The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A 15-year-old student’s ed reform plan: Self-directed learning

Editor’s Note:

We received an email from the author of this post, Arooj Ahmad, after it was published saying that he had been contacted by another author who accused him of including passages that Arooj did not originate. The other author, Nikhil Goyal, sent us a list of instances in which he said that Ahmad had used work that Goyal himself had written.

 A review of the list shows that Arooj appears to have rewritten material that Goyal wrote about his own book (One Size Does Not Fit All) for, and that he failed to cite author Laurel Felt for a suggestion about how learning spaces should be redesigned. Arooj also linked the design of public education to the Industrial Revolution in the same way that Goyal did in his book, and that other authors have as well.

Arooj said in an email that he did not intentionally use anybody else’s writings, and he noted that his approach to school reform is different from Goyal’s.

Arooj Ahmad is a high-achieving 15-year-old high school sophomore at Libertyville High School in suburban Chicago who has taken a focused interest in reforming the U.S. education system, which he calls outdated.

He says that schools spend too much time forcing students to memorize a mountain of facts rather than teaching relevant knowledge that can help them select a career path and function well as adults.

In this post he explains what he thinks is wrong with school and how he would fix the system.

By Arooj Ahmad

The present education system in America is doing exactly what it is intended to do — generate compliant workers for the economy. It’s somewhat efficient. It’s organized. But it’s outdated. Students are expected to memorize backward-looking knowledge to pass tests — and then they quickly forget what they learned because it has no relevance in their lives. And today it is not only students who are judged by standardized test scores but also their teachers, leading many to “teach to the test” rather than allow students to explore ideas and apply concepts to the real world. Formal academic education in America does not teach critical thinking. It kills creativity.

While learning how to memorize can sharpen the mind, it is only one small step in the cognitive process. Education should be an enlightening experience. Students should not feel like part of an assembly line. In fact, the current system was designed in the context of the Industrial Revolution, and surprising parallels of factory life can even be seen in today’s schools: bells, rigid divisions of subject, and classification by age group.  As children become teens, they begin to see fewer possibilities when they should be seeing more. Instead of developing necessary skills and natural talents concurrently, school conditions its subjects for only one possible future: college – a continuation of this traditional system in a somewhat more enlightening atmosphere.

We need change.

While America’s public education system accepts students from every socioeconomic background, it does not address the different needs of students. For example, the learning environment of an inner-city school should include things that a suburban school does not need. First and foremost, students who are hungry need food and those who can’t afford medical attention should have access to it at their schools. Qualified teachers must be put into appropriately sized classes with effective resources.

Learning should be messy! Divergent thinking can be taught. Teachers, administrators, policy makers, and even students will have to step out of their comfort zones to remove the standardized, short-term mentality about learning.

Right now, teachers are learning how to teach the Common Core State Standards in math and English, an initiative that has been adopted by most U.S. states. The standards are said to define “the knowledge and skills that students should have within their K–12 education careers.” These standards offer a necessary benchmark to ensure that all students are learning something, but, at the same time, they dictate the curricula of mathematics and English over the course of students’ entire pre-college educational careers. There’s rigidity built into that system.

Students shouldn’t learn material just for the sake of passing the test. They should learn for the sake of learning. Students should enjoy going to school. The practical solution to accomplish this lies in two key improvements that must take hold in today’s education system: relevant, holistic curricula and freedom of subject choice.

Here’s how I see it. In levels K-8, the learning of essential academic subjects should be taught in the context of today’s world. The knowledge has to be relevant. Mathematics, history, language arts, reading, writing, science, and other subjects should be exposed to students as topics for exploration and discovery. Project-based learning and collaboration should be emphasized. Inter-age cooperation, active learning, and mentorship must be encouraged. Teachers in different subjects should coordinate lessons so students can learn to see the world as a whole, not in subject parts. Learning environments should look less like factories and more like laboratories, meeting rooms, and coffee shops.

Methods of smart assessment can be used to gauge the progress of individual students as well as the entirety of classrooms. The efficient A-F grading system can still be utilized if the learning and evaluation of each classroom is unique.  Instead of teacher evaluation based on raw numbers, rankers can look at annual student growth based on actual learning, classroom observations, and peer reviews.

A key element of middle school is initial exposure to career fields that students can choose to explore further in high school. Teachers can give students a broad understanding of career fields as it relates to the classes they are teaching. Students will be encouraged to self-direct their learning and develop a passion. This system is not anti-disciplinary; it’s simply more flexible. If schools are doing their job, students will no longer be asking, “When am I ever going to use this?” and will instead ask, “How can I learn more?”

We know from observations and surveys that two out of every three high school seniors do not know exactly what course of education matches their interests, as they have not been exposed to career fields in their real-world applications. Under my model, students should be sufficiently exposed to the basic reality of the professional fields in the American work force by the time they enter high school.

High school freshmen who have developed a passion for a certain field should be able to take courses that almost exclusively apply to their passion. For example, students with an interest in business  should be taking a lot of math and English courses. Students who have not yet developed a passion can take a range of courses, including those offered today, such as math, history, science, English, etc. But they can also take elective courses that help them establish or further develop their passion.A difference from today would be that the curricula of all courses would be rewritten to be relevant and useful to the students. Critical thinking should be encouraged in every class.

Testing shall be relevant, fair, and accurate depictions of actual learning. In high school, project-based learning and collaboration should be more prominent than it was in middle school. Enriching afterschool experiences such as sports and clubs should deliver expanded learning that stretches beyond academics. When these elements of school come together, a truly higher education will be achieved. Allowing students to explore what they want to do in life early in school would lessen the number of undecided college students constantly switching their majors.

Over the course of high school, students will be able to take a great leap towards their chosen field because they will be allowed the freedom of choice in their classes. The person interested in business will use four years in high school to learn what is necessary to apply himself/herself in that field by gaining specialized knowledge of the academic subjects as it applies to their field. We are likely to see fewer college students constantly switching their majors.

We must think differently about human capacity. The old habits of our institutions and their environments must be reformed. As Albert Einstein once said, “The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”