sent down a hallway to talk to a professor who was engaged in conversation with another person. For their task, one group of test subjects read words such as “aggressively” and “intrude,” while their counterparts dealt with terms like “courteous” and “considerate.” Completely unaware, the group primed with negative words was more impatient in interrupting the professor’s discussion than the control group that had dealt with friendlier words. If external stimuli can influence behavior so easily, then it makes sense that the repeated messages regarding the value of schoolwork that come from our peers and our own complaining would harden over time into .strong, generally negative opinions of school.

This is where the real work comes in. The concept of learning to love learning again may seem foreign and even frustratingly elusive. An important principle to remember, though, is that with each equation you solve and each president you study, you are enriching yourself. The work is hard, but the fruits of your labor are great. These fruits grow on the beliefs, worries,,,,preoccupations, and viewpoints you have while you are cultivating your knowledge; they can be either sweet and pleasant or very bitter. It all depends on perspective. Sure, you can memorize facts on Mendeleev and his contributions to the development of periodic law just to get a good grade, but you can also dig a little deeper on your own and pique your interest with the sorrowful biography of the chemist, whose mother traveled across Russia with him in order to enroll him in a university before she finally died of exhaustion. Being genuinely involved in the topic—finding an interesting aspect, expanding on it, and hungrily seeking out more—inevitably snowballs into an immense curiosity that will compel you to seek knowledge and absorb it rather than sit back reluctantly and let school stuff it in.

Isn’t that what we all want, teachers included? Perhaps a main reason students groan about their workloads is because they see no other option, because they do want to learn but are disappointed by their performance in the system. The change is real; it just begins (as our school motto goes) with you. The next time you or a friend is about to start a breakneck review of early Mesopotamian societies or trigonometric functions, slow down and ponder on the path you walked up to that point. Remember that you are capable of learning, not just regurgitating, and that knowledge, if used, can become an incredibly powerful tool.

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