Opinion: The Urban curriculum needs to prioritize balance

This fall, a group of Urban students taking Making Media Matter photographed their peers holding signs reading “I’m tired of _____,” where each student filled in the blank with the source of their current exhaustion. Through my frequent passing of their installation, I discovered a startling problem: by week four, students were tired of school. 

According to its Mission Statement, Urban “seeks to ignite a passion for learning, inspiring its students to become self-motivated, enthusiastic participants in their education.” 

Urban’s genuine commitment to learning is visible through its rubric-based assessment, supportive counselors and advisors, and explorative U periods, yet I’ve noticed that most students struggle with extreme academic stress which hinders their ability to focus on learning. As a community, we need to recognize that school-related pressures are hurting students, many of whom, myself included, struggle with deciding between taking care of themselves or completing coursework to Urban’s rigorous standards. Learning doesn’t have to come at the expense of health, and at its best is a life-giving endeavor.

In the summer of 2020, I experienced first hand the power of passionate and self-motivated learning through developing a summer camp with a group of friends. We aimed to create opportunities for kids to physically collaborate through robots in a simulated Mars lava tube environment. By the end of the summer we ran five full weeks of camp, reaching over 60 kids. I discovered the value of intrinsically motivated learning while working with other highly motivated people in an environment focused on building something beneficial for others, and provided fantastic learning experiences for those who built the program. Most importantly, I enjoyed all of my work, and found the problems to be more complex than anything I’d ever encountered through school. 

Working on building the Mars program has reinforced how I approach every opportunity, especially school, as a learning opportunity. According to its mission statement, Urban should readily support me as a student, but I’ve found that its test-based assessments remove my attention from the subject at hand by providing external assessment which doesn’t always feel like it supports my own passion. When working on Mars, we regularly evaluated the state of the project, examining how each feature could better support our goals. In comparison, I notice that school is less focused on realistic, long-term application of understanding and more on evaluation. 

Perhaps the most important takeaway when comparing my experience with school and developing this program was that I never felt the same stress I do at school. Instead of the consistent gnawing anxiety I’d experienced in anticipation of my teachers’ evaluation, I was stressed because I wanted the project to launch – a pressure which moved me into action. In particular, the hierarchical environment at school encourages students to see more value in a teacher’s evaluation of their work than their own. I’ve found that teacher feedback on my write ups and essays can be beneficial and improve the clarity of future works. On the other hand, assessment-based evaluation is rarely as helpful, and can easily gamify learning or spark an internal negative spiral, removing my attention from learning. 

While Urban programs do more to recognize students as learners than most schools through self evaluation and choice of classes, test-based assessments in particular enforce a school culture that does not actually prioritize lifelong learning because learning purely for the test only to forget concepts a day later produces favorable results within Urban’s academic system.

I am not alone in my experience with school-based stress, and many students I talk to communicate an even higher level of stress than I experience. However, I know that Urban’s production of any stress is directly counterintuitive to its goal to be a place that stimulates and supports the learning processes of young people. A 2016 article published in Nature’s Science of Learning journal even concluded that stress can “hinder the successful transfer of knowledge and reduce cognitive flexibility in problem solving,” factors which are important in learning.  

I know that Urban is already practicing less assessment-based learning than most schools, and its use of rubric-based feedback better supports students’ evolution as learners than a test score or letter grade ever could. Further innovation in the curriculum, emphasizing inquiry- and project-based learning would better promote each student’s motivation to learn, while reducing their stress from assessments. Personally, I see a future for Urban that is incredibly bright, provided that it can figure out how to support its students in balancing their mental health with their education.