Every weekday I walk into my first class period exhausted from the previous night’s homework. For 55 minutes my teacher teaches, I take notes, and then the bell rings. I scribble down my homework, get up, and repeat. Seven times. Five days a week for the past six school years. One day after the next, I’m checking off the boxes like everyone else, with no sense of individuality. Is this learning?
I’ve thought long and hard about school: how it’s widely disliked by both students and teachers, how we count down the days until breaks, and how we despise Mondays. Since my days in elementary school, I’ve heard students, teachers and parents complaining. But why? Shouldn’t something so fundamental to the success of our lives and the achievements of our society be more valued?
We’ve all heard it: “The system is flawed.” Our educational system in its current form needs radical change. State-mandated school curricula must be infused with locally focused integrated learning, applying content from across different subjects to increase relevance. It is also in the best interest of all that teachers receive our trust and gain freedom from restrictive state curriculum requirements to make their own decisions about what their students need.
Sadly, school too often saps the joy of learning from students. Only 50% of students find what they’re learning in school to be relevant, according to a survey conducted by the education news website the74million.org. And student engagement only decreases further with each grade. A YouthTruth analysis of survey responses from 2012 to 2017 found that 78% of students were engaged in their learning in elementary school, declining to 59% in middle school and high school.
I enjoy learning immensely. When I entered high school, I grew intrigued by the origin of the universe, time and free will. I found myself drawn to forums and articles on space-time and the theory of determinism. Going down these rabbit holes in the “Wonderland” of the internet, I learned much about philosophy and physics. Even though some of my questions remained unanswered, I loved the whole process. At the heart of it, the inherent freedom to explore my interests enhanced my joy in learning about them. So why is it that many students like me cannot find the same motivation to learn at school?
For me, it’s the restrictive seven-period structure. It’s the lack of personal relevance due to a predetermined, strict curriculum. It’s the lack of apparent usefulness in the larger scheme of our world. To alleviate these issues, schools should engage more strongly in interdisciplinary learning. Maya Bhat, a junior in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Skyline High School in Sammamish, said this could help students become well-rounded. “It’s important to acknowledge that a lot of fields have crossovers. And those crossovers are how you innovate,” she said. I agree. At school, curriculum crossovers are rare.
The entire educational system — including the textbook companies, the state benchmark tests, the graduate programs, etc. — dictates what we learn and how we learn. This prevents us from exploring crossovers between subjects that are necessary to develop a thorough understanding of our world’s systems. To grant education the importance and value it necessitates, we must reverse the restrictive nature of schools. The system must be reworked from the grassroots up, starting with the methodology.
Integrated learning brings relevance to our classes without sacrificing the necessary rigor. I vividly remember exploring the wastewater-treatment process in my seventh grade physical science class. Our class competed in groups to develop a filtration system to produce the clearest water from a murky sample. The activity involved research, applying the physics and chemistry behind filtration, and using math to conduct basic cost-benefit analyses. Most importantly, the project was linked to our local wastewater treatment plant, from which a representative came in to show us with real pipes how the entire process works. I remember looking forward to this project each day, especially due to its clear connection to the real world.
Education researchers Alam Malik and Rukhsana Malik define integrated learning as the “organization of teaching matter to bring subjects together that are usually taught separately.” Many journalists have examined Finland for using a form of integrated learning called “phenomenon-based learning” (PBL). This method involves lessons co-taught by teachers from different subjects, where students choose an interdisciplinary topic or a phenomenon — such as the European Union or climate change — to structure their learning. Research shows PBL has demonstrated improved student outcomes in its two-year span, and integrated learning has been tied to improved performance: A study of sixth grade classes that integrated arts into the core curriculum noted an increase in reading scores by 15% and mathematics scores by 18%.
Education is one of the most critical components of society. Hence, our teachers deserve our trust and utmost respect. Yet they are granted neither, given a restrictive curriculum, unfair pay, and little freedom to teach to students’ interests. “Google ‘teachers” resignation letters’ and you’ll find anguished accounts of the many ways teachers have been stripped of their freedom to teach, leaving them feeling powerless and unable to teach their students in the ways they judge best,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers. If our teachers are not satisfied with the current means of educating their students to the point where they no longer wish to teach, it’s clear that schools need systemic change. It’s been clear — seeing how society’s perception of school hasn’t improved for decades.
We enjoy learning when it shines a light on the interdisciplinary systems of our real world. And when we enjoy learning, we learn best. So use the integrated learning model and return control of education to the people who care most — us students and our teachers.