Education is not a race
In Science magazine of 24th June, 2011, Deborah Stipek, the dean of the Stanford University School of Education, wrote an editorial on the educational performance pressure on students.
In the United States and elsewhere, the competitive pressures placed on young people in school are damaging many otherwise promising lives. In addition to generating debilitating anxiety and encouraging a culture of cheating, this competition takes the joy out of learning. The film Race to Nowhere, which continues to receive attention since its release a year ago, documents the unhealthy consequences of the competitive “teach to the test” climate that many U.S. students experience. The film, in which I was interviewed, puts in clear relief the pressures that youth are under to amass large numbers of Advanced Placement (college-equivalent) classes, win science fairs, excel in the arts and sports, and in other ways distinguish themselves from the competition for admission into a few select universities that parents and schools believe are critical for future success. Research on motivation makes it clear that focusing attention entirely on performance, whether grades or test scores, destroys whatever intrinsic interest the subject matter might have had.* There are certainly students whose passions spur them to realize their full potential in rigorous academic courses and other impressive activities. But how many potential Nobel Prize winners have written off science before the end of high school because their only exposure to the subject had been in test preparation courses rather than in classes that delved into meaningful questions? It doesn’t have to be this way, but change will require coordinated efforts at many levels.
Link to full-text editorial.