Accountability · achievement gap

The Broken Feedback Loop: Failing to Prepare Students Prepares Them to Fail

School is what you do before the “real world.” It isn’t supposed to prepare you for the real world, it’s supposed to give you a place to prepare yourself for the real world. As it stands today, it is failing far too many students as evidenced by the proliferation of private tutors, the prevalence of social promotion, and a graduation rate hardly over 75% in NYC.

That is why there are so many required subjects for school. So that you can find what you like and what you dislike, what you’re good at and what areas need work. School isn’t for learning math, English, chemistry, or history. It’s for learning about yourself: what you need to do to make the system work for you specifically.

Schools have settled on a fairly standard feedback loop to teach students to gain skills and knowledge. It’s essentially a video game. Students literally earn or lose points for playing well or playing badly, and if you get enough points on one level, you move on to the next one. This feedback loop where students are taught, tested, and graded is good for a few. It motivates them to do well enough without being too easy or too difficult. Like a good video game, winning no matter what would be boring and eventually, people would stop playing, but also not being able to win no matter what you do would be too difficult and lead people to quit.

The government knows that the feedback loop in schools is terrible for a lot of people. A working feedback loop in a video game keeps people playing voluntarily. The educational feedback loop doesn’t. That’s why the government made school mandatory until you’re eighteen, at which point you’re an adult and they can’t control you, or you graduate high school, essentially winning the game.

Parents and tutoring companies know that the school feedback loop doesn’t work. A good game feedback loop keeps people improving their playing skill. The educational feedback loop fails to do that for many people. That’s why parents, tutoring companies, and test prep agencies adjust it by giving students tutors in subjects they find challenging or by moving students to a different school with a different feedback loop or different standards. 

Some students experience the broken feedback loop, and don’t know what to do about it or can’t do anything about it. Many will quit and drop out when they realize they can’t win. Some find it too easy and just stop trying and move on to activities with feedback loops they prefer, like sports or crime.

All of those are valid options (except crime, don’t do crime), but they demonstrate the true purpose of school: to learn how to adjust the feedback loops so that they work for you. This involves students finding out how they learn best, developing good study habits and note-taking skills. Many students, however, simply don’t know how to do that. That’s why so many people drop out or become disruptive. Because nobody is fixing the feedback loop for them, and they don’t know how to fix it for themselves.

Sometimes, the feedback loop even lets students move on to the next level without completing the previous level. (See social promotion.) No video game worth its code would let players do that. Some students decide all they want is to win, so they cheat. Gamers don’t like it when their opponents use cheat codes, and neither do students.

When students are forced to stay in school by the government, or given tutors, or socially promoted, they are being forced into a dysfunctional feedback loop. Instead, they need to be given the tools they need to make the feedback loop work for them.

It’s just like modding your favorite videogame, but in reality. If your parents hired somebody to play the video game with you, that doesn’t teach you to play the game better. But, if you find out that YouTube has countless walkthrough and tutorial videos, you’re still in total control when you play, and you can get better at the game. Students watching Crash Course to prepare for a history test is an example of students learning to add something to the “being taught” portion of their feedback loop. When students learn to take control, they are learning what school is meant to teach.

Schools obviously still have a role in making the feedback loop work; if it’s too difficult to win, and no changes a student can make are fixing that, then the school probably needs to change its feedback loop. That’s why it’s still important to have different schools and different teachers. But the most important thing is teaching students to take control of their own feedback loops, and determine what is their responsibility to address, and what isn’t. If a teacher lies about what’s going to be on a test, there’s nothing a student can do about that, but if the assigned worksheets aren’t enough to fully prepare a student for the final test, that is something the student can learn to handle.

Sometimes players will lose a game, but there has to be a reason to try again. Sometimes students don’t do well. There has to be a reason and an opportunity for them to try again, or they will just believe that if the first thing they tried or the first feedback loop they’re put in doesn’t work, they should just give up.

That’s the system many students feel they’re in now, and it has to be a cooperative endeavour between students and schools to figure out what works best and for whom, to improve the system. When schools take away students’ freedoms with excessively strict policies or an unfair system, they drive students away from school and away from their potential. 

Students shouldn’t have to be forced to barely complete each grade with test prep, social promotion, and one-on-one tutoring. They should be given the resources they need to make school easier and more effective for them. This means giving them role models and examples of people who were able to do that, and giving students as many tries as necessary to get it right. Schools need to be consistent in order that students trying again can actually improve. Changing the game on each attempt doesn’t help anybody. (I’m looking at you College Board.)

Stop treating school like it’s for students to learn specific material, and grades are indicators of how well they’ve learned the material. It’s not and they aren’t. Instead, understand school as being designed to teach students to get good grades. Whatever they base their grades on is what they want students to be good at, and whatever grades students receive only reflect how well they’ve learned to get good grades.

What do you think?

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