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The Achievement Factory

August 17, 2015

Oh boy, it's already August, the month of Summer's end, crummy weather, and, at least in the US, the collective groan of students as they go back to school for another 190 days*. So in honor of the latter of those three, let's talk about schools.

My experience in education is a bit stranger than most, not out of anything of my own doing or anything that's unique to me, but because I've moved between radically different philosophies and cultures around education, from the more stressful, focused Korean culture of education to the slightly more laid-back, but nonetheless commendable, American culture of education. And I could go on for hours talking about the advantages and the disadvantages of each, from the level of pressure and the mindset focusing on career options and following the "track" to the role that "schools" -- official, government buildings -- play in a much larger picture of learning that happens both inside those concrete walls as well as outside. There's definitely a lot to digest in terms of differences, most of which I'm not exactly qualified to discuss in depth. But of course, there are differences between cultures, especially when they're literally oceans apart. A stranger coincidence is when they seem to focus on the same idea.

The keyword in almost every single school in the world is achievement. What are the achievement standards? How much are we achieving? How much has student achievements evolved and improved over the years? It's the one idea that education as a global culture chases like some kind of a holy grail of learning. Even in Korea, where they use different words to denote the same idea, "achievement" is attached to semester exams, qualification tests, college-prep courses, and anywhere else where education seems to be remotely related. And to some extent, that goes back to the fact that achievement is such a broad and all-encompassing term. But on the other side of the coin, what's this "achievement" that the culture of education seems so enthralled by across nations and borders? I'm definitely not the most educated person on that topic, but I don't think I'm taking a long shot when I define academic achievement as a mixture of how much a student understands ideas, and to what extent they can apply that idea in practical, everyday life or at work.

Education as a global culture seems so enthralled by the idea of higher and higher achievements, but what's the end goal, the ultimate purpose? (Photo in public domain, not mine)

To be clear, there's nothing wrong with that definition and approach -- it's a great definition, and a great target to aim for, because, of course, without understanding or applicability, there's literally no value to learning anything. Achievement, I think, is aptly described as the measure of potential gained from learning something. If you "achieve" highly in an economics class, for example, you have the skills required to understand and use that knowledge. Excellent!

But as I do from time to time, I want to make an analogy to the technology industry, so bear with me for a moment.

iPhones, off and on the best-selling phones in the US, are designed in a studio somewhere in Silicon Valley. Then when the design is complete, it's shipped off to Foxconn, a Chinese megafactory tasked with the majority of Apple's manufacturing needs. At Foxconn, the components are put together with nanometers of tolerance, assembled with components that cost several hundred dollars each, into a shiny, expensive, premium final product to be shipped to storage facilities or retail stores around the world. At this stage, each unit of iPhone has "achieved" highly in Apple's quality assurance tests, design requirements, and even the customers' prospective desires in a new phone. It holds an incredible amount of potential.

But for better or worse, not all iPhones are used to their full potential. Some are given to grandparents and parents to be used purely for calling and occasionally texting, some are delegated to be expensive handheld gaming consoles, some are used entirely as music libraries, and some, like my aging iPad, are used as media centers and picture frames. What, then, happens of the tight tolerances and high marks those units of iPhones achieved on Apple's "grading scale" of sorts? Does it all go to waste?

I wouldn't go that far, but it would certainly make sense for each iPhone to be used to their potential, right? Hopefully I'm not the only one holding in a sigh when I see someone using a nearly thousand dollar piece of high-end marvel of engineering for beaming selfies across classrooms. And the same goes -- if the logic translates -- for students in education.

Most schools -- with the exception of a few special-ed institutions and high-end academies -- are what I would call "achievement factories". Not with any negative connotation -- my idea isn't to criticize schools, as I don't blame Apple or Foxconn for people massively underusing their handheld i-supercomputers. Instead, I want to focus in the way that most schools and most of our thinking around education is focused around being exactly that -- a place for "high-achieving students" to be manufactured according to the national statutory specifications, to their highest potentials. And when they're done and meet all the necessary specs, students are shipped out of the achievement factory, thrust into the society, into freedom.

The potential -- the "achievement" -- doesn't make the success. Everything in between does.

In other words, as a culture, we pour so much of our assets and efforts into this marvelous system of engineering in potential and future possibilities into students, and then when they finally hit the mark, we leave them be, to their own free will. We invest so many resources into creating all the potential in each student we can manage, and that's great, but we're not actually seeing where it goes. And just as a CEO's iPhone does far more -- is far more -- than the iPhone of a 13-year old One Direction fangirl, the potential -- the "achievement" -- doesn't make the success. Everything in between does.

So here's the question I want to leave you with. Assuming we're doing the best we can to help students learn more and "achieve" more in schools, as we aim for, we leave them just as quickly and emphatically when they do hit the peak. We motivate and push them -- you motivate and push us, the students -- to run up the hill as fast as we can, as far as we can, and when we finally see the glimpse and then the full view of what's at the top and over the hill, you call it a finished task and leave us be, leaving it up to us to find the best way to invest our resources and knowledge we've gathered with your help. So is there an oversight somewhere in the pipelines of the achievement factory? Are we focusing too much on the potential and perhaps too little on the extent to which the potential we've fostered can impact the world?

Should we as a culture care more about what happens after the "achievement" rather than focusing so much on the achievement? My answer is a definitive yes.

* Not that I'm putting any excuses out there on the first sentence of the post, but that's a part of the reason why this post is coming almost a week later tha it should have.