Friday, August 26, 2016

The mask that students wear

The biggest stress factor in being a student is being a student. The "student" is a mask that kids wear to play a game involving arbitrary and often unnecessarily petty rules of conduct and impossibly difficult tasks that have little to no bearing on who they really are under their masks. The students we meet in class are pale shells of who they really are. It is when they are not in school that's where we find their true selves.

Keeping the two identities apart for a sustained period every school day makes school the torture that it is for most kids. The ones who suffer the most are the ones who have the clearest sense of self identity -- the musicians, the dancers, the athletes, the computer whizzes and the entrepreneurs -- who have to keep their real selves hidden while they pretend to be sheep when in school.

The identity of the "student" is formless and shapeless. Always incomplete, and hence always having to defer to the wisdom and authority of the "teacher". Students have nothing to say because they don't know enough. They are lumps of clay or rock which submit to the hands of the teacher who sculpts and molds them to whatever shape the school needs them to be -- usually a cube or a brick that easily fits in with everybody else who has been successfully 'bricked' after doing their required schooling time in their turn.

Schools and parents emphasize that exams are their kids' top priority. Everything else can wait until all the prerequisite 'A's have been garnered and paraded among family members and the education community. All the more so among the tuition agencies for whom exam results are their raison d'etre thus making the "student" identity perfectly solid. In the meantime, the identities which have been kept hidden often get forgotten or shelved in the process of brick-making.

Kids hate school because schools subvert individual identity, and level every student towards the lowest common denominator. The tasks they are assigned, the subjects they grapple with, the pressure they get to do their best apply to their student selves, but are completely irrelevant to their real selves. On our part, as teachers, we are stymied as to how to motivate our kids to work harder and do better; and for other kids who have no identity beyond the mask they wear, how to manage their stress before they go bonkers.

What if kids and schools agreed to dispense with the "student" mask and allow their true selves to flourish instead? We take the emphasis away from common exams in favour of allowing the kids to develop themselves as musicians, dancers, and whatever else they see themselves as first. Rather than have them suppress their talents and put them aside to study for exams, we show them how being smart in their academics supports their personal development and helps them become better at what they are or want to be good at. While they develop their physicality and skills, we train them in becoming better thinkers, analysts, strategists, and storytellers. That way, the exams make sense as they become part and parcel of their overall development rather than as a separate and unrelated obstacle they have to overcome before they are allowed to chase their dreams.

I'm not asking for much to change other than mindset. I want us teachers to recognise that we are supporting the cognitive development of individual people offering a wide variety of talents and abilities, rather than training a common mass of drooling zombies to jump through exam hoops. I want kids to bring their true selves to school and to class -- the ones who know who they are and who they want to be successful as, and not the "student" who only does things because they are told to do things.

A good school isn't the one that goes all-out to deliver the best exam results. It's the one which develops its kids to be whatever they want to be first, then good exam results follow as an after-effect.