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Educating Otherwise

Opinion | February 20, 2018

The first final exam in math I ever took was in tenth grade. It was a disaster. On the last day of school, my teacher handed me my exam with “43%” written at the top of the front page in red ink. To say that I felt devastated is an understatement. When my mom picked me up from school that day, I slammed the car door behind me and before she had time to ask what happened, I burst into tears. I couldn’t contain my pain and despair. I screamed so loud I lost my voice. My mother kept her calm and asked me to take deep breaths. I wasn’t crying because I was afraid of disappointing my parents—they have always supported me no matter the circumstance. I was crying because I disappointed myself. I have always been driven by my own intrinsic motivation at school. I felt downright stupid—a failure, just like my grade.


That day I came to two conclusions: first, I suck at math, and second, I hate math. Eventually, however, I deconstructed those faulty beliefs. In class, my teacher would publicly humiliate and sometimes even exclude students who didn’t complete the homework. This felt threatening and belittling—no wonder I had so much anxiety in that class. My grade on the final exam was not a reflection of my learning, but rather of the stress and lack of motivation I felt in class.


Although it’s easier to say that math was simply not my “calling,” I see myself as a victim of a system that failed me. My schooling years showed me that learning does not happen in a vacuum. Learning is a social experience that relies on a safe and nurturing environment. Several studies show that students are more likely to take risks and persevere, think critically and creatively, and engage in extracurricular and service opportunities when they have a sense of belonging and purpose, which is only possible in a supportive and stimulating environment.


Within the Western model of education, where the teacher stands in front of the classroom and delivers information to be memorized, learning is treated as a very independent and individualistic endeavor. Students are responsible and expected to do their work on their own, with little to no collaboration. Some forms of collaboration, such as on tests, take home assignments, and papers, are harshly penalized or considered “cheating.” This contradicts the purpose of school, which, strictly speaking, is to promote learning. How should students be expected to fully learn anything if they are limited to their individual knowledge and what is written in their textbooks?


We know that an effective one-size-fits-all model of education does not exist because students have different needs and thrive under different conditions. This is why “it depends” is a phrase we hear a lot from educators. The need for innovative educational models is more pressing than ever. The 21st century has revolutionized the way we now interact with information and others. The internet allows us easy and instant access to information, thereby devaluing the importance of rote memorization. The focus of schools should no longer be placed solely on content knowledge, but also on procedural knowledge and skills.


Innovation can take many different forms; I looked into three examples that stretch what we think of as a “good” education. In the case of High Tech High (HTH) schools in San Diego, innovation is explicit in nearly all aspects. The four guiding principles of HTH are equity, personalization, authentic work, and collaborative design. Classes start with what is called an “entry activity” to engage students and prepare them for the day ahead. Entry activities can involve writing, drawing, answering problem-solving questions, or playing community building games. Teachers facilitate structured conversations using methods such as Socratic seminars, literature circles, and debates. These methods encourage active participation and listening skills.


In addition, HTH students conduct critiques on drafts, early iterations of projects, preliminary sketches, project proposals, and more. The class uses critique to collectively design a rubric for students’ final products. To ensure that students make use of their time wisely, they complete a daily plan outlining each person’s responsibilities. Teachers use informal assessment techniques throughout class to check for students’ understanding and prompt reflection. Each semester concludes with an exhibition open to the public, which adds a sense of accountability and authenticity. Numbers show that 87 percent of HTH students go on to a university or two-year college, and 35 percent of these are the first generation of their family to do so.


Along with innovative schools in the US, I am especially interested in similar educational settings in my home country, Brazil. The Lumiar Institute is well known for its methodology, which was awarded one of the 12 most innovative pedagogic proposals in the world by Stanford University, Microsoft, and UNESCO. Lumiar founded three schools. One is state-funded and offers free education to all of its students; it is the highest performing state school in its municipality. The other two schools are privately funded, but approximately 50 percent of students receive financial support with 25 percent receiving full scholarships—directly addressing the accessibility issues that quickly arise among innovative schools.


Lumiar schools hold “the learners’ interests, needs, and passions at the center of learning.” Students are grouped with students of different ages, giving them the opportunity to learn how to socialize as they would in the real world and allowing their development and exchange of experiences to unfold in a mutual and natural way. Like HTH, Lumiar uses a project-based approach to learning and uses integrative assessments instead of traditional exams. The “pedagogical staff” work as advisors, mentors, and coaches. Lumiar schools hold weekly school-wide assemblies known as “The Circle” attended by all school staff, students, and parents. They use this time to discuss proposals for new projects and disciplinary issues, as well as to allow students to showcase their achievements.


Besides its ability to take on different forms, another characteristic of innovation is that it is relative, meaning it depends on the context and target public of a school. For example, the Maranyundo Girls School, located in Rwanda, a country that is still recovering from genocide and European colonialism, is innovative compared to other schools in the area. Linda Beardsley, Senior Lecturer at Tufts and Chair of Maranyundo Initiative Education Committee, expressed that one of the greatest questions she faced was understanding what education meant and looked like to the community and later redefining it in order to provide a culturally appropriate education.


This last example raises important questions of what it means to define “innovation” across cultures, or to impose certain ideals of schooling onto colonized countries. Beardsley mentioned that education, particularly for girls, was previously not as valued and stressed finding a balance between making generalizations about a culture and seeing a systemic reality within it. Beardsley spoke about the frequency of girls dropping out in middle school because it was not safe for them, considering the sociopolitical context and the aftermath of genocide. Generally speaking, Maranyundo holds the expectation that these girls will become leaders in the country. The school offers plenty of resources, including laptops, Kindles, and tablets. In addition, they implemented a STEM high school to support and empower girls who desire to pursue that track. According to the Maranyundo website, “Tufts… plays an important role in evaluating the teaching practices and consulting on teaching and learning methodologies in STEM education for girls”—this is another example of a complex relationship between Western institutions and previously colonized countries, raising questions of power differentials.


Learning about these and other innovative schools made me want to be a student all over again. The future of education is exciting and filled with possibilities, but also filled with concerns: proper funding; teacher training; resources availability; effective measurements of academic, social-emotional, and civic development; and student accessibility regardless of race, class, gender, and disability, to name a few. A step beyond creating these innovative models will be making sure that all students, and especially marginalized students, have access to them, so these models can fulfill their mission to flip educational traditions. The only thing I know for certain is that education cannot stay where it is now. Rather than blaming the student, I blame the system. I hope future generations will never suffer from a panic attack because of a big, red number.