The problem with our school culture

Our educational model has many problems and, like any system, they can be solved. A fundamental problem in education is not what students are taught or even how, it is much more intangible. The culture within schools, the way students are encouraged to work hard, and the ultimate subconscious goal of our education system needs to be reworked.

Due to the increasing competitiveness of education in our world, schools have had to push all students harder. Much of this push can be seen in classroom environments where expectations have been high. This alone is not negative, but when combined with a notion of normalization that every student should be the extreme (A-rights, sports, extracurricular, passion projects, inventions, volunteerism, leaders, champions, etc. and all at the same time), there is almost no way for students to succeed. And it’s that problem, the problem with our definition of success that needs to be changed.

What I went through in school, along with many of my peers and maybe the entire nation, was a cycle of toxic productivity. The cycle of toxic productivity begins when we begin to associate some of our worth with subjective productive outcomes like good grades. Long, consuming homework isn’t just a chore for school, but a subconscious requirement for feeling validated. The cycle worsens with age as external educational expectations intensify and a student’s life is defined by their productive outcomes. This fixation on productivity and its resulting effect on self-esteem denies the possibility that a person’s time will be well spent unless it meets this productive expectation.

The problem with our school culture is that it praises students who surrender to this cycle, who renounce their identity to fit into a mold of perfection, who only accept validation when the actions are “productive”. “. When we fail to complete productive tasks, we experience anxiety, sadness, and a blow to our self-esteem. Therefore, every action must have a productive result, otherwise it is considered a “waste”.

It also doesn’t stop at tasks, but at how schools reinforce the way we accomplish productivity. We have defined progress as productivity, and in doing so we have created a cage of our own flaws. If students are not productive, they are not progressing. Progress is the only way to success and yet we have made it the definition of the perfection of academic success. Once a student is successful, they are expected to be successful in all other aspects, not just in school. What is a student who gets perfect grades, a leader in and out of class, a sports champion, an inventor, a volunteer, etc… other than perfect?

Our problem is that success is inseparable from productivity and perfection. We only validate students who are at the extreme. We deny that the students have value outside the confines of this single narrative; that action can have value without being productive.

Recently, I worked at a summer camp for young creative writers. I was surprised to find that many students were enrolled in several of these writing camps. The youngest student proudly boasted that she was enrolled in a handful of summer writing camps. I realized that productive expectations are placed on these children at a young age. I believe this can leave them without the opportunity to explore and develop their authentic selves. It has become almost unacceptable, for those who can afford it, to give their children vacations. How can we continue to see adverse effects on the health (physical and mental) of children as synonymous with successful productivity and not taking action? Isn’t there a better alternative? Can we retrain ourselves to reward and find esteem in who we are, not what we do or produce?

Instead, we should focus on a culture that progresses in learning the goal rather than achieving. Progress must be defined by growth and not by production. We should instill a love of learning rather than a fear of failure. We should move away from a single narrative, a single mold of perfection, and instead focus on one that praises students for improvement in all aspects.

Owen Curtin

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