|THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SCHOOL: ANY QUESTIONS?
Author: Vyrazhi PM
I wrote this essay for a good online friend of mine who's in high school right now, hoping to cheer him up and provide a rationale for his chronic exhaustion...Rated T for content and vocabulary.Rated: Fiction T - English - Words: 2,904 - Published: 10-26-12 - Status: Complete - id: 3068835
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON SCHOOL. ANY QUESTIONS?"
Essay ©2012 by Vyrazhi for FictionPress
Dedicated to one of the smartest teenagers I have ever known, either online or in so-called "real" life
A FRYING PAN sizzles ominously in one of the most famous public-service announcements on TV in the 1980's. "This is drugs," the narrator intones. An off-camera pair of hands cracks a single egg, letting its yolk tumble into the hot oil within the pan. "This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" Partnership for a Drug-Free America, reads the screen. The message is clear: when you abuse illicit substances, they fry your brain. As harmful and addicting as drugs are, however, this food-based metaphor is useful for far more warnings than those against methamphetamines and heroin. To wit: is it a metaphor for school, too?
Traditional schooling, with its emphasis on standardized testing, rote memorization, lectures, and storing academic facts in one's short-term memory until test time, can unwittingly promote the "frying" of one's mental circuits - not to mention the disconcerting "sizzle" of information overload. One may argue that today's students, especially those born in the Millennial or "Y" Generation, are experts at multitasking. Thus, they (should?) have no problem learning all of the academic facts presented to them in the classroom, not to mention keeping up on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter simultaneously. One might also argue that students in 21st-century classrooms are well-equipped to handle "information overload" at school because only some of it registers anyway. The rest is crowded out by social and other concerns. However, does this ring true to the experiences of real students in real classrooms, with real anxieties? The answer may come as a shock to those who consider Millennials, or any school-age children and youth, to be academically-ignorant but technologically-brilliant überkinder: no.
Consider the following story, posed on a standardized reading test to eighth-graders in New York:1
The Hare and the Pineapple
by Daniel PinkwaterIn olden times, the animals of the forest could speak English just like you and me. One day, a pineapple challenged a hare to a race. (I forgot to mention, fruits and vegetables were able to speak too.) A hare is like a rabbit, only skinnier and faster. This particular hare was known to be the fastest animal in the forest.
"You, a pineapple have the nerve to challenge me, a hare, to a race," the hare asked the pineapple. "This must be some sort of joke."
"No," said the pineapple. "I want to race you. Twenty-six miles, and may the best animal win.""You aren't even an animal!" the hare said. "You're a tropical fruit!"
"Well, you know what I mean," the pineapple said.
The animals of the forest thought it was very strange that tropical fruit should want to race a very fast animal."The pineapple has some trick up its sleeve," a moose said."Pineapples don't have sleeves", an owl said.
"Well, you know what I mean," the moose said. "If a pineapple challenges a hare to a race, it must be that the pineapple knows some secret trick that will allow it to win.""The pineapple probably expects us to root for the hare and then look like fools when it loses," said a crow. "Then the pineapple will win the race because the hare is overconfident and takes a nap, or gets lost, or something."The animals agreed that this made sense. There was no reason a pineapple should challenge a hare unless it had a clever plan of some sort. So the animals, wanting to back a winner, all cheered for the the race began, the hare sprinted forward and was out of sight in less than a minute. The pineapple just sat there, never moving an inch.The animals crowded around watching to see how the pineapple was going to cleverly beat the hare. Two hours later when the hare cross the finish line, the pineapple was still sitting still and hadn't moved an inch.
The animals ate the pineapple.
MORAL: Pineapples don't have sleeves.
Got it? Now consider the following question about this story, which was also on the standardized test:
Which animal spoke the wisest words?
A) The hare
B) The moose
C) The crow
D) The owl
One could make a valid argument for each of the animals being the wisest. For example, A) The hare was wisest, because he thought that an immobile fruit challenging him to a race was ridiculous, OR B) the moose was wisest, because it inferred that if the pineapple was going to win the race, it had to have "some trick up its sleeve", OR C) the crow was wisest, because it figured out the pineapple's clever plan, OR D) the owl was wisest, because it stated the questionable "moral" of the story before it was over. Which answer is correct? I don't know, and neither do students in other states besides New York. This story has stumped even teachers, parents, and Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame. According to the article mentioned below, "[Scarsdale Middle School Principal Michael McDermott] had a quick answer to the question of who is the wisest: 'Pearson, for getting paid $32 million for recycling this crap'."
Standardized tests, which may or may not feature questions and answers like these, are increasingly becoming the deciding factor in whether students graduate. Do they truly measure how intelligent students are? If so, what is the tests' definition of "intelligence", and is that definition valid? If so, in what way? Perhaps the two most glaring flaws of standardized tests are these: 1) they fail to convey to the student that life's most vital questions lack fillable ovals and cookie-cutter answers, and 2) they succeed in conveying to students that if they fail these exams, they have not learned much of anything - or, at least, not much of anything that will earn them a diploma. Forget the "three R's"; there's only a "T" now: testing.
