The Eye

How do we learn?

Attending high school doesn’t always mean sitting down for tests and receiving grades

The first time he read the Iliad, Columbia College first-year Mateo Celada was in the sixth grade. Everyone in his school, Renaissance Arts Academy in Eagle Rock, California, read and re-read the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid every three years, starting in sixth grade. By the time he got to Columbia, he had already read the epic three times.

Celada’s school has a principle behind this repetition. “You’re not done with [a] book once you’ve kind of written one essay about it and discussed it,” he explains. “You come back to it.”

The clash between this approach and Literature Humanities’ breakneck, one-book-a-week speed leaves important questions in its wake. How do we best approach literature? How do we gain the time required to achieve mastery of a text while maintaining the breadth of Lit Hum or Contemporary Civilization?

How do we learn best?

That last question is at the heart of understanding how educational spaces function and how they should function going forward. Some have endeavored, at the high school level, to tackle that large, open-ended issue by experimenting with new learning standards and methodologies that prioritize qualitative over quantitative evaluations.

Celada’s school, for instance, is an experimental charter school with a heavy emphasis on arts, built from an old warehouse. “There [are] no classrooms except for the … arts rooms,” Celada describes. “There [are] just collections of tables, kind of spread out all through out the floor of this warehouse.”

Everyone at Ren Arts either participates in modern dance or plays a string instrument. In addition, classes are often mixed across ages. “I had sixth graders in some of my senior year classes,” Celada says.

(Mateo Celada / Photo by Laetitia Duler)

The defining characteristic of Ren Arts, however, may be its lack of grades, formal testing, and homework. “We read a lot at school and we did a lot of work at school because there was not really any homework per se,” Celada recalls.

Ren Arts is not alone in abandoning these traditional measures of learning. Colette Gerstmann, a Columbia College sophomore, went to high school at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, which shares a similar educational view.

“It is founded on the belief that, to quote, ‘education is celebration of life,’” Gerstmann explains. Like Ren Arts, Saint Ann’s does not “teach to the test,” that is, it does not give its students letter grades.

Both Celada and Gerstmann believe that taking away formal, rigid grading measures allows for better learning.

Central to both these schools is the idea of learning for learning’s sake. “The philosophy behind [the school] is that kids should be learning because they’re interested in learning, not because they feel pressured to meet anybody else’s standard,” Gerstmann explains.

Celada’s views align with this idea about learning. “I find that an environment of people who are intrinsically motivated … [is] more fun for me to be in, and it’s more productive than an environment of people who are afraid of failing their test,” he says.

Columbia College first-year Jonathan Moore’s educational life and philosophies complement this belief of learning being driven by the student’s own passions. Homeschooled after the sixth grade in Reedsport, a small town on the Oregon coast, Moore believes that moving away from rigid curricula allowed him to learn better.

Moore describes how his flexible curriculum at home afforded him “the freedom to go at [his] own pace, which, when things were going well, was pretty darn fast and also the freedom to explore, particularly in reading.”

He relates an example of a student being encouraged to read all the works of an author if that particular author resonates with the student. “So [this flexibility] sort of allows the student, if he gets enthusiastic, excited about something … to just chase after that,” he says.

(Jonathan Moore / Photo by Laetitia Duler)

Ren Arts, too, offers its students the ability to shape their own learning. “It was more of a conversation … and you could steer the discussion where you were interested. … I think the big concept there was an intrinsically motivated education,” Celada describes.

But Celada says nontraditional methods that lack extrinsic motivation aren’t always the best fit for students. The lack of an external objectives often allows complacency in the approach to learning.

“For some people it was easy to kind of just coast and sit in the back of the class,” he says. “And you could get away with that.”

Gerstmann says that the grade-free attitude can also cause problems when students have to deal with the reality of standardized testing and college applications. She says her own experience is one of how the approach can exacerbate class divisions. The problem she discusses is, among other things, one of privilege. The lack of a rigid syllabus, she explains, led to a mathematics education that was not comprehensive or holistic.

“The way my math education worked out is that it didn’t feel consistent and I didn’t feel like I was gaining skills,” she says. As a result, many students felt unprepared for the SATs, leading to a norm of hiring tutors for the test. “Because a lot of people there are wealthy, and it is a very privileged space to be in, a lot of kids get SAT tutors,” she explains. This split the student body, with some students left without a good math education or the ability to afford a tutor. “There’s this class divide that I really didn’t like,” she summarizes.

Yet, these styles and philosophies of teaching are composed of more than just this move away from existing systems. Each adds a unique dimension in the endeavor to understand how we learn best.

Saint Ann’s, Gerstmann says, taught by making students draw on their own emotions and experiences. She recounts an anecdote of a time when her history teacher pretended to be fired in order to illustrate the dissonance many felt after the massive shift of the Industrial Revolution.

“He sent in another history teacher into class to tell us that our teacher had been fired and that the school was completely changing, we had to give grades now. ... I started crying, people left class,” she recalls.

A lot of teachers at Saint Ann’s taught “by just making students really think about their experience … and questioning the world around them,” she says. She adds, however, that she believes in this approach of pulling from personal experiences in moderation. “Not situations that would be really damaging—I don’t think that’s okay.”

Moore, too, describes how his experiences have shaped his beliefs about learning. “Education means a lifelong process that is not done to somebody. It is their whole process of growing and becoming, throughout their life.”

Can this somewhat idealistic set of beliefs translate to a large institution like Columbia?

Both Celada and Gerstmann recognize problems in this notion of translation in educational methodology and priority. Gerstmann says that she thinks the main factor preventing Columbia from adopting a more individualized, qualitative evaluation system is its vastness. “I think the problems with [academia learning from these beliefs] are size,” she explains. “It’s hard to have those incredibly close teacher-student relationships when there’s so many people.”

Celada also explains how his school benefitted from a smaller, personalized approach. He talks about the huge role his school’s director and her partner played in experimenting with its methods. “They were so open to changing what didn’t work, tweaking things to find out what the best way was,” he says.

Although Celada and Gerstmann have had their challenges in the transitions to college, they both relate how their high school backgrounds have lent them perspectives that have helped them adjust. Celada says he has been able to borrow the attitude that comes with a no-grades system and apply it here. “The attitude makes you better at just going to do the test because you’re more relaxed about it, you don’t get worked up cause it’s so important,” he explains.

Gerstmann refers to the dissonance she feels between the two worlds. “It feels sometimes, even still, like I’m like not meant to be in college or … there’s something about me that has a very difficult time being in college,” she says. But she too, emphasises a mindset similar to Celada’s.

“I sort of brought in this attitude that was the more relaxed informal attitude, where I was like, you know what, if you don’t do well in school, it’s okay because you are worth more than whatever grade you are, and I think that really was instilled in me by the school that I went to,” she says.

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