On the one hand we have parents and journalists clamoring that poor high school students are, indeed, overworked. On the other hand, as a college professor I am confronted with scores of high school graduates who think that reading three pages in a week is a lot of work and that generating one original idea per month is extremely exhausting. I would have thought that this wasn't too much to expect from people who reputedly acquire a habit of working themselves to death in high school, but that is obviously not the case.
In order to solve this mystery, I asked my freshemen last semester whether they felt overburdened with work in high school. An absolute majority answered that they were. When I asked them what kind of activities that they did in high school that made them so tired, I got a single answer: projects. After they explained to me what "a project" meant in a high school environment, many of the problems I have been having with first-year college students have found their explanation. I don't know the name of the lazy teacher who first came up with the inane idea of a "project." Possibly it was the same enemy of intelligence who invented the horrible multiple-choice test.
To put it simply, a "project" involves a student (or a group of students) going on-line (sometimes, to some other source, but more often than not, on-line), gathering information on a subject, arranging it in some cutesy way (e.g. a PowerPoint presentation with lots of special effects), and delivering it, parrot-like, to the class. Nothing is ever attributed to sources in a "project," at least not in the format of an actual bibliography. After my first semester of teaching at my current university, I was forced to cancel the oral presentations in my Hispanic Civilization course because instead of an analysis of an issue, I was getting such "projects", the intellectual value of which was nil. One of the students went as far as transforming one of my lectures into a PP presentation, evidently hoping to get a high grade for inventiveness. Just imagine my horror when listening for twenty minutes to my own words arranged in cute fonts and accompanied by cartoons, pretty illustrations, and a YouTube video. The student was shocked to discover that at a university this effort got him a failing grade.
This situation, of course, left me completely horrified. Until I had the conversation about "projects" with the sudents, though, I had no idea where they acquired the habit of facile plagiarism, why they demonstrated a scary absence of original thinking, and how they got the conviction that stealing somebody's words and arranging them differently constitutes original work.
The worst thing isn't that students are overworked in high school. It is that they expend all this effort on activities that are completely useless. Copy-pasting information from some website, whose respectability nobody ever teaches them to determine, and spending hours arranging this meaningless set of facts in a pretty way has nothing to do with learning. It's disturbing how much time is wasted on "projects" and multiple choice guesswork in high school. This is time that should have been employed in teaching the students the names of continents, expanding their very limited vocabulary, and impressing upon them the idiocy of using the Internet as a source of information that's 100% reliable.