Why the Current Education System is Failing Future Generations: A Note From a Teacher

I have noticed many articles on PolicyMic recently that discuss the issue of education. More specifically, I have noticed articles that have dealt with “the failing public education system.” 

Many of these articles have been written by people who have never stepped foot to teach in a classroom. I have taught for over five years now, and I work at a high school, tutoring at an after-school program that serves the students of local high schools in Santa Ana, Calif. What I have seen implemented at these schools is counter-productive to real or meaningful learning. However, before we go making assumptions about the reasons for this barrier to learning, I have to mention that it has very little to do with the teachers at said schools; it has much more to do with the systematized testing that drowns out organic, curiosity-driven, energetic, and fun learning.

The Science of Fun Learning

Before we go into discussing the testing itself, we need to talk a bit about the tool used in such a task as learning — the brain. Don’t fall asleep on me, now. This will not be some high-minded lecture on neurology; I am not exactly an expert, but I have studied the brain as it pertains to learning. So here are a few things we need to know. 

The pre-frontal cortex of the brain, located near the forehead, is where we make our decisions based on reason; it is the executive part of the brain and keeps our impulses in check, most of the time. The limbic system, made up of the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala, has control over two other systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. The sympathetic system deals with strong emotions, especially fear. It is the thing that tells us to flee or fight. The parasympathetic system is our “rest and digest” system. It deals with sleep mostly. 

Now, the pre-frontal cortex “talks” to the limbic system all of the time. The limbic system sending messages like “It’s OK. No monsters in sight. We are all good.” The pre-frontal cortex responds, “OK, cool. Keep it down then.” 

What happens, though, is when we are afraid, this connection is disrupted and all we can think about is being afraid (sympathetic system). Conversely, if we are bored, we get sleepy and the connection is also disrupted (parasympathetic system).

Here is the kicker: Working memory is stored in the pre-frontal cortex; it is short-term
memory. In order to store short-term memory as long-term memory, it must travel through the limbic system and work its way back to the cerebral cortex where long-term memory is stored. 

But wait a minute, we just said that the limbic system disrupts learning. And that is true if the system is overrun with danger. However, when it is excited enough, especially through fun, excitement, and humor, those memories are easily stored in long-term memory. Go ahead, try to remember something that you learned when you were having fun. I remember many teachers telling funny stories to make a point, and I remember them all. Now try to remember something from when you were extremely bored. Not so great, right?

Standardized Testing: Fear and Boredom — the Un-Dynamic Duo

Given the information on real learning that we mentioned above, standardized testing accounts for two factors that turn us off biologically from ever being able to learn. When a student takes a test, he or she is usually afraid. Some students are more afraid than others, but there is usually a good dose of fear connected to these types of tests. Not only that, but the tests themselves are boring, and we now know what boredom does; it is a memory killer.

The testing itself, however, is not the only problem. Since so much emphasis is placed on
standardized tests, for teachers and students alike, a good portion of the school year is dedicated to it. This means that instead of using innovative, creative, fun, energetic means of educating students, teachers are compelled to “teach to the test.” I know you have heard that term before. This also creates a problem because teaching to the test means rote memorization. Rote memorization is boring, and remember what we said about boring; it leads into the brain wanting to sleep (parasympathetic system) and not learn.

Solutions

There are many different ways out of this predicament. I am not going to name merely one solution to this problem. That would be completely arrogant on my part as I do not know what would work best for every locality in America, but what I do know is that our current systematized education does not work. We need to allow for teachers to use creativity in the classroom, to inspire students, to foster their curiosity (kids are naturally curious), and stop killing the desire to learn by making it seem boring. Learning is not boring, and kids know this intuitively; we just also need to demonstrate this through our education policy.

By the way, thank a teacher if you can read this.