Learning for all the wrong reasons.

[The first of many, many educational critiques to come.]

Learning for all the wrong reasons.


Kenneth Burchfiel

“Why are we learning this?” It’s a question many a student has asked. Recently, I asked my math teacher what imaginary numbers were used for. His answer, after a long pause: “Space?”

Certainly, the question has a simple answer: the knowledge we gain in school guides us throughout our lives. One doesn’t learn simply to pass a test, get into college, or secure a great job; one learns to become better informed about life in general.

Why, then, can seemingly nobody answer this question right?

Take McLean’s course guide, for example. The first sentence describing the Advanced Placement English course reads as follows:

“The purpose of this course is to prepare students who complete the course to take the Advanced Placement examination in English Language and Composition.”

In other words, the purpose of nine months of projects, discussion, notes, and homework is… to pass a test. (To think that the administration claims that they don’t teach to the test.)

The problem, unfortunately, spreads much further than high schools. On paper, it certainly sounds like a noble undertaking. After all, children are certain to achieve excellent things in the program, which incorporates foreign language education as well as a fifth grade academic project. The elementary school IB program also helps students succeed at traditional high school International Baccalaureate classes, as the added workload would not be as much of a shock. What is worrisome and discouraging, however, are the reasons that students are taking the courses.

In a recent Washington Post article profiling local IB programs, a number of students and teachers expressed why they became interested in IB schools. In a better world, responses would range from “helping students become lifelong learners” to “helping students succeed in a global environment.” The sad truth, both with IB programs and with rigorous elementary school academics, is that parents seem to think of education as a series of goals, awards, and transcripts, not as a passion that continues throughout one’s life.

“Our kids are going to an Ivy League school, and we need an education that’s going to get them right on track.” That, according to Peter Pietra, is his motive for enrolling his children in local IB programs. This arrogant remark mentions none of the global understanding and multilingual education that IB programs offer; instead, according to Pietra, the program is merely a prep course for more important academic studies. Perhaps even more worrisome is the response by Asia Winkler, a fifth grader enrolled in IB courses.

“It looks good on your records.”

What has happened to people learning for the sake of education itself? The question is an old one, but certainly one worth asking when taking into consideration today’s motives for learning.

The problem, unfortunately, goes far beyond the relatively new concept of elementary school IB programs. Today’s kindergarten and first grade students, whether enrolled in advanced programs or not, are tested and worked so rigorously that Grade 1 starts to sound like Grade 9. In an eye-opening article that shows just how work-driven early education has become, Newsweek published a story on what they call “the new first grade.” In it, the magazine revealed the plight of a student whose parents opted to move out of a school district. Why? The kindergarten workload at the student’s school involved weekly essays, vocabulary lists in the hundreds, and homework loads that caused the child to cry. The mother, a volunteer, “saw kids falling asleep at their desks at 11 a.m.”

Though the situation seems bad enough, the state of kindergarten and first grade students is made even worse by misguided motives. Parents, it seems, consider verly demanding schedules and piles of worksheets are fine—as long as it gives them bragging rights about their students’ academic situation. Robert Cloud, who enrolled his children into a weekly tutoring program, explained his decision: “To get into a good school, you have to have good grades.” Apparently, all Cloud is concerned about is his students’ situation down the road—not the intense school environment that already exists. Even more sickening is the act of “redshirting,” in which parents wait a year before enrolling their students in kindergarten. The reason for this act is to ensure that a student is more mentally developed than his peers, ensuring him or her to stand out from students a year younger. Ironically, this low-brow act limits the amount of education for youngsters. Instead of learning with their peers, students are restrained so that they can read, write, and calculate at higher levels then their younger classmates.

The rigorous workloads of students enrolled in elementary school IB programs, as well as students in standard schools, are unsettling alone. Even worse, however, is that parents care more about “getting ahead” than for the mental stability of their children. It’s time for students and parents to view education as a lifelong pursuit, not something to brag about to their co-workers or put ls.


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