Never let yourself or others determine your intelligence, knowledge and scholastic capability based on your grades in school and university. I hope this brief essay serves as a source of learning and benefit about the pitfalls and shortcomings of the modern formalized education system. This is an experience I hope not just to share with others here, but impart to my own children and help them apply it in their own lives.
From an early age, I remember how my parents would be often told by my teachers that I was an exceptionally bright student, I would win prizes and awards for my mathematical or logical ability, but my grades always hovered around average or above average. My teachers, noting this lack of ‘achievement’ would add in a comment saying: he just needs to put in more effort. My parents would trust my teachers and convey the same message to me. No one bothered explaining what exactly that meant.
Growing up as a young student in school I always thought that my inability to achieve excellent scores were due to my lack of understanding and comprehension of the subject matter. I wrote the odd brilliant essay or assignment that would stupefy my teachers to the point they would show my work to the class, but I could never identify what it was that made my work so exceptional, and so the pattern would not continue. My grades were usually average or above, but only sometimes excellent, and it eventually became a greater frustration for me than my parents.
In university, I would also find myself during exam time engrossed in reading subjects or textbooks other than the necessary review for my exam. In writing assignments, I always felt I had tremendously complex ideas but could never seem to get very far in my marks on my assignments, essays or exams. I would be deeply frustrated by my lack of excellent grades especially in subjects in which for example I enjoyed reading the textbook for no apparent reason other than interest and a desire for knowledge.
I thought I was stupid, or had ADD or some other problem, but it wasn’t until I became a professional teacher and also began studying other languages and whole academic disciplines under private tutorship and self-study that my entire understanding of what I did wrong slowly came to fruition.
Formal education judges your academic capability based on your grades which are meant to formally judge your retention and understanding of a strictly controlled delivery of content over a rigidly planned period of time. Your grades are determined by how well you do on assignments and exams. But doing assignments, writing essays and taking exams are skills that if lacking, intelligence or deep understanding of the subject material will be very little help.
After I graduated and entered the workforce, I met many people who attained extraordinarily high grades in school and university but could not demonstrate their knowledge or understanding of what they studied for two decades. They memorized material and learned how to do assignments and write exams, and then carried on with life as if that learning never happened.
When I became a teacher I watched time and again how kids who were bright, amazing and sometimes exceptional students in class came out with poor grades simply because they did not possess the mental paradigm of how assignment completion, writing or exam study are almost completely disconnected from mastery and deep understanding of the topic at hand. Even as I began to teach exam-taking skills and give more practice questions to prepare for exams, it was as if they never put adopted this paradigm or put it into practice as their learning never had a chance to occur in an independent, free and self-guided environment. A paradigm shift cannot occur by forcing it down someone’s throat over a 4-month semester. It must occur at the volition and pace of the student themselves. As a teacher, I questioned the function of the modern teaching techniques I was being instructed to apply because these students had already demonstrated their competence in the subject they were being taught, especially during class discussions and informal activities.
As I progressed in the profession and began to realize that my ‘students’ success was more based on their test-taking ability than their actual and mastery of the subject, I grew in disillusionment and despair at the utility of our modern, formal education system. After 6 years of being a teacher, I began to strongly resent the utility and purpose of my job, and thus decided to move on.
When I started learning Arabic and the Islamic sciences I suddenly had complete control over my learning experience. I had near-complete freedom over which texts I studied, who I studied with, how often I studied, how quickly I went through material, how many questions I asked and how much and which type of supplemental reading and material I could add to my personal schedule. I learned to adjust my reading needs to my actual learning needs. There were literally times where we blazed through 20-30 pages of textbook in a few hours, and others where I barraged my teachers with a multitude of questions or struggled to understand just a paragraph in the same amount of time. I learned logic, rhetoric, literature, grammar and poetry and read the works of geniuses and masterminds of their fields (and not prepackaged textbooks written to cater to the needs of edu-business) that taught me the importance of knowing HOW to write and express my ideas as opposed to just writing freeform.
I could finally focus on learning and understanding as opposed to just going to class, doing assignments and studying for exams for their own sake. I slowly began to obtain the skill of learning and relish it, and was surprised with how different it was from the skills required to sit and pay attention in a classroom, take notes, do assignments, write essays and take exams.
All this is not an excuse to not take your grades and schooling seriously, as in the end the global economic system unfortunately still requires you to get degrees to be able to take up a professional career, but it does show that our modern education system needs serious reform and that ‘education’ in our current understanding is overrated. Our understanding of what constitutes learning, education and intellectual achievement needs to dramatically change. Even if our own journey of formal education has ended, we can still utilize these lessons for our own lifelong learning, and for the lessons we impart to our children as they take part in the formal education system, and the conversations we have with our children’s’ educators.