When I was in fifth grade I was part of the AAIM program. This was a variation on the gifted program that meant I had a very unique curriculum.
While studying ancient civilizations and languages, we spent two weeks on a project that split the class in two. Each group spent the first week creating a unique civilization — language, poetry, artifacts. I was on the language team and we devised a complete alphabet based on dots; basically a written form of braille devised by 10 year olds. For our artifact we created a clay Rosetta Stone that we shattered for authenticity.
At the end of the first week we buried our civilization in a massive hole that had been dug in the school’s playground. The other team did the same in their assigned hole. The civilizations laid in their respective tombs over the weekend and when we came back on Monday our team’s focus changed to archeology. We were tasked with digging up the opposing team’s artifacts and trying to piece together their civilization’s history from our findings.
During the two week assignment we learned about history, languages, art, humanities, archeology… This was a wonderful adventure in education.
I realize that my AAIM teachings were very specialized and many of my friends were not blessed with this opportunity. However, I don’t believe anything like this would be possible today. Today our education system is so focused on testing that the room for creativity in the classroom has completely eroded.
According to John Oliver’s segment on standardized testing, today’s high school students are taking an average of 113 standardized tests by the time they graduate. That’s just over 28 standardized tests per year and doesn’t include every pop quiz, chapter test, mid-term, etc. that the teachers assign. With so many tests, it’s no wonder that the focus in the classroom has shifted from creatively teaching to preparing for upcoming tests.
This is not a slam on teachers.
There are amazing teachers out there that have the ability to open students’ minds and introduce them to concepts in creative ways. The problem is that these wonderful teachers are trapped in a broken system — a system that forces them to prepare for tests and then holds them accountable for the results their students receive.
Tests aren’t the enemy either. They’re not perfect, but they are the easiest tool available to assess whether a student knows the material or not. But when the focus of the classroom is on testing and not that of knowledge and experience, something else happens: we grow a generation of kids who are anxious and stressed beyond the breaking point.
In my work over the years with teenagers I have seen first hand the effects of over-stressed and burnt out kids. And it’d be really easy to say that the testing culture is the only culprit. It, of course, is only part of the problem. The guidance and advice that our education system provides kids only focuses on beefed up resumes for college admission. Middle school students should not be worried about how test scores and club participation will affect their college applications. But they are.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today’s youth have more homework, are more involved in multiple sports, clubs, and extra-curricular activities than ever before. They’re being told from such an early age that if their resume isn’t stellar, then their chances at college won’t be good enough. At one of the most critical times in their brain development, our system is forcing kids to focus on competition, over commitment, and stress. This is not ok.
I’ve talked with campus ministers that have seen the number of college-aged students experiencing mental breakdowns, severe depression, and suicide attempts rise exponentially over the last number of years. They attribute the rise to the stress induced from just attending school. One campus minister told me of a counseling session where the student was having a panic attack over getting a B in a class. It was the first B she had ever received and, because of years of guidance that anything less than perfection would not be acceptable in society, her entire world was falling apart. If this isn’t proof that our education system is broken and completely failing students, then I’m not sure what is.
Fixing the System
In the most popular TED Talk of all time, Ken Robinson explains that all children are born creative. The studies on divergent thinking would confirm this. All children are born with the innate ability to find creative solutions to problems. They are imaginative, unique, and most importantly, are not afraid to be wrong. But because of our education system, we standardize their thinking, we take away their creativity, we push them toward college, and we remove their ability to think divergently. The solution to our broken education system is simple: we stop doing all of this.
This is obviously not a quick solution. Decades of movement toward over-testing and an emphasis on college has led us to where we are. Yet, the solution is as simple as my fifth grade civilization project: we have to focus on creativity. We have to let good teachers teach in unique and creative ways. But more importantly, we have to allow children to be creative.
We need to let kids move and dance and sing and draw. We should encourage kids to vocalize strange ideas and daydream instead of giving them medicine to keep them quiet and calm. We have to allow kids to make mistakes and not be afraid to be wrong or to fail. We have to let kids know that college isn’t always the best option. Dance schools, art schools, and trade schools are all as important as a four year degree — especially if that’s where the student’s passions lie.
Our education system is broken, but it’s not broken beyond repair. We can fix it and we need to fix it now. Let’s stop raising a generation of standardized students and instead begin raising a generation of unique and creative thinkers.