For the first time in my life, my to-do list is empty. My inbox has zero emails (or it did this morning). In my budgeting app I’ve categorized all my recent transactions (and scrutinized them an unhealthy amount). I’ve been to the dentist, optometrist, and doctor for any necessary annual check-ups.
Until this year, I had an endless supply of externally-imposed goals. Between work and school, almost 100% of my productive time was spent working on requirements dictated by other people.
In December I graduated from ASU. After graduation I no longer had professors telling me what assignments to do or what topics to study. I no longer had my familiar to-do calendar which showed me the exact due dates.
I realized that I had to tell myself what to do now. And the first time I realized this, it felt very scary.
I picked out a few books from my “To Read” list (after meticulously reordering it). I found myself rereading pages, skipping back chapters, and taking mental notes wherever I saw an argument to pick apart, or where I thought the author was being inconsistent. I was reading how I’d read for school. It felt like I had to force myself to read for “fun”.
I tried playing video games, thinking it would a respite far from anything academic. Either I got bored once I thought I had discovered the patterns of the game, or felt too guilty investing time in something that wouldn’t pay dividends to another area of my life.
I’m figuring out how to relax, but it’s hard to break habits that seem to have good intentions.
I’ve also realized that reading popular books, playing video games, and watching TV are designed to be very easy choices. In fact, many people want you to make these choices, and they try to make them feel effortless.
To me, the best choices we get to make are the ones that someone else isn’t actively campaigning for us to make. These are choices like: moving to a different country, finding a different job/career, deciding to make new acquaintances, trying a new hobby, or starting a business. These choices may be made out of necessity or personal motivation, but are rarely pushed by outside forces.
These kinds of decisions aren’t easy to make, but many people don’t realize these options exist. Our education system does a terrible job at teaching people how to make difficult decisions – decisions that require picking one thing out of limitless options.
In general, our education system teaches people to be good at following instructions. The “best” students are the ones who show up on time, listen, take notes, don’t question the instructor, and do all the assigned work.
This method of learning is best explained through Paulo Freire’s banking model of education. Students are the empty “banks” into which instructors make “deposits” of education. Once a student has had enough education deposited, they are “educated” and ready to face the world.
This kind of learning hinders the ability of students to make positive contributions within their field and to society. Students aren’t encouraged to ask critical questions, challenge the status quo, and do all the other cliche “innovative” things that schools like ASU say they foster.
The obsession with GPA seems to make an authoritative success benchmark out of a number that is completely arbitrary. As someone who couldn’t have done better on paper, I’ll admit that the extra effort I put into school has had very little return on investment.
Sure, people with more academic achievement tend to be more successful in life, but this is a case of correlation rather than causation.
There’s another related obsession with preventing academic dishonesty. I’ve sat through entire lectures in many classes while the instructor goes through a bullet-pointed list of what is and isn’t allowed in the class. I’ve submitted homework assignments where I’ve been required to list the names of each person I even discussed the assignment with.1
My greatest joy during college was discussing concepts with my peers, and helping others understand the most difficult ideas in our field. But then I felt like I could be complicit in cheating for giving someone a bit too much help.
Schools don’t realize that making more rules and scaring students with boring PowerPoint presentations isn’t going to stop cheating. The root cause is one of motivation and perceived importance of learning the material. You can’t solve this problem with only the threat of punishment.
Surprisingly, I saw many more cases of cheating among honors students. When much of your self-worth and perceived future success is based on a number, one is more likely to do anything to keep that number high.
It wasn’t always blatant cheating, just an attitude of skirting requirements, taking shortcuts, and making it seem you put in a lot more effort than you did. This type of student will have a rude awakening in the “real world” when they find out they can’t bullshit their way out of an unpleasant work assignment.
Another issue with grades is how arbitrary a “perfect” grade is. There’s no such thing as a “perfect grade” in life. One can always be improving, and one needs to be failing sometimes to be aware of what they can improve.
The world is changing quickly. People who only fulfill requirements will, at best, be stuck doing the same thing for the rest of their lives. At worst, their jobs will be automated away from them.
I’ve told a few friends recently, “you don’t get promoted for just doing what you’re told, you get promoted for doing things you’re not told to do.” You can do a great job at all the work assigned to you, but if you’re not generating new ideas or finding better ways to do things, you’re not going to get noticed.
This has always seemed obvious to me, probably because I had my first business when I was a kid and have tried to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. But looking at my formal schooling, I can remember only one slide in a lecture during my senior year of college encouraging us to “keep learning because the world is always changing”. And even that is not as simple as committing to “keep learning”.
Some of these issues may be unique to ASU, or universities in general. Some are definitely endemic to our K-12 education system. If ASU is the “most innovative school” in the country2, I hope it can begin to address some of the problems with how we motivate and measure the performance of students.
Aside from traditional educational institutions, I think the time is right for more nimble institutions to offer educational experiences that large institutions cannot. Like bootcamps and MOOCs3, students could be provided an education that is more efficient and targeted toward experiences that will happen in the real world. That’s not to say these are perfect models, as they definitely have flaws. But their existence indicates a shortcoming in traditional education, one that these types of courses are trying to fill.
I have a feeling that formal education will never adapt to the current state of the world. New ideas and methods of teaching will help, but the fate of an individual will always lie with themselves – how they choose to spend their time, and the difficult choices they make (and make again after learning by experience).
If one thing is certain about schools, it’s that there is no one approach or set of requirements that will lead to the best education.