Monday, October 17, 2011

What did you learn in school today?

In the formal education system the main aim for most is to get the grades needed to get a good job. Passing exams is therefore hard currency allowing you access to well-paid jobs, and so students everywhere learn to give top priority to tasks that will ensure that they pass the next hurdle. It's no surprise then that many are willing to take short-cuts to success by cheating in ever more ingenious ways. That's the theme of an article in Mind/Shift called What's behind the culture of academic dishonesty?.According to the article cheating in higher education is at an all-time high and even the most gifted students are doing it to ensure they get the top grades they need.

Day 23 - Exam hall by jackhynes, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  jackhynes 

An article in Psychology Today (School is a Breeding Ground for Cheaters) by Peter Gray of Boston College argues that the present school system is to blame. You're not at school to learn, you're there to learn how to pass the tests. That's how students and schools are judged and we seem to be increasingly obsessed with league tables showing how effective schools are. This leads of course to schools teaching how to pass the tests to ensure that they move up the rankings. It's a destructive circle.

"Students become convinced that high grades and advancement to the next level are the be-all and end-all of their school work. By the time they are 11 or 12 years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test. They see little direct connection--because there usually is none--between their school assignments and the real world in which they live. They learn that their own questions and interests don't count. What counts are their abilities to provide the "correct" answers to questions that they did not ask and that do not interest them. And "correct" means the answers that the teachers or the test-producers are looking for, not answers that the students really understand to be correct."

In stark contrast look at all the learning that takes place away from the classroom. Many pupils and students who go through the motions of learning in school become passionate learners in their "spare" time pursuing their own interests, whether it be motorcycle maintenance, geneology, gardening or following a favourite football team. Learning for the sheer pleasure of discovery and becoming an expert in your particular passion. Think of how much energy people put into this type of learning; hours of reading, long discussions with fellow enthusiasts, endless practice, trial and error until mastery is achieved. There are no exams and nobody cheats - there's no point.

Just imagine that level of devotion applied to school or university work. People love to learn if the motivation is from within and even if there are no tangible rewards apart from sheer pride in being good at something. Whenever we put grading and financial rewards into the equation the stakes are raised and corners are there to be cut. We need to look more closely at informal learning and learning psychology and find ways of making the formal system more meaningful.

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