Formal Education: The Pursuit of Grades or Knowledge?

An iPub Perspective Editorial

By Fawzia May Tung

A number of years ago, I hosted a young boy whose schoolwork I was to oversee. One night at 10:30 PM, he suddenly remembered he had to turn in a piece of writing the next day. I immediately moved into emergency mode and asked what the topic was. “It’s for social studies. We are supposed to write about how our family moved to Arizona.” This being the beginning of the semester, I assumed it was an activity aimed at the students getting to know one another better from the point of view of diversity.

“Very well,” I said. “Not hard. Just tell me why your parents decided to move here from Taiwan and how they did it. And we can go from there.” My ward remained silent, then said, “I think I’d better ask my friend about it.” My patience slipped a few notches. Too often, and this was by no means limited to this particular student, children are given no written explanation of assignments and must text classmates to figure out what exactly to do. They claim the teacher just assigned it verbally.

It turned out students were to write journal entries about how humans migrated from Asia across the ice bridge to North America, and then trekked all the way down to our state of Arizona. Well. One doesn’t need to be a history buff to know that humans dressing in animal skins and grunting for communication couldn’t possibly be writing journal entries.

A cave painting depicting a human, a male and female elk or deer, a bird, a bull, and a handprint.
Image by Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay

This was during the years when the Department of Education clamped down on writing and ordered all teachers, regardless of the subject they taught, to make students write more. This particular social studies teacher was a veteran. I admire veterans, but not every teacher is trained to be a writing teacher, though even English Language Arts teachers are not much better.

I recalled years ago, when my eldest son got an assignment to write a journal of a child who was on the Mayflower describing the voyage to the Americas. The teacher may have thought it an interesting assignment, but not I. First of all, the English used in those days was very different from the English we use today, both in vocabulary and sentence structure. No fifth grader that I’ve ever met has been able to write in Old English. Secondly, even the way letters were penned was different. For example, an “s” was written like an “f.” Thirdly, the child would need to look up records of the weather on the Atlantic Ocean during those particular dates. Fourthly, the child would need to research the types of food that could be carried on long voyages or that was cooked by Puritans, the symptoms of possible diseases, etc. And so on.

As it was nearly 11:00 that night, I couldn’t possibly call the teacher to ask him to explain what exactly he wanted. I gritted my teeth and told my ward we had to do some research. Thank God for the internet. I found, to my great surprise, two interesting facts. First, that very week, some new findings had been published, pushing the date of the approximate arrivals of the first humans on North American soil from 13,000 years ago to 50,000 years ago. Secondly, this date would coincide with a meteor crashing into the northern part of Arizona, creating what is known today as Meteor Crater, a famous tourist landmark.

I discussed these excitedly with my ward, then decided that we could write the introduction and conclusion in the first person, then sit back as an observer and write the three body paragraphs in the third person. We then proceeded to research what flora and fauna (think foods) would have been available. It was well past midnight when the poor boy finally finished his draft. The next morning, as I drove him to school, I oversaw his editing. Because of all of this input, I waited impatiently for his grade to come in. Finally, I asked him about it a few days later.

“Oh,” he answered, pretending to be nonchalant, “I got a zero for that.” Then, seeing my stunned face, he added, “My friend, who just wrote a paragraph of journal entry got an A.”

The top portion of a typed book report with a circled "F" in red ink, with a note to "See me after class!"
Image by tacojim from Getty Images Signature for Canva

Naturally, the next day, I confronted the teacher about this. With mild snark, he answered, “That’s because what he wrote was not the assignment.” He also insisted that he did write the assignment instructions… on the board.

Undeterred, I went to look for the principal. He was away at a meeting. May I see the vice-principal then? Too bad, also at the same meeting. Finally, I got to meet the director of curriculum. I laid out my concerns that such assignments not only disregarded historical truths and taught students to make up lies instead of seeking knowledge, but such grading did not reward their effort. I could understand an F, say a 50%, but not a zero. What rubrics did the teacher use?

The director of curriculum could barely keep a straight face during my long tirade. In the end, he nodded amicably and saw me off. I knew they all thought I wrote the assignment and wanted to have a grade that showed I did well. I must affirm here that I would never do my student’s homework. I can help research, explain, suggest, but the student does his own writing.

Nothing ever came of the meeting. On the other hand, my ward stopped trying hard to complete any homework or assignments. He had seen them for what they were: a waste of his time. His grades slipped accordingly, with no care whatsoever from his side.

If this sounds like I’m venting, well, it’s probably because I am. Does one wonder why American students barely score above world average in international studies? This is only one example from the myriad of reasons why our education system is failing. Both teachers and students worship the god of grades/scores rather that the fountain of knowledge. Parents make it worse by judging both teachers’ and students’ achievements using these same scores.

I do not expect much improvement until parents, students, and teachers all agree that acquiring knowledge is a main goal of going to school. Unfortunately, that is not what is currently happening. Teachers want to “cover the curriculum” while students want to socialize. Administrators want prestige and better pay, hoping the school won’t give them too many headaches. Parents want a baby-sitter to blame for their abdication of their natural duty of educator.

I realize this may be too broad a generalization. Or is it?

A person holding a piece of paper that has the word "Education" on it, torn down the middle.
Image by RapidEye from Getty Images Signature for Canva

Featured image credit: Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

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