Disengaged Learning

In seventh grade algebra, my teacher scrawled a string of numbers across the chalkboard: -10, -9, -8. and up through 8, 9, and 10. Mrs. Ernzen’s task for the day was to teach a room of young teens how to add and subtract negative numbers. She stood in front of the chalkboard and through her hands up with enthusiasm. Her pixie-cut and funky pink-rimmed glasses exaggerated her passion for authenticity and teaching—a contagious passion that invited her students to engage, experience, and learn.

The American school system teaches students to be cogs in a broken, ever-evolving machine that is becoming less and less relevant with each passing day. Rote memorization does not work, as evidenced by countless studies over the year. Pair this with the decreasing attention span of humans, and we have a big problem. By the time young adults enter the real world—a world of jobs, relationships, and self-sufficiency—many flounder. The skills learned in school are utterly useless much of the time.

Mrs. Ernzen stood before the number line, before “-2” and asked the class, “how do I subtract three from negative two?” Since she was subtracting, she faced towards the left, towards the negatives, and took three steps in that direction. She landed at “-5”.

The problem with modern education is that there are few, if any, internal feedback loops. Children read material, complete homework, and take tests; they memorize material, receive grades based on surface understanding, and are then shooed along to the next chapter. Teachers, unfortunately, have their hands tied when it comes to delving in deeper to important topics and skipping the less relevant ones. The systems in place often required extensive research and resourcing, so altering the dysfunctional system once more is often pushed aside until dissent can no longer be ignored.

“Let’s try another one! Let’s imagine negative two plus three.” Mrs. Ernzen positioned herself in front of the number “-2” and then asked the students what was next. We instructed her to face to the right since we were adding. She took three steps to the right and stopped in front of “+1”. She shouted out with enthusiasm and the entire class beamed with pride.

Not many teachers are like Mrs. Ernzen. This is one of my few classroom memories from elementary school. I don’t remember many lessons, activities, or facts. Energy, enthusiasm, conversations between students are often forbidden in the classroom. It’s a place for learning, not a place for fun. But what if learning could be made fun?

I was always a good student, though it was more a matter of discipline than enjoyment. However, I always looked forward to summer, particularly summer camps. I attended science camp, zoo camp, Girl Scout camp, sports camp, music camp, sewing lessons, and STEM camp. I have fond memories of every single summer: learning about animals, wearing hand-crafted clothing, and making new friends. My favorite was STEM camp, where 30 preadolescent girls designed bridges using CAD software, built functional rollercoasters from foam tubing and marbles, and—perhaps for the first time in their lives—learned through hand-on participation. Those are the lessons I remember.

With age, I’ve come to understand the importance of interactive learning. If I were to have a child today, I would not trust the American school system to prepare them for success. Though I am neither a parent nor a teacher, I believe that the system is flawed. We need to promote engagement and enthusiasm surrounding learning. Leaving for school in the morning should generate the level of excitement I felt as I climbed in the family van for summer camp, not the dread of sitting still for 8 hours and being caught daydreaming.

We are moving away from Industrialism and towards a world hinged on creativity, innovation, and new perspectives. Millions of children memorizing the same vocabulary lists and math problems is not going to achieve that.

With the rise of technology come new challenges, and new opportunities. I believe it’s our responsibility to begin applying the latest research to better understand learning, engagement, and retention; I believe that we have the obligation to prepare younger generations for the unknown, ever-unfolding future that they will come into and help create. Though the problem is evident, there is no clear-cut solution. Perhaps, the necessary systematic changes will be—or need to be—just as explorative for the change-makers as those affected. Maybe we needed to approach the questions with the same lighthearted excitement as a child anticipating summer camp, with a sense of adventure and belief that anything is possible.

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