Empowering Students: Thinking Beyond the Box

young studiing boy isolated on white backgroung
wecometolearn via Compfight cc

I was an A student in highschool and, looking back, I know that I got there by just regurgitating what the teacher said. In my school, I found that there was really no incentive for the students to think creatively or to think beyond the box. Instead, if you wanted to get it right, you just looked back on your class notes and memorized them and, even if you didn’t understand them, you could still just write them out on a test and get a good mark. It’s not that the teachers would necessarily mark you wrong if you put forward a new idea but the students just had no motivation to do so. Why put in the work to think creatively about something when you could, potentially, get punished for it grade-wise?

Needless to say, I think some schools today do not put a high enough emphasis on developing critical thinking skills. Lots of teachers are just focused on fulfilling all the objectives in the curriculum and, sometimes, the integrity of students’ learning can be compromised as a result; the pressure on teachers to make sure that they cover everything in the curriculum can sometime result in them just doing a crash course on a certain objective so that, when asked, they can say, “Yes, we absolutely did that!” In reality, the teacher may have just shoved all the material the students’ way and gave them an easy test so that they wouldn’t get angry parent phone calls. Of course, the question of  the curriculum (is it realistic to complete all those objectives in a year?) is a whole other blog post but I want, for this blog post, to focus mainly on the way teachers perhaps stifle the ability of students to think critically, most often through assessment. Indeed, assessment in schools is most often done only by the book – tests, papers, written assignments are often the only form of assessment there is in classrooms. And, with the push for standardized testing by the government, a reality that concerns many parents, the question should be asked: Is my child really learning what he/she needs? And this may not just include the parts of the cell or quadratic equations; but instead, it may include the ability for students to think creatively, to think for themselves, to think beyond the perimeters that the teachers set out for them.

In my school, we learned not to think for ourselves, but to automatically go to the teacher and say, “Help me!!” This happened whenever we had to spend more than 1 minute pondering a question. The author in this article dubs this attitude as “learned helplessness” and this is a mindset that I’ve seen at many of the schools that I’ve been placed in. Another facet of this “helplessness” that especially resonated with me is teachers automatically answering students’ questions, thinking they are the greatest teacher ever, even though allowing the student to think about the question further would actually be better for the students’ learning development. I know that I’ve absolutely been guilty of this; I want to help my students as much as I can and gaining that gratification by answering their question is an awesome feeling. But if by doing this we are teaching students to be “helpless” learners then our attitude about always helping the student must change; instead, teachers should answer students’ questions with questions to stimulate a more meaningful learning process. Of course, there is a time and a place for this particular usage of questioning but it is something that, in my opinion, would help the students learn those essential skills, one of which is the ability to work independently.

Another thought that perhaps fits in with this whole discussion: the connection between learning and grades. I took my first pass/fail class last semester in ECS 300. I was shocked to learn it was pass/fail; I had never heard of such a thing in university! The teacher addressed this on the first day of class and said there was too much of a correlation in schools between marks and learning. When I started to think about it, I realized the truth in her words. In high school, I wanted to get good grades for the sake of getting good grades; I didn’t necessarily care about what those good grades reflected or that they meant that I was learning something. I was the type of student who had a concrete aversion to failure; to me, I thought failure was a reflection of me as a person and that I would bitterly disappoint everyone around me if I did so. Like this article says, however, it is possible to “fail forward” and this is a concept that, although I did not see it in high school, I am learning more and more about during my university career. Now that I’m becoming more confident with who I am as a person, I have realized that there is no such thing as a failure that defines who you are. I think this is important to convey to students early on; learning is the most important objective in each class and so the grade you receive does not define your self-worth. The most important thing is that you are happy with yourself and so you shouldn’t be disappointed that you received a 60 on a test – even if you studied really hard for it and you, yourself, are happy with the grade – because you think your parents will be. Each teacher should try to cultivate a sense of self-confidence in each student as this self-confidence will help with the students’ leap into the real world.

This comic, of course, is not what I’m talking about when I’m talking about failure. Failing a class is one thing; generally, it means that you have, systematically, not done your homework or not studied for tests. Instead, it is those small failures that I think lots of students get caught up in; they don’t realize that failure is not a place where you have to perpetually stay in or a badge of shame that you have to wear. As a result, teachers must instil in students that failure is just a stepping stone to your journey to be successful.

It is these types of mindsets that I think teachers are obligated to teach, even as much as the curriculum. Teachers have a direct impression on their students and so one of the ways that they can show students the importance of these mindsets is by leading by example; show them that it’s okay to make mistakes and show them the importance of thinking critically. Let’s face it, it is these kinds of attitudes that students need the most upon graduating high school and so it would be very beneficial to students to learn this moving forward.

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