As a Straight-"A" Student, I Wasn't Learning: The Pitfalls of a Performance-Focused Education System
In school, I was deemed a high-performer with perfect attendance and straight A's. My winning strategy was to study each teacher, understand their expectations, and work their system to earn good grades. Many teachers expressed that merely turning something in was enough, so that's often what it took. Others offered generous extra credit systems I would leverage to get my grade up. One day, a counselor noticed my good grades and considered me "smart enough" for placement in advanced courses. I rejected the opportunity for advancement. Call it imposter syndrome, but deep down I also knew my grades were the result of me working the system. I wasn't learning. I was performing.
I can recall one English teacher that held higher expectations, requiring students to share their thinking and prove their comprehension of the reading material. This was no match for my performance-based strategy. Appeasing this teacher took more effort and application on my part, and that's where learning happened. It was not enough to say I read the chapters, or even to actually have read them. What counted was that I demonstrated the capacity to question and comprehend what I was reading. Even as a straight-A student, this proved very difficult for me. As a high school junior approaching the end of the K-12 journey, this level of actual learning was somehow foreign to me. I've clocked in 12 school years, accompanied by countless hours of homework, and this was the first time I'm trying my hand at the actual skill of comprehension and critical thought? This was also the first time I experienced the physiological sensations that result from being challenged, learning something new, and attempting something hard. This teacher broke the cycle, which broke my performance system. I wasn't asked the typical memorization-based questions like "What was the name of the main character's pet?" Instead, I was asked questions like "What's your opinion of what you read?" "What do you think was the character's motive?" "Why is this significant?" "What do you believe the character could have done differently?"
I was stumped. For all these years, I was spending hours in class and at home reading chapters, yet somehow had no idea what I was reading.
This teacher is a proof point of the value of holding high expectations of students and creating a culture of rigorous learning. But what she did next was equally as important.
She didn't shame me, ridicule me, punish me, or assume I must have lied about reading the material (I might as well not have, I wasn't actually digesting a word of it or applying any critical thought to it). Instead, she encouraged me. She referenced the book, recapping the key points and adding her own commentary to model the process before giving me another chance at responding. Her commentary made the content interesting. The story somehow made more sense through her trusting voice. I actually wanted to keep reading to find out what happens next.
This teacher was developing my skills. Not just the skills of reading comprehension. She also taught me the skills of really digging into information, asking questions about it, building on it, thinking critically about it, and communicating my thoughts about it. She instilled in me an interest in reading and learning that I carry with me to this day. She also modeled the skills of patience, meeting someone where they're at, encouraging progress over perfection, delivering feedback with kindness and tact, and having faith in everyone's capacity to learn.
She made it look simple. As if it's possible for all teachers to take a similar approach within the same block of time, with nothing but a single book and twenty-five sets of eager eyes.
Students are expected to memorize knowledge, regurgitate information, and rank high on tests. It's easy to apply minimal effort to meet these low standards of achieving. Regardless of performance, the content doesn't stick. It does't spark interest. It's boring as hell. At best, students therefore develop the mindset of "let's get this over with," "what's the fastest way out of this?" or even "why bother showing up at all?"
The performance-based approach during key learning and development years has shaped students into masterful people pleasers skilled with playing on other people to achieve the easiest shortcuts to 'success,' as they've come to understand it. The focus on performance and production over interest, engagement, and application has become ingrained in our society, and it is translating into other aspects of life.
We go through life obsessing over how we perform, how we are perceived, how we are liked, and how we look.
People are more concerned with appearing perfect than with making tangible progress. The ones who do rise the ranks tend to be more skilled at regurgitating clever words and "working the room," than taking thoughtful action. Personal reputations, optics, rhetoric, and social-political agendas are prioritized over advancing communities and humanity. Success is tied to busy-ness and titles rather than one's creativity, merit, innovation, and measurable impact on others.
We've all experienced exhausting arguments that focus on "being right" or "picking a side" over calmly collaborating towards a reasonable solution. Relationships, human connection, and a sense of community (a fundamental human need) are faltering because we're terrible communicators with little-to-no practice with emotional self-control. Mental illness is unsurprisingly through the roof among children and adults alike. People are terrified at work. They won't take risks, they experience crippling self-doubt and imposter syndrome, and they struggle to speak up for their ideas (a blend of lacking the skills + the environmental conditions). The fear of failure, the aspiration to perform perfectly, and the endless effort to gain the respect of self-serving executives leads to paralysis, intimidation, burnout, and a lack of productive action (queue further shaming and labeling as careless, inadequate, or lazy). The workforce, as well as many family dynamics, further perpetuate this developmental lacking of natural human intelligence. "Toughen up and perform" is the mentality young people experience at school, at home, and again in the workforce.
At the root of all of this is an education system that doesn't teach the basic skills that help students put their knowledge into action and comfortably navigate complexities.
To create communities that value progress over perfection, innovation over the status quo, and other benefits of genuine humanness, it's time our education system is held accountable to developing the skills of learning alongside acquiring academic knowledge.