Editor’s Note: ‘Tis the trendy season for trends, to reflect on 2014 and to make bold predictions about what next year may hold. This year, we asked thought leaders to share their outlooks on education, but with a twist. They have to frame their thoughts as a response to some of the finest college application essay prompts--yes, the very same ones that high school seniors are feverishly working on now!
Here’s what Erik Finman, founder of Botangle, had to say.
Anxiety. Stress Fear. This is what I felt every day I walked down the halls of High School. Although I had some good friends and a few good teachers, the majority of my experiences were awful. I had teachers telling me to drop out and work in a McDonald’s. Worse than that, I was physically and mentally bullied. Some days I was even afraid to go to school and would take a sick day because I was so terrified: terrified of getting shoved into a locker, scared of the dozen essays I’d have to do, embarrassed to face my teachers with a question that seemed obvious to everyone else. Talking to successful people in the Bay Area and even reconnecting with my old High School friends, I found that other people had the same problem.
Knowing that other people have the same troubles makes me want to cry. As students, we are expected to get the A, but in reality, only a fraction of students deliver. Humans are dynamic: there’s no one metric to define mastery of a subject, as it varies person by person. Even so, some students are willing to spend every waking moment of their lives studying, which is one way to learn. But the majority of students don’t have the opportunity to apply themselves, because they really can’t succeed in the one size fits all system. Humans are loose, flexible, and usually forgiving, so shouldn't learning be the same?
That’s not the case, as school is usually a time of stress and anxiety where people actually aren't learning anything, but just getting drilled over and over again. I want to go up to them after they've been studying for eight hours and ask, what is this drilling for? Build what you want to build, whether that be painting a mural, building a robot, or whatever else they desire. I believe the student who has the lowest GPA in a school has just as much potential as the school’s valedictorian given the right motivation. I was one of these lower students and these projects helped me find what I love to learn. People with bad grades are just not motivated enough: a project they voluntarily want to do makes them learn so much more than getting all A’s in a classroom.
One example I know firsthand is my FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics team, a student-run organization that organizes into teams to compete in a national robotics competition. People who knew nothing about math, programming, or engineering were able to jump in and learn from other students without even realizing it. This program was completely voluntary, and often, people would come for a day or two just to test it out before nearly all of them signed up. For many students, this program offered a chance to pursue their interests outside of the classroom. And ironically enough, it was not just the A students that flourished. I was inspired by one member whose family did not have a car, so he biked 30 miles from his abusive home where there wasn’t electricity to come to robotics everyday. No matter what background you came from, you were accepted on the team. I found that the people who would normally be considered mediocre by society's standards are now accessing their full potential, even going to work at organizations like NASA, studying at MIT, and starting their own businesses.
I know from experience that all students don’t fit in one box. So if we’re a dynamic people, why aren’t we in a dynamic schooling system? It’s frustrating that only the people that are “good test-takers” or know how to play “the game” can really succeed in the current formula. What outrages me is the millions of students like myself, who have been overlooked because they do not learn well in the current education system.