Friday, May 10, 2013

Prepackaged Learning and Mental Malnutrition: The Case for Challenging Students

Admittedly, I've had almost zero boring teachers. Home-school co-ops are great that way--but from the sound of Jeff Bliss of Duncanville, Texas, his classroom experience was characterized by anything but excitement.

His impassioned lecture to the teacher who was handing out test prep packets, given in words you can only hear from a frustrated teen, was surreptitiously recorded by a classmate. It went viral, and the internet is a-buzz with commentary on boring teachers and dropout rates.

This Wednesday I was discussing the very issue of bored students with a coworker. Kids aren't being challenged and engaged enough, I said. They're bored. I think many kids would think twice before dropping out if they actually felt invested and interested in their education.

I am well aware that many students work their tails off in school, despite uninspiring learning environments. Given the opportunity to pursue their own interests and seek inspiration once out of school, they probably thrive. But I'm guessing they had more than natural motivation carrying them through senior year and beyond--they probably have one or some combination of the following: great parents, a stable financial situation, an encouraging mentor or older sibling, or some hobby that feeds their brain where their conventional education obviously doesn't--I had an exceptionally intelligent friend who used to memorize Bible verses under her desk while in class. She was also an exceptional student.

But what about the students who don't have that kind of external support or internal motivation? What happens when these kids get bored?

Well, they don't learn to play classical piano or memorize the Bible. They often end up doing stupid things only teenagers do--they have too much time on their hands, and too few school faculty that sincerely care and that consequently they feel accountable to. A great place to see evidence of the effects of boredom is Driver's Ed--Driver's Ed classes that aren't taught through the high school take kids from public, private, and alternative schools (and homeschoolers). It's a fascinating sample of sophomores.

I remember being in that class; the kid who sat next to me, let's call him Ted, attended an alternative school. I knew he had a rough background that included some drug use, which was probably why he landed in that school--but what really puzzled me about him was that he was smart. The kind of smart where you can just see the cogs of their brain turning behind their eyes. But Ted was also something else: bored. He only had four school days a week, and from what he told me, he wasn't exactly being challenged academically; actually, it sounded like he was being held back.

I don't know what has become of Ted, but I do remember feeling like his educational/correctional situation was just plain wrong.

And I still think that to knowingly letting students remain disengaged and disinterested is wrong.

By foregoing the opportunity presented to each teacher to engage students, to mentally challenge them and encourage learning and not just "staying in school", educators are doing a disservice to the next generation. Albeit not willfully, they are impeding students from realizing their potential while they still have direct access to teachers and learning resources.

The minds of our children are being malnourished, fed prepackaged worksheets aimed at prepping for a standardized test designed to pass every student in the class. I wonder how accomplished some of the middle and upper-grade students feel when they get As and Bs with minimal effort. I wonder how interested they must be in the stack of busy-work handed to them at the end of class. If they're in AP classes, I wonder how "advanced" and smart they feel when they are still, after all, being rushed across a lot of material only to be taught how to pass another standardized test--one many AP students still manage to fail. The textbooks and learning material are over-processed, and due to boring teachers like Jeff's, the classroom experience is stripped of its potential to allow exploration of interesting topics and encourage different ideas. We've crowded out the sweet peas, tomatoes, and bell peppers to plant neat little rows of genetically modified soy beans.

The brains we entrust with tomorrow's solutions are deprived of intellectual stimulation, robbed of the challenge they deserve and the skills they need for future success; instead they are spoon-fed from a box processed information that plays little part in building a healthy and and active mind.

Schools of America, it's time to go organic.  It's time to plant seeds that will blossom into something strong, beautiful, and fruitful.

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