In June of 2018, I graduated from a small independent school in Southern California, which I attended from kindergarten through twelfth grade. My thirteen years there were a journey filled with struggle and joy, anxiety and curiosity.
In the midst of AP courses, studying for standardized tests, and the overwhelming anxiety that defined my high school experience, I dreamed about a different approach to education. Thinking about alternatives provided an escape, a place where my curiosity, critical thinking, and imagination thrived. In my final weeks of high school, I felt the need to engage in one culminating reflection. I hoped to capture and find beauty and meaning in my experience as a student. Through this reflection, I clarified my beliefs and synthesized my experience into three interconnected elements that I believe are crucial to creating a meaningful education.
It is important to prioritize happiness.
Happiness enables students to more fully engage with and support their peers, to demonstrate empathy and compassion, to find fulfillment in their work, and to live healthy and productive lives. Nonetheless, in our society there is an overemphasis on achieving narrowly measurable outcomes. For example, many prioritize financial success as the end goal of education. Standardized test scores, grades, college acceptances, prestigious jobs, and, ultimately, high earnings become primary indicators of educational achievement. And so, it becomes a radical notion to ask, “what if happiness rather than money is the purpose of a meaningful and successful education?”
It is true that happiness is far more difficult to measure than financial success. It is challenging to quantify the depth of one’s relationships or of one’s love of learning. However, education is deeply and inherently human. Learning is carried out by people with people, and people are immeasurable, unquantifiable, and imperfect. It is time to re-evaluate our emphasis on money and measurement, and to refocus ourselves on happiness, curiosity, meaning, and connection. In that, we will have to be ok with relinquishing some of the control that comes with measurement through grades and scores in favor of the human, intimate side of true learning and growth.
Students need to find intrinsic motivation and purpose in their work.
One of the most important goals of an education is teaching students to nurture and value intrinsic motivation. Teachers support this when they help students find purpose and develop their interests, and convey to students that their interests are worth pursuing. When we make learning about extrinsic motivators such as grades, we take away from students’ genuine excitement about whatever they are studying.
Instead of focusing narrowly on how to more efficiently cover content or to prepare students for AP exams, I propose that success in teaching should be determined by students’ desire to continue learning, by whether students’ perspective of the world around them has been challenged, by whether students are driven to ask meaningful questions, and by whether students have found meaning and value in the experience.
The foundation of all education is relationships.
Students need to feel seen, valued, and accepted by teachers both as people and as intellectuals who have meaningful thoughts to contribute. And students need to see teachers as people, with vulnerabilities and struggles, who walk into the classroom with their own set of experiences that shape their perspective on the world.
In my own education, I have been fortunate to experience the beauty of reciprocity and the power in being recognized and affirmed as a person with worthwhile and authentic interests, questions, and struggles.
Throughout high school, I engaged in independent study courses with my school’s Dean of Students, focusing on our shared interest in experiential and interdisciplinary education. In these unstructured, one-on-one courses, we read books, discussed assessment, and explored authors from John Dewey to bell hooks to Paulo Freire. I knew that when I walked in the door to the dean’s office, I would receive unconditional support. Within the informality of talking and thinking and exploring, I found authenticity and a comfort with myself. I learned confidence.
I wish all students and teachers had the opportunity to experience learning in an environment where both teacher and student bring their whole selves and feel valued and heard. True growth requires openness and a vulnerability; we cannot expect students to be open and vulnerable unless the classroom is a safe space.
I hope that this brief reflection may serve as an inspiration for others to contemplate their educational experiences, to reimagine the potential in and purpose of education, and to rethink our too-narrow focus on measurement. All of us, students, teachers, and parents, have the task and responsibility to refocus our schools. Let us transform pedagogical practices by helping students find acceptance for themselves and others, by harnessing the power of curiosity and by prioritizing happiness.
Zoe Kupetz graduated from high school in 2018. She is excited to continue to follow her curiosity and to think critically about education as she begins college in the fall. If you have any questions or comments, Zoe would love to hear from you. You can contact her here.