Thinking Unconventionally

by Zac Godwin / Photo copyright Touchstone Pictures

Teaching students in a cookie-cutter fashion only results in cookie-cut students. Educators should embrace unconventional methods to teach their students.

With finals finally over, students have lifted the pressure of exams from their shoulders; the pressure of trying to remember everything they’d learned from the semester. But I’m willing to bet that in the last few months here at RACC, you never got on top of desk during class and started dancing. Why not? Why did you spend all that time taking notes and learning the way you always have? Why not deviate from the formulaic approach to education and aim towards doing something a little less conventional?

In the movie, Dead Poets Society, a new teacher brings his unconventional teaching style to a boy’s elite prep-school. At this stuffy school, he teaches the students to stand atop their desks and rip pages from their textbooks, showing them the benefits to learning unconventionally. The boys in the class had never learned like this, and the smiles on their faces reflected on how much they appreciated the chance to get out of their chairs and have fun while learning. The movie showed that students don’t always respond to a strict and formulaic style of teaching. But why, after nearly three decades since this movie’s release, are students still being taught in the same old narrow-minded way. To be sure, a Robin Williams movie cannot single-handedly fix all the problems in education, but you’d think someone would have taken notice of the problems in school after all this time.

Dead Poets Society is a commentary on children being taught the wrong way in schools. It sets out to prove that students should be allowed to grow without the constraints that education places on them. Look to Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 2” for a similar view on the educational system. Kids walk into the huge machine that is school unique and full of purpose, and walk out as obedient and faceless bodies that are “just another brick in the wall.” In the movie, the students start out with textbooks that teach the subject of poetry using formula and the students are chastised if they do something that goes against the rules laid out for them.

This scene mirrors the way that students in the real world are often taught to sit and listen before they are taught to think and question. Why are math and science taught every day in nearly every school around the world instead of dance? The simple answer is that dance won’t get you a job, but math will. Some educators assume that lectures followed by extensive homework is the best way to teach children, but this movie points out that they’re wrong.

Of course students don’t need to scream and rip pages from their books in order to learn; yet the basic idea is still poignant. Looking back to my own time in high school, I can recall many times that I was told to act a certain way, think inside the box, and do only what I was asked. In high school, I was often told not to be so emotional in my writing and to just follow the prompt. The educators weren’t at fault, as they just followed the curriculum given to them. But I felt hindered by the limitations given to me. I went through school doing what I was told when I was told to do it, and it never occurred to me that learning didn’t have to be so boring.

One of the biggest problems with the way kids are taught is that educators have no idea what the world will be like when these children become adults. Students are being educated to thrive in a world that does not exist yet. Educators format their curriculum in a way that is intended to mold children into productive members of society. The New York Times bestselling author Ken Robinson said, “If you think of it, children starting school this year [in 2006] will be retiring in 2065. Nobody has a clue, despite all the expertise that’s been on parade… what the world will look like in five years’ time. And yet we’re meant to be educating them for it.”

Instead of pushing students towards a future that we can’t predict, we should focus on the students themselves. Letting students figure out how they learn best will develop their own unique style, and will help them in the long run.

I think back to being a teenager in middle school, slumped over my dinner table, trying to complete my math homework for hours on end. My parents, being the helpful people they are, would offer their assistance. Before this, I was ignorant to how education had evolved over the years. My parents – both incredibly intelligent people – had no idea how to help me with my homework. The reason they couldn’t help me had nothing to do with their education background or level of intelligence; it was the fact that the world had changed drastically from the time that they were my age. The things that educators saw as necessary to teach children when they were in school was totally different from what I learned.

With this in mind, it seems unfair to push students in a certain direction without any inclination that the world might change by the time that they graduate. The University of La Verne in California reported that on average, 50-70% of students will change their major at least once during their college education, and speculated that 40% of future careers have yet to be created. The world will be totally different – with new necessities – by the time children in school ever get the opportunity to use the things that they are taught.

Learning is an amazing thing that most people take for granted, and I don’t intend to gloss over the gift of accessible schooling. Yet schools are going about teaching as if they are wearing horse blinders. Students have an incredible amount of potential that would remain untapped if they couldn’t learn the way that they were being taught. It reminds me of an old quote, often attributed to Einstein: “Everybody is a genius. But if you measure a fish by its ability to climb a tree, then it will live forever thinking that it is stupid.”

Beyond the group of left-brain favoring future mechanics and college professors, the dancers, writers, and artists are being left to learn by themselves. Schools offer electives in these subjects in order to widen their focus, but they can’t possibly compete with math and science – which are taught every day in almost every school around the world. This is why Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society was able to blow the minds of his students. He went into the classroom and offered a way of thinking – a way of learning – that was nothing those boys had ever seen before. They were desperate for a different outlook on education, so why shouldn’t we assume that real boys and girls have the same desire?

As a student, I craved knowledge, but rejected formal education. So I can only imagine how happy I would have been if a man walked into my tenth grade English class and told me to jump on my desk and rip pages out of my book that described poetry with formulas. It amazes me how much of an increase in participation and critical thought there is in a class where they student told to think of an answer as opposed to being told to find one.

Maybe teachers today should learn from this 30-year-old movie and how it went about inspiring students. As long as schools cater so heavily to one “brand” of student, there will always be at least one child left behind. When, and if, schools acknowledge the rest of their student base and adapt their message to better include these misfits of education, students will have the opportunity to better understand how they learn. And having a generation of people who are excited by the idea of learning would have an incredible impact on our world.

So instead of making those color coded note cards and pulling all-nighters, maybe you should ask your professor to clear the desks so you can jump on top and preform some tap-dancing. Opening up your mind to some unconventional thinking might just help you get that A.

Categories: Health, Science & Technology, News & Editorial

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