My Response to a Graduation Speech and my Thoughts on Education

There is a speech that has been spreading around the internet in the last couple of days.  A High School Valedictorian’s graduation speech.  I have seen it posted and linked to by many of my friends, most of them teachers or studying to become teachers or otherwise involved in the educational system in America. And all of them are geeking out about it.  They all claim it is the most amazing piece of writing they have ever read, hands down.  If you haven’t read it yet, do so.  It really is an interesting speech and worth reading.  But, I must be honest, I’m not really all that impressed.

Maybe it is the way in which I was raised, or maybe it is my cynical nature, but when I see something touted as being the end-all, beat-all, most-amazing-thing-you-have-ever-seen, like this speech was by my friends, I am more than a little skeptical.  I start to take it apart before I’ve even finished reading it.  I will say that I did enjoy the speech, it raised some good points, but there was definitely something missing: the conclusion, the point, the ‘so-what.’  It was a good, emotionally-charged speech, telling people who already dislike the school system that the school system is broken.  Of course it’s going to be received well, but it ended up sounding just a little bit like a Russian Communist agitprop piece or a passage from Ayn Rand.

Let’s start with the positive, those points she makes that I agree with.  She does have quite a few, and I do agree with the overall theme of the speech, just not the manner in which it was delivered, and obviously not in the way it ended.

  1. Learning Outcomes, or What is the Point of School?

At the beginning she says, “This is the dilemma I’ve faced within the American education system. We are so focused on a goal, whether it be passing a test, or graduating as first in the class. However, in this way, we do not really learn. We do whatever it takes to achieve our original objective.”  That is one of the biggest problems with the educational system in America, as I see it: the focus on tests, especially standardized tests. But, before you throw them out completely, you have to realize that there will always be tests, there have to be tests, or some sort of evaluation done of students to ensure that they are meeting the learning objectives set forth by teachers and administrations.  Tests are not a bad thing.  But when they become the sole focus of the teaching, the sole purpose of the classroom, the only thing that students care about, then they become a problem.

I have mentioned before that I work for a tech support help desk, and for the last two years I have been a trainer, working with new employees and with older employees when there is a new product or program release, to make sure that everyone is trained well enough to support our customers.  Part of the new hire process, implemented by management, is a certification test, an exam that each agent takes to prove to us that they understand what they have been taught about computers and the products that we support.  This is necessary, we need to make sure that they know enough to handle an incoming call before we let them loose, to avoid bad customer satisfaction and to avoid an agent burning out when they are expected to know more than they actually do.  My complaints to management have never been about the test itself, but in the way the test is written and administered.  They came to me as a Subject Matter Expert on certain processes and programs and told me to write x number of test questions.  At the time I didn’t know any better and so I did.  It was hard, and that should have been my first clue that something was wrong.  I came up with the correct number of questions, even though most of them were dumb questions, too specific and requiring that agents had practically memorized the training that I had given.  After a year and a half, and having worked with many new employees struggle with that test, I have learned and I want to improve the test.  The bottom line needs to be ‘What do we really want them to know off of the top of their heads and what don’t we care if they look up later?’  When creating a test, that has to be your guideline.  It shouldn’t be creating a certain number of questions about a specific topic, or creating a test so that the average grade is a C.  It should be, ‘what do I really want my students to know, what is the real desired outcome?’  To that end, I let the new employees use our Knowledge Base, our large database of collective, technical knowledge articles, their notes, Google, etc.  I just ask them not to ask anyone else what the answer is.  Because, honestly, I don’t really care what they have memorized, I care about whether or not they can find the information they need when they need it.  If it’s memorized, great! If not, but they can find it quickly, that’s great, too!  Because in my mind, when this new agent receives a phone call from a customer with a computer problem, that is the real test, so anything that an agent would have available to them when they’re on a phone call, they should have available when they take this test.  That’s my opinion.   We need to rethink our learning objectives and outcomes and rewrite our curriculum to match.

