Monday, January 3, 2011

Are High School Students Overworked?

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.


Pagan Topologist said...

I think high school students are also pressured by parents into many, many extracirricular activities. If one is doing ballet, chorus, tennis, community service volunteering, scouts, etc., there is no time for much of anything, especially thinking and enjoying life.

Clarissa said...

Exactly! This couldn't be more true.

Leah Jane said...

Well for me, as someone who flourishes in humanities, but has a disability which leaves me struggling with math and numbers, being overworked in high school had a lot to do with having to juggle so many different subjects, some of which I was miserably inept in. My disability wasn't recognized until I got into college, where I earned an exception from doing math classes. Now, while I was a solid C student in high school, I'm an A student in college, because I get to focus on the subjects that I do best in and appreciate, instead of being bogged down with nightly struggles with homework that I can't comprehend properly.
That's just my personal experience, but I wonder how many other high schoolers with invisible learning disabilities feel overwhelmed in this fashion as well.

eric said...

American high schools do not prepare a kid for college--I know from a experience. Having come of age in the '80's, though, I never had to experience those execrable "projects." Like Leah Hane above, I sucked at math, but did exceptionally well in English and history, which carried on into acing humanities subjects in college and grad school. When explaining my math deficiencies, I often humorously highlight my colorophobia, responding "Numbers are like clowns--they scare me!"

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure how much of these projects are inane busywork and how much is not. That would explain the exhaustion and the lack of intellectual rigor at the same time.
For example, my cousin had to read The Allegory of the Cave for her English class. Half of the work was her defining/paraphrasing words she already knew and then writing it down and then just reading comprehension question. Actual discussion/thought took maybe five minutes. Now this entire thing took her an hour to do. She is an eighth grader who takes AP English if that gives you some insight.

Tom Carter said...

I suppose a person of my vintage would be expected to take a curmudgeonly view of modern public education. I know for certain that my high school education in a little podunk school was much better than kids get a point. But to be honest, I didn't learn to research and write acceptable papers until university and on into graduate school. No doubt kids could be better prepared before they get to a university, but there's a logical limit to how good that preparation can be.

This discussion also forces the question of why standards of admission are low enough to let unprepared kids get into a university anyway. There's no "right" to a university education, as some have come to believe.

Anonymous said...

As a high school student, the type of classes you're in matter immensely as to what type of workk you get. If you are in the normal classes, then you are more likely to get work like these projects but if you are in advanced classes then you are more likely to do analysis. I am a junior and I am in the IB program which is the hardest level of classes at my school and it is supposed to be college level. When we get assignments for English or history, we are analyzing the books we read most of the time and we write papers on them.My history teacher will gives us historical documents and ask us to analyze them and then use the information in there to back up our opinion about a topic he assigns. We don't do projects like that in those classes. You should also ask what TYPE of classes these students took in high school because that maight make a big difference. But I will admit that I've had to do projects like that before and I'll admit that the students are normally very lax on these.