Education reform should promote engagement

Rachel Alexander

When people speak about education reform, they usually toss out phrases like “tougher standards” and “accountability.” The idea behind these buzzwords is to make sure our students aren’t falling behind the rest of the world in terms of problem solving ability or reading level. Reformers talk about getting rid of bad teachers or providing support for early childhood education, but rarely does anyone ask if the ways in which we expect students to learn are effective or worthwhile.

This semester, I had the opportunity to travel through 10 states, sleep under the stars almost every night and learn about Western politics and ecology from a variety of firsthand sources. Reflecting back on Semester in the West, I’m amazed by the amount I was able to learn in such a short period of time: everything from using a GPS to track where photos of ant hills were taken to the history of fire policy in national forests. Even more amazing than how much I learned is how little traditional academic work I had to do. Aside from a few brief ecology exams, almost nothing I produced all semester was assigned any kind of grade. The essays I wrote were about topics I got to choose, and my work on them was almost entirely motivated by the enjoyment I got from formulating a coherent position on a topic and articulating it clearly.

Most education in this country is based on a system of rewards and punishments. In particular, American high schools are designed to make students follow directions. Tests are standardized, classes are required and students are robbed of almost all autonomy. Pay attention, study, and you’ll be rewarded with an A and maybe even acceptance into a good college. It doesn’t matter if you forget the material five minutes after your last test is over. It doesn’t matter if anything you learn is applicable to your day-to-day life. Contrast this with something like Semester in the West. During the course of the semester, I listened to speakers who were incredibly passionate about topics ranging from desert tortoise habitat to the bureaucracy surrounding grazing permits. I wasn’t there to fulfill distribution requirements, get an easy A or boost my resume. I paid attention, asked questions and took notes because I wanted to learn.

I’m not suggesting that Semester in the West is a perfect academic experience, nor that there isn’t value in traditional methods of education. But the clear passion I saw in the field, from teachers and students, is something I think is often missing in the average American classroom. Too often I’ve heard friends write papers based on what they thought the teacher’s opinion was, or pick topics they already know a lot about so they’ll have to do less research. When papers are written to be read aloud to a group of peers, rather than turned in, graded and forgotten, students engage with their writing more. Writing becomes a process: write, read aloud, hear comments, seek advice, revise: rather than a chore or task to be checked off of a to-do list.

When education promotes genuine engagement with the material being taught, it fosters interest and commitment which extend far beyond the end of the class. I’ve heard many Whitman students talk about hating Encounters because they felt that their peers weren’t really engaged in discussions, and were just going through the motions to pass the class. In contrast, almost everyone I went on Semester in the West with still possess a long list of questions prompted by what they learned on the program. Many of us will be doing research about these issues during winter break because we want to keep learning.

If education reform is to be effective, schools need to promote ways of learning which engage students on different registers. Threatening high schoolers with an F might coerce some into studying for a test, and a few others into cheating, but it won’t make anyone remember the material being taught or apply it to their own life. Teachers should strive to find topics students are interested in and allow for real learning without the carrot-and-stick approach of quantitative evaluation. People are naturally curious, and want to learn when given the chance. All we need to do is get out of their way.