2. Educational Attitude, or Why do we want to learn?

This  young, smart  Valedictorian also says, “Education is an excellent tool, if used properly, but focus more on learning rather than getting good grades.”  That is a great statement and should be emblazoned on every school building across this country. It is related to the last point, where we need to re-examine what our focus is in the classroom.  Do we want kids to get good grades, or do we want them to get a good education?  For me, this comes down to what I call Educational Attitude, or how we feel about education.  This refers to both teachers’ attitudes toward school as well as students’ attitude, and even, somewhat, parents’ attitudes.  As I think about becoming a teacher, I think a lot about what kind of teacher I want to be.  And I really want to be that huge nerd of a teacher that everybody likes anyway.  “Mr. T, yeah, he’s a bit nuts when it comes to German, but he’s a fun guy.  He really gets excited about his subject, sometimes a bit too much, but he makes the class worthwhile.”  Studies have shown that the number one factor for student success is teacher attitude, more so than even teacher aptitude.  That is, students learn more from a teacher who is excited about their subject than one who is most knowledgeable in their subject.  Teachers need to keep being excited to teach, to help their students see that learning and doing well in school is not something just for nerds, but that everyone who wants to be successful in life does.  This is the reason we need more male teachers, especially in middle and high school, where most boys stop caring about school because being smart is seen culturally as not being manly.  There is the classic dichotomy in America between the jock and the geek, and most young boys, who are struggling to find their identities, would rather be the football star than the smart kid, even with people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and the Google guys proving that being smart can make way more money that being athletic.  Schools need more male teachers to show these boys that doing well academically can still be cool and will lead to lifetime success.

Students need to buy into this as well.  Teachers can have a tremendous influence on student’s attitudes toward school, but they are fighting an uphill battle against years of cultural dislike for school, especially among young boys.  American pop culture is full of images of school as a prison -for-kids, a place they have to be but never want to be.  Think of the image of the reluctant child on his way to school, even described by Shakespeare, “The whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school.” (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII, lines 145-47).  And part of this comes from parent attitudes as well.  Parents remember that they didn’t like school and even if they don’t say this out loud to their children, children pick up on it.  This is one reason why foreign language study in America doesn’t do so well.  Parents remember that they took four years of German, or French, or Spanish in school and could barely say “hello, my name is _____”, and so they don’t expect their kids to do much more.  These parents then become politicians, or sit on school boards, all the while not expecting too much from foreign language programs, because they didn’t get much out of their own experience.  So foreign language programs get cut in favor of more ‘core’ classes, more ‘important’ classes.

3. The ‘So What Moment’, or where do we go from here.

This is the part that I felt was decidedly missing from the graduation speech.  It did well at bringing up these points that the school system in America is broken, but, honestly, who didn’t know that already?  It does well at pointing out the flaws in the system, but offers very little by way of solutions.  There is a very interesting children’s book my manager has in his office that he read to us once, The Dog Poop Initiative.  It’s kinda funny, but has a great point.  It’s based on an actual experience the author had with his son’s soccer team, that has turned into a motivation speaking/management training tool.  The story goes that some dog had pooped in the middle of a soccer field.  The first two teams showed up to play and they saw the mess.  The avoided it pretty well.  When the next teams showed up, all of the kids told the new kids where the poop was so that they could avoid it, the parents came over and also warned about the mess, and then the referees came over and warned the new teams about the mess.  This was just a bit too much for our author, he went over to a trash can, found a chunk of cardboard and a stick and cleaned up the mess.  Something that 20-odd people had noticed, warned about, complained about was fixed by one person who just took the initiative and solved the problem.

Too often I see that same attitude and mentality all around me.  People are willing to tell others about problems they’ve found, but few are willing to do something about it. This speech ends with, “For those of you that are now leaving this establishment, I say, do not forget what went on in these classrooms. Do not abandon those that come after you. I am now supposed to say farewell to this institution, those who maintain it, and those who stand with me and behind me, but I hope this farewell is more of a “see you later” when we are all working together to rear a pedagogic movement.”  She hints at the possibility, and the necessity of doing something, but she never actually provided any concrete or clear answers.   It is all too easy to ask questions, it is much harder to answer them.  I would be very interested in learning where this girl is in five years, what she has decided to do.  She makes some very valid points, but is she going to go into education or public policy or anything like that, or was this just a well-written speech designed to gain her notoriety and infamy in the internet education community?  This speech has all of the elements that make it a great read and a great viral internet phenomenon that gets shared and reshared and emailed and posted all over the place, but in the end it seems to be just empty rhetoric (though, I must give her kudos for using such good rhetoric in an era where we do not teach that as much as we should) without any viable solution or conclusion.

So, what’s my ‘So What?’  What’s my solution?  As I’ve pointed out, there are several flaws in the American educational system, but they all seem to come back to attitude, belief, and understanding what the point of education or public school is: to prepare students and children to take their place in the world.  We need to provide them with, or help them develop the skill they need to be productive, successful members of society, learning from our mistakes and making plenty of their own.  We need to reevaluate the purpose of our public schools and realize that it isn’t simply to pass a test, to get a grade, to get a diploma, it is to foster an attitude of lifelong learning simply because you can.    I am working on several other posts about this subject, as it is obviously one about which I care a great deal as I prepare to become a public teacher.  I have ideas that I have learned from teacher friends of mine, teachers of mine, friends of mine as well as a few of my own.  But the bottom line always seems to be defining the purpose of school and working towards that purpose.  I would love to hear all of your thoughts, because only together can we change more than ourselves.