Of course, standardized testing and traditional schooling are phenomena that "pour into" one another, just as the Little Dipper pours into the Big Dipper, and vice-versa. Standardized tests measure skills and factual knowledge that are taught most efficiently through traditional schooling (hint: literature, music and art aren't covered on them), and traditional schooling relies upon standardized tests to gauge how "successful" students are. In other words, the schools need the tests, and the tests need the schools. It's a mutually-reinforcing cycle. Whether it benefits the students is anybody's guess. I can personally attest that they disrupt classroom routines, cause many students distress and test-related anxiety, and force teachers to abandon creative lessons in favor of scripted curricula and "teaching to the test". I was once a school-age child myself, and subjected to these terrifying tests. What was I really supposed to learn? COMPARTMENTALIZATION
NO HUMAN BEING canremember everything, and I daresay that no machine can, either. If one tries to store a terabyte of information on a computer hard drive that only holds one hundred gigabytes, much of that data will be lost - not due to any fault of the computer per se, but due to its limited storage capacity. The human brain also has limited storage capacity, but traditional schooling tries its best to ignore this "unfortunate" part of life. I pose a question: have you ever met one of your former teachers, years after leaving the classroom, and recited, verbatim, the various facts that he or she told you? Most likely not. Even though I'll talk more about "(information) overload" later, I'd like to discuss one of the ways that schools try to help students work through this: compartmentalization, or keeping each subject unto itself.
When I was in school, most of my teachers thought that their own subjects were the most important. Thus, these teachers assigned homework accordingly, the amounts of which were often copious. Many of them had the attitude, "So what if you have five worksheets to do in Math? English is important, too, and you have to do it all by tomorrow, so suck it up! You'll get more in (grade school, high school, or college)." I can understand these kinds of "turf wars" and instances of "academic infighting" between teacher colleagues who are fighting for schools' limited resources. However, why make students the "collateral damage" in these never-ending battles? If teachers realized, and taught their students, that all subjects are interrelated in some way, students would probably face less stress, homework, and chronic frustration.
Why not do this more often, then? Why not point out how a concept learned in chemistry class relates to one learned in math, reading, or learning a foreign language? "That's a nice idea, but it would be too confusing for the kids," some might say, and in a very real sense, they might be right. Some students' thought processes are stimulated by making connections between ideas; other people's might be piqued by discovering how they differ. Still, human brains are not computers, and computers are not human brains (no matter how much they're increasingly built to simulate them). The compartmentalization of knowledge that has been fostered by traditional schooling has done nothing for me, or my understanding of this complex and interconnected world. I would like to copyright this catchphrase I made up:
Compartmentalization is the enemy of context.
The more we treat various facts and ideas we learn as separate unto themselves, useful only in "their own little worlds", the less we're inclined to treat them as related things, and the less we're able. If we make connections between them, however, the more our world makes sense, because every part of it is connected to another. You can't have science, without mathematics, without literature, without language. Storing information in separate "files" in your brain is useful if you're studying for a test, but permanently? We miss out on much insight and valuable wisdom that can be gained by "putting two and two together" - even if "two and two" are as different as a Shakespeare quote and a mathematical theorem.
The more we compartmentalize ideas and experiences, the more it becomes a habit, and ultimately, the more we think of ourselves as islands in the vast sea of humanity, self-contained and untouched by others in any real way. Am I being melodramatic? Perhaps, but consider this: how many of us speak of "filing" ideas away or considering our brains as "organic databases"? If I'm the only one who does this, I'm lost…
Schools like to pride themselves on being places of diversity and student choice, but is this really true? Is it true if students of color, LGBT students, and students with disabilities are bullied every day, simply because of who they are and through no fault of their own? Is it true if both fiction and non-fiction books about cruel and hyper-selective school cliques resonate with students all over the world? Is it true if the only choice students really have during the day is what to eat for lunch, because they have no say in what they're being taught, or why? Someone is lying here. So say I, and it's not the students in question.
