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Race to Nowhere

We had our mock exams today for math. There are a pair of exams students take so that they get a feel for what their real exams will be like in May. At the end of the first exam, we had a break, and during this break, one of the students came up to me as I set up the room for the next set of exams.

“Mr. Wees, I left a note on the test paper I want my teacher to read,” she said tears in her eyes.

I looked at her and could see how upset she was so I asked her how she felt.

More tears came to her eyes as she said, “Not so good. I’m sure I totally failed that exam.”

“Well, it is a mock exam,” I started, but she cut me off.

“But the universities will look at my results from this exam!” she complained.

And there it was, the concern that her lack of preparation for this one exam was going to ruin her life.

I wanted to give her a hug and reassure her, which is what I would have done had she’d been my child. However, I decided a hug would be imprudent and chose to reassure her with my words instead.

“It is going to be okay. You will get into university,” I started. I consoled her and tried to make her feel better about her future. “Remember,” I continued, “universities don’t just look at grades, they look at the whole person. You helped plan a conference! I’m sure that has to count for something.”

“But everyone plans a conference!” she nearly yelled. In her eyes I could see her thinking, Everyone I know is doing such amazing things. How do I stand out?

I challenged her on this statement, “How many people really?” remembering that people often believe their own hyperbole. “How many kids your age have planned a conference?”

“40 or 50,” she said quietly, realizing the ridiculousness of her earlier assertion.

“Out of thousands of students.” I responded, “What you have done is amazing, don’t sell yourself short.”

She seemed a little bit better. “Yah okay, you are right.”

I talked about my own history of being accepted to university late. It wasn’t until June that I received my original UBC acceptance, and not until August 9th that I received acceptance to my teaching degree. I remember the day exactly because it was the same day I went into work and quit my warehouse job.

What I wanted to say was that it doesn’t matter, that she should judge her personal success by her ability to get into university. That there are other ways to be successful, and that many people survive happily in life having never stepped foot in a university. 

Our students today put so much of their focus on being successful, and on standing out from the crowd. Students compete to try and outdo each other, always feeling like it is never enough. Just today one of my students complained that his parents had it easy. “They only had a C average and got into university!” he said.

I watched the movie Race to Nowhere recently. It was a very powerful experience, and it spoke to me on many levels. Here’s a trailer which describes the movie.

The movie shows lots of examples of how US students are over-worked, and most of those examples speak to the Canadian experience of school as well. Kids are developing symptoms of stress very early in life. They lack the time to actually do everything they are expected to do because they are being over-scheduled, and over-burdened with work early in life.

When will it be enough? When will we decide that our emphasis on competition for limited college seats is unacceptable? When we allow our children to just be, and not have to worry about competing for their future?

We need to tell our students that the notion that there are limited pathways to their future success is a myth. We need to show them that success comes in many forms. We need to give them the opportunity to live their lives, rather than our failed dreams.

There are some things we can do we can do as educators and as parents.

  • We can give less homework or end the practice completely. Homework at the elementary and middle school levels is fairly pointless anyway, and at the high school level only shows a modest correlation with success (at least how we measure success in schools currently). Parents can talk to other parents about the harmful effects of homework and take back their family time.
     
  • Governments can scale back our bloated curriculums. Rushing through content a “mile wide and an inch deep” does no one any good. You cannot learn deeply about that which you are rushed through. Our children are being force-fed content, but are often intellectually malnourished.
     
  • We can recognize our kids for who they are, rather than for who we would like them to be. Instead of asking your child about school, ask them to join you in doing something, ask them to talk to you about the world. Find out how they feel, and really listen to them.
     
  • It is crucial that we end the competition. Educators can do this by abandoning failed metrics like traditional grading systems, and parents can do this by advocating for their students. Grades don’t measure what we think they measure in most cases anyway.
     
  • We need to stop over-scheduling our children. Find a couple of things they really like to do, and give them more free time to just play. Play outside with your children, and learn how to be a kid again. Go camping, ride a bicycle, have some fun. We should not abdicate our responsibility to raise our children to a worksheet or a computer.
     
  • We should fight for more arts and experiential learning opportunities in schools. It is unreasonable to expect every child to become a scientist or engineer when they grow up. Artistic and creative people are exceptionally important to our well-being as a society. Without the arts, life would be very bland and not really worth living. Imagine if the next generation had no music, no theatre, no movies, no art of any kind? Can you imagine living in a world without art? We need to recognize that for many children, this is very nearly their reality.

What other specific suggestions do you have?

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