The 3 things I (eventually) learned on the last day of school

Back in high school, the last day of school was always a thrilling day! Especially after the last period: everyone would be emptying their lockers and throwing away all their stuff before heading home for the summer. What commotion, what fun!! All you could see and hear were notebooks, dictées, and month-old assignments flying into the garbage. (Knowing this would happen, the school would bring out extra garbage bins, to act as recycling bins.) OK, maybe they still kept some of it, but the vast majority of it was gone, gone, gone by the end of the day.

I remember looking at this with a puzzled look on my face, but only now do I realize why I was troubled by this scene way back then.

You see, this type of scene is remarkable, because it speaks to at least 3 things:

1) How students in high school view schooling. Students are so excited to just get out of school. When it’s time to come back to school, students usually have “mixed feelings” about it. Their main reason for wanting to go back is to “meet up with my friends,” not the schooling itself.

I say, this should be the other way around. School should be so intrinsically motivating that going to school is a pleasure, not getting out of it.

EVERYBODY HAS AN INTEREST IN LEARNING

It is my belief that humans, by their very nature, love to learn new things. As self-determination theorists would put it, we have inherent growth tendencies. And as Mrs. Gaga would say, we were born this way. We love to learn, as much as we love to love, and we love to have fun. While we may differ in what we are interested in, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every human being has at least something they’re interested in learning about. Even if it means playing video games all day, or watching Antiques Roadshow. So why aren’t our schools tapping into that? Why are they making it so that sitting in class and doing homework often so unpleasent, so boring, so externally motivating?

2) How the students view their schoolwork. Student spend hours upon hours working on projects and assignments, but at the end of the day, this scene shows how students don’t really care about what they produced. Could this be because they did all this work out of coercion? Because they did it just to get a good grade, and not out of a pure interest in the subject material?

This shows how our school work is treated as a means to an end, rather than an end in and of itself. Possibly, even for the teachers themselves. They, too, focus much of their attention on using work as a measuring stick for grading. This, too, motivates much of their behaviour. And they too, shred old tests and assignments within months of the end of the school year.

ADDING VALUE TO THE STUDENT’S LIFE

Grades is used as the primary motivator for all school work from Grade 7, straight into U3. (Grad students, let me know if this changes later on!) But if you strip away the role of a student, what people want more than anything else is to add value to their life. For example, when you go shopping, when you browse you weight the pros and cons of each decision you make. You think to yourself, “how much value is this going to add to my life?” and, “is this added value worth the money?”

I think that a big reason why students are unmotivated in certain school work is that they (consciously or not) realize that whatever it is they’re being told to do is not valuable enough to put the effort into it. For instance, if a student is procrastinating to study for their history midterm, part of the reason why they’re procrastinating is that they subconsciously understand how they’re going to forgot 80% of what they learn a few weeks after the test, and that knowing those facts isn’t going to do them much good.

Now, granted, this is the student’s perception on the matter. It could very well be that:

a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life

b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it (often due to age, or other factors)

So, this post is just a start, (please do send me your insights, and feedback on the matter!), but I think some solutions to these issues would be to:

a) The subject material really isn’t relevant to their life –> change the curriculum, or make it more flexible, so that it becomes more relevant

b) The subject material matters, but the student doesn’t realize it yet (often due to age, or other factors) –> find better ways of explaining (or better yet, showing) the value of what they’re learning

3) The fragmentation and discontinuity of schooling

Now, I say this one with great caution, because from my experience there is a lot of concepts that build on each other, especially in anything math-based, or based on a specific kind of vocabulary (e.g. accounting terminology). But often times, once a course is over, all of that knowledge is completely ignored and forgotten. (This phenomenon is especially present in the qualitative courses, such as those in the social sciences, unfortunately.)

MAKING CONNECTIONS

Students aren’t encouraged enough to make connections between the things they learn across courses, and across semesters and years. This discontinuity also contributes to their lack of motivation. The more you make connections between courses and between school years, the more this adds value to the material. Perhaps, this relevance may not translate into relevance outside of the school (as was discussed in point #2), but at least it can provide a relevance within a student’s school life. This would then be a sort of reconciliation prize, for not having the relevance between school and the “real world.”

Conclusion, for now

So I guess my 3 main arguments from this first reflection are that an engaging education should:

1) Tap into people’s natural interest in learning and growing

2) Add value to the student’s life

3) Emphasize connections between the different things learned in school, and between school and “real life” (this will add value as well)

I hope to revisit these themes in my future posts, and to generate more concrete ways in which we can attain these (and other) goals. The sky’s the limit!

Postscript

Each year, I used to sift through all of my papers very carefully to see what I would get rid of, and what I would keep. Every sheet was reviewed. And I’m happy to report that it’s all still in relatively good condition!

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2 thoughts on “The 3 things I (eventually) learned on the last day of school

  1. this is such a very insightful post, that I’m sure other people (or at least some) who’ve read this can benefit a lot from it!
    Keep writing and sharing,
    and perhaps I’ll be the first to comment/say that I will probably start following your writings from now on 🙂

  2. Alright sir, you knew it was coming, so here it is.
    about point 1. I agree, people want to learn/are interested in things. Some people are interested in some things and others are interested in other things. I think that once you are exposed to this interesting thing in your life, you’re hooked. Some people finding studying school topics interesting, some don’t. But right in the middle, there are many people who don’t find school “super interesting” but they pick up on some things that direct decisions in their future. Like me, biology was too much memorizing so I was like, no thank you when it came to university applications. So what I’m saying is that it may not seem apparent right away, but school does influence people somewhat How school incoorporate all this? I don’t think it’s possible all at once. That’s probably why the school system is very general up to secondary 5, because by 16-17 years of living your life, you see what you like/passionate about and then start to pick career paths in cegep/university/trade school/job right away. Just let students find their interests and choose where they want to go. School provides some possible interests and other places/people provide other possible interests. You can’t find everything in one place.

    About points 2 and 3 together–> Ok well first, everyone has had that experience I’m sure (I’ve had it many times) where you use something you learned in school during a conversation with someone whether it be about history or something business related etc….So we make connections quite a bit. The “problem” is that generally the situation to make this type of connection does not come up too much during social gatherings/social life. Have you ever said to a friend, so the German’s were very strong during the first world war? That’s very rare… Math based courses are just as bad–> when did you ask a friend outside of school related stuff something like “what is the derivative of 10x”? So i think it depends on the personality+interests of the person you are talking to.

    Connections during school in between courses, ummm that happens quite a bit (well in science definitely since generally courses build on previous courses) and during design projects you have to make connections to old material or you’re screwed!!! Social sciences… i’ve never taken any courses from there so I will just have to agree with you. But it’s not like we forget the material right after the course is finished, some of the highlights/things we thought were interesting stay in our heads, waiting to be triggered by a situation.

    The thing i agree with you on is the part about adding value. I think they do they pretty well in university, they really emphasize what you will be doing at your future job so you realize “oh so people actually use this, so it’s important to understand”
    In highschool+cegep they don’t do this so that’s why it seems useless…

    Would love to hear your thought sir ^_^

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