One of my tutors, Angela, recently told me about helping her Grade 7 student, Bonnie, prepare for a science test. During the tutoring session, Bonnie practiced with a mock test and scored 86 per cent. I then became confused when Angela noted that she was concerned with the results and had spent the rest of the session re-teaching Bonnie the entire unit.
It turns out Bonnie had memorized facts word for word, and could answer questions like "What is an antigen?" with textbook accuracy. She would say, "Antigens are a toxin or other foreign substance that induces an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies." But when Angela asked her to delve deeper, Bonnie stumbled and wasn't able to showcase her understanding.
Bonnie has a high standing on her report card, and her teacher has assured her parents that their daughter's learning is on track. Even without a tutor, Bonnie would have done well, because she had memorized everything she was expected to know. But the amount of learning she had achieved was a different story.
Memorizing facts without understanding is common. Many students resort to memorizing definitions, steps, and even entire math procedures when they study. But this is a dangerous approach because it's not how we become disciplined learners.
Education should train students in the process of learning so that they can apply it to any future situation, whether that's in post-secondary, career or life. When you start a new job, your employer will (or should) provide you with the tools and training to do your job to the best of your abilities. If training isn't offered, you'll likely find your job to be a source of confusion, stress, and anxiety.
Young children do not receive training on disciplined learning. They rarely have homework, they don't have tests or midterms and pop quizzes have gone extinct. If there are tests, the questions are simple and don't require deep thinking. Then, ready or not, unprepared teenagers are thrown into high school and told they need high grades for their future's sake.
Without the training, students' mental health suffers. High schools have had to introduce mental health education about suicide, bullying, and the fentanyl crisis. According to a Global News article, "Students at this level are being taught about these subjects because 14 or 15 are the ages that see the most common onset of mental illness."
If tests truly assessed learning, we would find out that most students have no clue how to learn. Instead of solving math problems, they read their math notes, thinking that's practicing. Instead of understanding what antigens are, they memorize its textbook definition, thinking that's studying. And they genuinely believe they have learned the concepts sufficiently when they study for a couple of hours a day before the test.
Schools have reduced the pressure on students by simplifying the curriculum, inflating grades and telling concerned parents everything is fine when it is not. The mentality of making things easier for students is dangerous because it simply delays the onset of mental illness to their post-secondary years. The 2016 National College Health Assessment survey performed by the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) reported that within a 12-month time period, 18.4 per cent of students were diagnosed or treated by a professional for anxiety, 14.7 per cent for depression and 13 per cent of students seriously considered suicide.
University Confessions Facebook pages are full of comments from students struggling to face the challenges of post-secondary:
"There is nothing better during a final exam than to see the reactions of your neighboring students. I've seen it all, hitting their head on the table, crying or just blankly staring into the distance and contemplating what they are doing with their life. The moments before an exam flashing before their eyes as they watch themselves watch Netflix, play video games, or partying and regret not studying. They may even question themselves why they are the way that they are..." From UBC Confessions Facebook Page, Dec. 28, 2017
Until K-12 schools take responsibility, students will carry on with a false sense of confidence and optimism that they have the skills to succeed in post-secondary and workplace.
But parents can help their children in the following ways:
Teach students how to learn
The process starts with defining a vision, building habits, and learning strategies. This path emphasizes practice, effort, patience and concentration. It's how one reaches their highest potential. Routine homework and tests are opportunities to practice, learn from mistakes and assess learning.
Focus on improvement rather than results
Take the focus for education out of marks and grades, and instead teach your children to focus on continuous improvement. The child is always working on self-improvement, whether they're practicing math or writing. Working toward mastery is a never-ending loop because learning is a never-ending process. Whether the student is achieving all As or struggling, they're always working towards self-improvement.
Create a learning team
Your child's learning team includes you, your child, and perhaps another responsible adult or a tutor. Just like coaches provide guidance and significant growth opportunity for athletes, or mentors do for entrepreneurs, good tutors can have an invaluable impact on a child's confidence, motivation and learning. The team creates a supportive yet challenging learning environment for the child where he/she feels safe making and learning from mistakes.
Bonnie did well on her test, but now she receives biweekly quizzes from her tutor to make sure she can showcase her learning. Do you remember the definition of antigen? Maybe you memorized it at the beginning, but what you've learned throughout this article can give you an even broader understanding. Antigens induce an immune response in the body, just as pointless memorization induces an unnatural mental response in our children. They're both toxic.