I want to highlight an essay in the Washington Post that discusses one of the less popular subjects in education policy – the responsibility of the student. While policy makers and talking heads would never say that students bear no responsibility in their own education, their focus often is on improving teacher quality and more intelligent resource allocation within districts. Students are treated as the lifeless lump of iron, requiring adequate environmental support and the firm forging hand of the teacher to be shaped into their true potential. The danger with this narrative is it encourages students, and maybe more importantly, parents to shrug off their responsibility in the education process.
The person expounding these views is Will Fitzhugh, the founder of The Concord Review, billed as “the only quarterly journal in the world to publish the academic work of secondary students.” The Concord Review strikes me as a phenomenal construct to encourage student responsibility. The biggest complaint most high schoolers have with their school work is that it lacks any relevance to the real world. (“When are we ever going to need to write a five-paragraph essay in our lives?” – 16-year-old AJ.) There are, I’m sure, a number of people who would argue that academia doesn’t represent the real world – I disagree – but even if you took that stance, allowing students to see their scholarship treated with the same respect as that of credentialed adults is a great way to bridge that gap for them.
The Concord Review ought to be an aspirational output for high schoolers. That being said, I’ve come to respect the value of a five-paragraph essay in the years since AP Lang & Comp (why else would this post be so self-restrained?). While I never wrote a five-paragrapher in college, the structural constraints it imposed, as well as the consistent, frequent repetition of this exact construct, was invaluable in making me more confident as a writer.
If there’s a way to bring the motivational benefits of The Concord Review with the lower standards you’d need for a broader paper submission base, students would be much more likely to take their educational responsibilities more seriously. The Concord Review isn’t just about enshrining high quality high school papers in the trappings of scholarly journals; it’s about the knowledge that your thoughts are being reviewed not just by a teacher for some arbitrary letter to be scrawled on top, but in fact they’re being judged by a broader audience of people you’ve never met – the real world. To keep with the academic theme, maybe the answer is as simple as putting together a “peer review” system for students’ five-paragraphers. I’d venture that all it takes to get students to respect their education more is the reminder that education is inherently a real world interaction – it is the way we reflect ourselves to our colleagues, friends, and environment.
Fitzhugh concludes his post with the Streetlight Effect, an example of observational bias where people tend to look for solutions only in the areas where it’s most convenient for them to search. (It’s based on the joke of the drunk man who loses his keys and searches for them only under a street light since that’s the only place where there’s any light for him to search.) Policy makers, district administrators, parents, and frankly, adults in general, find it easier to look just to the adults to make things better. Teachers are easier to hold accountable because they’re compensated, they’re professionals, and they care about doing a good job. But their job is made infinitely harder when students themselves aren’t fully respectful of their own agency in the learning process.