From 7:55 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., we are zombies on steroids. We walk around the beige hallways in a lifeless haze, chugging coffee for a semblance of alertness, and buzzing about the stress of the test calendar. In this time frame, work for one class is done in another unrelated class, and tests are filled out not for comprehension, but mindless regurgitation, like a mother penguin’s transfer of food to her baby. After 3:00 p.m., sports or other activities ensue, and by around 6:00, the real school day begins – sort of. Knowledge, significant or not, is crammed into our minds for a few hours, so that when we wake up the next day, we can repeat and forget all of it.
Is this a bleak view of school? Most definitely. And are there many factors that contribute to it? Sure, such as the rigor of the student’s schedule, amount of extracurriculars, and strict or loose enforcement of due dates by teachers. Nonetheless, even during easy weeks, it can still feel as if the seven hours we invest in school is actually not an investment at all, but instead, a waste. And all of this waste is geared toward the enticing carrot of good grades, with the dangler of the carrot being college.
It may be over-simplified to reduce school to a means to an end for college, but at an institution such as Westminster, it is quite interesting to ponder this. College preparatory is a vague term and could encompass many things. However, it still makes me wonder: what are we doing in school so that students actually learn? I asked an upperclassmen teacher and upperclassmen students to find out.
First, I talked to Mr. Howard Warren, an AP Government and AP U.S. History teacher to understand his classroom environment. He seeks to “invite students into a conversation of the big ideas through engaging a text,” which in his case could be a history book, the Constitution, primary source documents, or other types of writings.
When it comes to tests, Warren does not use a one-size-fits-all approach: if he wants the students “to just know facts, [he] will probably use multiple choice, but if [he wants] them to think deeply, [he] will most likely use a socratic.” This way, they will interact with the material from multiple angles.
As for homework in his class in particular, he sees it as a necessity.
“The purpose of homework, in my classes especially, is for students to do the reading because my class is based on engagement with the text. So, if they haven’t done the reading, then they’re not ready for class… I need all the time I can have to be in conversation with the students,” said Warren.
While some teachers such as Warren see homework as a tool for class time that can be appropriately evaluated on a test, this is not the sentiment of many students. Grace Andrews, junior, explains why she finds homework more harmful than helpful.
“Homework is busy work. [Teachers] think students are going to understand it by doing it themselves at home, but that’s the job of the teachers. They should be able to do it in class and not make the students do it at home…. If the class is not actually problems-based, don’t make the students teach themselves the information at home,” said Andrews.
Even though Andrews also admits that “students are often overcommitted,” she still believes that the homework load of “busy work could be lessened.” She also believes that socratics are the best form of evaluating a student’s knowledge.
“I think socratics are the best way to test because it forces you to actually comprehend the information, as opposed to knowing the minute information of the subject. You have to actually understand the information. Essays kind of do that, too,” said Andrews.
Andrews isn’t the only one with an unsatisfied opinion of WCA’s learning approach, though. Senior Lea Despotis, who is passionate about the topic, gives her thoughts on how classes can be best taught.
“In a structural sense, classes that provide ample time for investigation and inquiry—cultivating deep work—tend to engage students better than the traditional, rigid approach of lectures followed by daily assignments,” said Despotis.
Regardless of the class, Despotis believes that there is no one approach that works for everybody to reach their maximum potential, and testing should also reflect this.
“As students possess unique gifts and varying strengths and weaknesses, I believe the best measure of a students’ true potential rests in diverse methods of evaluation. While students should develop their skills in all areas of communication, testing should allow students to draw on their individual strengths, whether it be an oral presentation, a written test, or an informative essay,” said Despotis.
When it comes to homework, Despotis advocates for a more dynamic, beneficial class environment to offset it.
“Learning in a classroom reaches its peak when students are not burdened by a heavy workload of assignments. While homework ensures students are adequately absorbing the material, both the amount and type of homework assigned remains an inaccurate assessment of students’ knowledge. I truly believe genuine learning occurs when students are granted the ability to learn in an open and free environment, unbound by the pressure to meet certain standards of GPA and letter grades,” said Despotis.
With the ultimate goal of good grades in mind when in school, it’s no wonder that the daily process of actually learning is skewed. Though there are many researched ways in which students can study and retain information, as described in the book Make it Stick by Mark A. Daniel and Peter E. Brown, it’s a wonder that a school as prestigious as Westminster would not attempt to adopt more of these methods in the classroom.
Maybe we need an intervention between the students and the teachers, wherein the teachers just tell the students to calm down. Maybe the students need to just quit all their extracurriculars so that they can more easily do homework. Or maybe, a middle ground can be found, on the basis of which lies the deep-rooted desire of WCA faculty to prepare students to not just get good grades preceding and in college, but ultimately to form the habit of critical thinking, regardless of the subject matter.
Really, we need to reverse the beige cycle, so that the bulk of energy is not poured into evening study time, but the actual learning time that is school.