In a very practical and utilitarian sense, but never in a moral or ethical sense, homogeneity is good for schools. If all students (in nth grade) are pretty much the same, they're pretty much easier to educate, according to some teachers and administrators. If some students don't "fit the mold", they should be made to fit through drastic disciplinary measures and even so-called Individualized Education Plans (IEP's). The only "individualized" part of my IEP's was the individualized way in which my teachers put me down. In all other respects, I was expected to conform, and even exceed expectations if that was what the teacher expected. To paraphrase a catchphrase in the O.J. Simpson trial: "If you don't fit, you aren't sh-." Illogical school rules, highly-aversive "natural consequences" for infractions, and "response to intervention" plans are used just as much as racial, ethnic, disability-related, and orientation-related slurs to enforce homogeneity. The trouble is, the rules and plans are not condemned, whereas the latter are. Why? To what "molds" are schools trying to get students to conform, and for what purpose? If someone says "work and employment", this argument holds about as much water as an overused paper cup. What kind of work? What is its scope? Different occupations require different sets of skills. A plumber and an actor could not change places for one day and do each other's jobs very easily. Besides, is the purpose of school to produce future employees, or to produce future adult human beings of diverse gifts and talents?
Even cliques enforce homogeneity - witness "the jocks", "the nerds", "the cheerleaders", "the addicts", etc. What happens to the students who fit into none of them? Are they written out of school life altogether?
OVEREMPHASIZING ACHIEVEMENT AND SUCCESS (AS MEASURED BY GRADES AND TESTS)
And now, a little poem:
Achievement. Success. Achievement. Success.
YES, YOU CAN. YES, YOU CAN.
You can do it, [Author!] You can do it, [Author!]
Come on. Hurry up. Let's go. Come on. Hurry up. Let's go.
I'm waiting! I'm waiting!
You're too slow. You're too slow.
Retard! Retard! Retard! Retard!
You got a C? Did you really do your best? You got a D? Did you study for that test?
You got a C? You can do better than that. You got a B? Maybe you need help, and "stat"!
Need more time? Better luck next time.
You must learn to pace yourself accordingly…
"TMI", a popular Internet acronym, stands for "Too Much Information". Usually, this is used when someone is sharing a too-gross or too-personal story, However, it can also be applied to school and what it offers. Correction: "offers" is too enticing and too meek of a word all at once. School, especially traditional school, creates, instills and enforces a sense of overload in many of its students. Forget MySpace and YouTube, although these can serve as powerful distractions from school and homework. I have found that students (and people at large) often escape to these distractions when they feel overloaded. Even if overloading is not a conscious practice in schools, and it almost never is, the unconscious effects can be absolutely debilitating. Have you ever "blanked out" during a test at school? I have, and the reason is that I couldn't think of the right answer, or the right words to say if I was writing an essay question. You may ask: Why not? Did you simply not know? In some cases, yes, but not veyr often. Most of the time when this happened, my brain was simply so fried (overloaded) that I could not come up with the correct response.
Why do we give more of a "break" to our appliances when they blow a fuse than to our own "noggins"?
I have no more desire to speak Spanish, although I used to live and breathe it in high school and college.
I have no more desire to learn words that are only heard in spelling bees, although I was once in them.
I have no more desire to return to college, after flunking out of two different ones at two different times.
I have lost all of these desires, and do not wish to regain them, although school deems them important.
What have I lost? Through acknowledging and grieving these losses, what have I gained?
That is something that no school can teach, nor can it ever be measured on standardized tests. Insight is a matter of the heart and soul, of experience, of battles won and battles lost, whether they be physical or mental. Insight is useless to the 21st-century economy: that is what I've learned, and why I have no job. However, I would not trade the insight I've gained through failure and hardship for anything in this world.
I have a friend who finds his fingers slipping as he types me private messages on one of my favorite websites. His typographical errors and missing words disturb him, and I have suggested the source of his troubles is school - not the physical brick building with four walls, but the environment, working like sealing wax. It is no accident that Aldous Huxley's "hypnopaedia", or sleep-teaching, is compared to, and I quote:
"Not so much like drops of water, though water, it is true, can wear holes in the hardest granite; rather, drops of liquid sealing-wax, drops that adhere, incrust, incorporate themselves with what they fall on, till finally the rock is all one scarlet blob.Till at last the child's mind is these suggestions, and the sum of the suggestions is the child's mind. And not the child's mind only. The adult's mind too–all his life long. The mind that judges and desires and decides–made up of these suggestions. But all these suggestions are our suggestions!" The Director almost shouted in his triumph. "Suggestions from the State." He banged the nearest table. "It therefore follows …"2
I suspect that my friend is so exhausted from a day at school that typing for other purposes is too taxing.
Maybe I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong. However, I remember when I was his age and it happened to me.
Insight told me that, and not some textbook, whether online or in print.
Perdisse. It's the imperfect subjunctive form of perdre, French: to lose. Why is it stuck in my head?
I don't even speak French! All I really know is "oui", "non", and how to count to twenty without mistakes.
Yet, there perdisse sits, lulling my mind into sweet half-sleep, in 6/8 time: perdisse, perdisse, perdisse.
How is it used? I don't know. I was doing some online research, and there it was. There it is, for now and forever, because it's so weird yet so beautiful. School has taught me to regard all information as memorable, but the irony is that I have no sense of what information I was really supposed to remember…
That is what I've lost.