Why NOBODY is Dumb: On Education, Grades and Anxiety
There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all. _Mario Savio
many people across the globe have grown up being told that education is the key to a great life. What we don’t really pay attention to is everything else that goes down in that process, the choices that people have to make, the risks, and the pressure. We barely draw a fine line on what should be compromised down the road, and what we really understand by “great life” which most of the times leads us to making choices that aren’t necessarily beneficial to us personally all in the goals of having that “ great life”. There are so many debates of what is deemed to be a “great education” and sometimes that also defines how individuals are esteemed in various spaces. A “great education” sometimes mean attending Ivy league colleges, or going to private elite institutions, to others, it is the simple privilege of having access to formal education, and that’s all about it. I don’t think that there is, or will ever be a universal definition of a “great education” simply because people come from different backgrounds therefore have different perspectives on given issues, however, we can all establish that any form of education is important to the collective development of an individual.
In this context, we will be referring mainly to formal education, that means school and everything that goes with it. Formal education is a long journey, actually, an average human spends most of his/her life inside a classroom, form pre-school to university, some go further to obtain masters degrees and PHDs, for a student to move from one level to another, there are things that are expected from him/her. And these expectations, though necessary, can be harmful to certain individuals depending on how they are set, or on how an individual process different situations. A common phrase you will come across when things get hard in the classroom is “ I’m so dumb”, some people say it just like that, but to others they literally mean it, due to a series of recurring events, they are drawn to believe that it is in fact very true. Being “dumb”, might just pass for a genuinely natural thing, however, the more we normalize it in society, gives it more power to destroy the physical, emotional, and intellectual capacity of so many people. However, there are many reasons that would prove that, in fact, nobody Is dumb, we have to admit that unfortunately some people are mentally disabled, but they not dumb either. Education systems across the world, in their core foundation, primarily bases on evaluation through grades. We have to understand that evaluation is final, it checks for quality, it looks at how much a person knows about a given topic, and a score will be given based on that, evaluation, contrary to assessment, doesn’t give the benefit of understanding the process or the condition, if at the end of a one hour long math exam, you can’t solve an equation, then you have completely failed, there is no understanding that you needed more time, or a different mental environment to solve that equation, so at the end of the day, you might end up believing that you in fact dumb in math, which isn’t necessarily the truth.
Grades have become a way to test or prove that people are actually smart and intelligent, their knowledge and mastery in a subject is proven by what they score they obtain after long and painful hours of going through different exams, depending on what the evaluator is looking for, which doesn’t really prove much because they evaluations are not always exhaustive of a subject, which means that in a different circumstance a person who scores fairly high, might score very low in a different evaluation. Some institutions have embraced the mastery assessment process, commonly in graduate school, assessment looks at the condition and is more procedural, there are clear deliverables set for a given lesson, and detailed skills that a person have to master to get to the next level, in this system, contrary to a final grade, a rubric that scales the different levels of the skills mastery is given, this gives students the opportunity to track their progress, but it slightly takes away the pressure of having a final grade. Assessments have formative and summative assignments, every formative assignments focuses on specific skills, and summative assignments combine a range of skills that a person is expected to have obtained over a given course of time. It is safe to say that, though not necessarily easy, assessments are more flexible and provides room for improvement without labeling anybody as “dumb”.
Anxiety and depression are major mental health concerns across the globe, student’s mental health is disturbed when they start stressing about getting the “right grade. Over the past decade, numbers of students, especially teenagers, who have anxiety disorders, have increased. Although there are other causes of anxiety such as social media, divorces, and more, grades have become a leading cause of these issues. School nurses encounter so many cases of panic attacks associated to grades, that even kind words can’t completely eradicate. In a digital world where there is a lot of information, a lot to know, and a lot to learn, there also a lot of pressure that comes with it. The biggest fear is that students will stop learning to gain knowledge but to obtain the “right grades”, either for college admission, for scholarships, or to simply feel a strong sense of validation from their communities.
Mario Savio’s quote, though subtle, would be a good example of how students feel, and how it proceeds to affect their lives. We must understand that the “right grade” pressure doesn’t just come from teachers, peers, and institutions, it also comes from parents, mentors, and other significant members of the community who were also conditioned to validate smartness and intelligence through grades. The problem comes from the system, it is something bigger and more complex, the way education systems are designed across the globe, is complicated, and the aspect of relying heavily on grades makes it extremely competitive. The “great life” become harder to achieve because of the constant pressure to perform so as to meet the expectations of where you want to be next, maybe it’s the next grad school, or the next job, and so on. This narrows down to one simple truth, nobody is dumb, we’re all just part of harmful systems. Systems that are not all inclusive, that do not let people learn on their own pace, that barely contextualize lessons to real life scenarios to make them more relatable and easier to engage with. The system makes it nearly impossible to create other validation mechanisms that let us see people for who they are and not look at them through the lens of their grades and education history. Anybody is set for excellence, we just have to let people be free of unnecessary pressure.