I don’t often mention that I’m a high school junior on this blog (or, really, anywhere else online), because I want to separate my identity from my age. I don’t want to be a high schooler who does X, Y, and Z; I want to be the person who does X, Y, and Z. But recently, I came across something within my class in my school that caught my attention.
Talking about academics and grades is a routine occurrence in my academics-focused high school, and a few days ago, I found someone ask her friend, “Aren’t you good at math?” to which her friend responded, “Yeah, but I still have a C in the class.” And that stuck out to me, for two reasons. First, that there’s an anomaly between a person’s skill level and talents and the person’s “evaluated” talents, and second, that her perception of who she was and what she was good at was in conflict with her “evaluated” version of who she was, and what she was good at.
Before I proceed about the second point, which is today’s topic, let’s make one thing clear: we live inside a culture obsessed with evaluation. And that’s fine for the most part – it helps businesses grow, it helps governments plan effectively, and it helps the society run economically. But in school? I’m not entire sure that’s a good thing. And make no mistake: we live inside a grade-based school system. It’s the process, it’s the target, and it’s the identity. A culture of education with attention to assessment doesn’t have to be one defined by it – there’s a key distinction between the two. Unfortunately, I submit to you that most of our experiences are on the worse side of that spectrum.
In most schools, grades dominate the process of learning. We take pre-tests and post-tests to compare and contrast, we take regular, standardized tests to measure, and we take quizzes and unit tests to check up on the material every few weeks. In between, we come to class and listen for material that’ll be on the test. We jot down notes and hold on to handouts to use when studying for the test. If you ask any average high school student, he or she will tell you, they study for the test, and they study to the test. In school, we learn for the tests like athletes practice for the tournaments. But that’s not how it should be.
In real-life scenarios, we learn not to pass some evaluation, but to make use of it. People take online courses so they can get a better job or learn how to solve a problem they have. They listen to lectures to apply it to their lives or purely out of curiosity. And that focus on application as the goal is almost always more effective than a relentless focus on high achievement, because achievement means nothing if what you’re learning isn’t useful.
A focus on application is almost always more effective than a focus on achievement, because achievement means nothing if the material isn’t useful.
In the end, we’re stuck with a system focusing on achievements, and we put up with it. But I think it does harm not only within education, but also outside of it. Hear me out.
High school is an odd period in life, because the life of a high school student is, quite literally, just the high school – hence the term, “high schooler”. Our lives are not just “characterized by” schooling. It’s consumed by school-related obligations. Our social lives are almost entirely contained within school activities. Our events, our gatherings, and our meeting-new-people all take place within that social context. We wake up in the morning, 5/7 times, to go to school and spend 7-8 hours there. Some of us come home to another 3-4 hours of homework, and others stay 3-4 hours longer to take part in sports or music. My point isn’t about workload, but this is a good demonstration of how much of our lives really is just school.
From that, it’s a natural conclusion that our identities are also determined to a great extent by what we experience in school. And for people whose school experience is dominated by a system focusing heavily on grades, that could be a pretty detrimental experience. Fortunately, I try to keep my self-identity as unlinked from school as possible – I seek out outside-school activities and careers wherever I can. But for most people, the inescapable relationship between school life and a focus on grades and a culture of assessment means our identities are shaped unnecessarily by grades, and that’s not very helpful in the grand scheme of things.
When people’s lives are focused around a culture and mindset of assessment, one of two things usually happen. Either 1) people become obsessed about their obligation to keep up the grades, because it’s what defines them and characterizes them to themselves and the world, or 2) people are hit by disappointments about their grades, because it’s what defines them and their image to the rest of the world. Neither extremes are good.
Ultimately, my point boils down to this: there’s no such thing as a positive culture based on assessment. Either a culture of education leaves assessment on the sidelines and focuses on application, or a culture of education focuses on achievement and grades, sacrificing students’ identities in the process. This dichotomy is inevitable, because grades are fundamentally never a whole and fair representation of a person. By its nature – as a set of numbers – it’s a lopsided variable that can’t quite capture the nuances of who people are. And when students’ GPA becomes their Identity, the results are often not only negative on who they find themselves to be, but also backfires on how they pursue their future goals.
High school is so often viewed as a physical place in our lives that we too frequently forget that, to those who attend it, it’s a lifestyle and a way of life. And when such a big part of their lives is attached to such monolithic and absolute figures as grades, it’s difficult to escape the idea that you are defined by your grade.
That’s the reason I talk so often not about the system of education, but about the culture of education – because education, at the high-school level, at least – isn’t just a part of life, it’s a mindset we find ourselves in. And we need to pay more attention to the impacts that the way we choose to build out our culture of education has on the generations of future students whose lives will soon be consumed by them.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Lemon juice.
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