A few weeks ago I went to south London to visit one of the best public schools in the UK. As I sat in Biology class I compared my own school days to the ones of the students sitting around me. I wanted to find out what made this school so special. I noticed that students and teachers were much more structured and disciplined compared to my school days. The desire to be successful was very present in everybody’s minds and there was a sense of pride in being part of this school. Students and teachers seemed to be pulling on the same rope, but I noticed that it meant giving up something as well.
I spoke for an hour to two 9th grades who wished that their teachers would involve them more in designing the classes, but their teachers were not actively seeking student collaboration. I believe that the structure and discipline that is required to be as successful as this school comes at the price of student exploration, which is a relatively time consuming and inefficient activity if ones goal is to maximise student success. Efficiency means not looking to the left and right, it means making no mistakes and it also means not to question.
My own school experience felt like chasing the horizon. I was given a set of tasks that I had to work on and if I was successful in the exams I could advance to the next higher grade. The problem is not that the horizon cannot be reached or that the goals were not worth pursuing. It’s actually quite the contrary. Graduating from school with honors is not an easy task and it should be celebrated if you can pull if off. But you should also ask yourself why you are pursuing good grades. If the answer to that question is ‘to have good grades’ you have identified the real problem in our education system.
Rewarding a 3rd grader with ice cream for his school work is all good and fine, because a 3rd grader hasn’t fully developed the ability to form his opinions and define his goals. But a high school student should have learned to do this; to set his own goals, to act based on a set of beliefs or convictions. There will always be people who know what they want and they will try to convince you of working for them. They may incentivize you with a title, a salary and a career, but it will be their goal, not yours. Students should learn to develop themselves in order to make decisions based on their own set of beliefs. Then they can decide to work with others who follow the same goals or act out of the same conviction.
The structure and discipline that I witnessed at that school in south London is in itself nothing bad, but it comes at a high price. These students may be able to enter top universities and land well paying jobs, but they may one day wake up and ask themselves what it was all for. I belief it is the responsibility of a school to help students develop their personality, but this is not possible when a school tries to be efficient. You need ‘pointless’ and ‘ineffective’ student activities that don’t lead to better grades if you want them to live a life of meaning and purpose. Sacrifice a bit of your academic excellence and make room for personal development. The system won’t thank you for it, but the students will – by living a more fulfilled life.