learning mosaic | High school humanities courses need an overhaul

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Mosaic of Learning is a bi-weekly blog that examines research and education at the University.

I have always liked to read. It allowed me to get away from reality when and where I want. Bookstores have always been my favorite destination – they give me a warm and welcoming atmosphere to make my escape easier. Conversely, I wholeheartedly hated English classes in high school.

I still remember my first test in the AP literature – a multiple choice test on “King Lear”. I can’t imagine anything worse than having to sit down and memorize random parts of a text. Grasping Shakespeare’s language is difficult at first, but having to memorize it is a different kind of beast.

Teachers tell students to study humanities, as it will teach them to think critically, write clearly, and empathize with the human condition. The humanities teach students to be human. In theory, that sounds incredible.

But the phenomenon that I encountered in high school regarding the humanities was just the opposite. Students were expected to learn the information taught and essentially pick it up on the test. There was no time to actually digest the material. For the majority of the essays that were assigned, students were asked to provide textual evidence only. Creativity and personal thoughts and ideas were not expected.

On the rare occasions when opinionated essays were assigned, students put their own thoughts aside and wrote down what they thought the teacher wanted to read. After all, it was the professor who awarded the marks at the end. Instead of analyzing and connecting with history lesson material, students were asked to memorize random dates and events that would later escape their short-term memory. Rather than fostering and nurturing interests, many students – including me – have become opposed to the humanities.

Taking a college humanities course is a whole different experience. The essays assigned in my philosophy and English classes are less rigid and more arbitrary. This allows the student to be more creative in his argument and his thesis. This probably makes the reading more interesting for the teacher since each essay focuses on the student’s point of view and opinion. Writing my first philosophy essay was an enjoyable activity because I had to think outside the box to build my arguments and later learned to refute those arguments.

English classes at university take place in a seminar setting, unlike lecture-based learning which takes place in high school. In my first English class at university, most of the time was spent discussing the songs we were reading. The contribution of the students was celebrated and thus kept the students alert and proactive during the class. I think all high school students would agree that they would rather have an open dialogue on “King Lear” than listen to a one hour lecture about it.

The number of majors in the humanities has begun decrease recently. In order to generate interest and encourage students to seek majors in the humanities, it is important to target learning materials in a way that engages students’ creativity. Instead of primarily lecture-based learning, schools should encourage seminars and discussions, allowing students to discuss their thoughts and confusion over the learning material. It also further decreases the likelihood that students will walk away.

One difference I noticed in college is that the majority of my humanities classes include participation in the final grading rubric to motivate students to speak up and discuss the material during class. This did not happen in my high school, which created an environment in which the teacher spoke for the majority of the class while the students withheld little or no information.

Schools should also change the way they assess the material taught to students. Multiple choice tests inevitably cause students to memorize information, only to forget it the second they leave the test class. On the contrary, essays or projects that encourage students to engage with historical texts and events can better help students engage and learn from the material. As I said before, no one is ever thrilled with a multiple choice test for “King Lear”.

By incorporating new teaching methods, schools can help students discover their true passions. The previous methods can still exist, but with a balance with the newer methods, allowing students to pursue their true interests.

Khushi writes about research, education and events taking place in Pitt. Talk to him at [email protected].


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