Mosaic of Learning | High school humanities classes need an overhaul

Mosaic of Learning is a biweekly blog that takes a look at research and education at the University.

By Khushi Rai, For The Pitt News

I’ve always loved reading. It’s given me an escape from reality whenever and wherever I want. Bookshops have always been my favorite destination — they give me the cozy and welcoming feeling to facilitate my escape. Conversely, I wholeheartedly hated English classes in high school.

I still remember my first test in AP literature — a multiple choice test about “King Lear.” I cannot think of anything worse than having to sit and memorize random parts of a text. Grasping the language of Shakespeare is hard to begin with, but having to memorize it is another type of beast.

Teachers tell students to study the humanities because it will teach them to think critically, write clearly and empathize with the human condition. Humanities teach students to be human. In theory, this sounds amazing.

But the phenomena that I encountered in high school relating to humanities was the complete opposite. Students were expected to learn the information taught and essentially throw it back up on the test. There wasn’t time to actually digest the material. For the majority of the essays that were assigned, students were expected to solely provide textual evidence. Creativity and personal thoughts and ideas were not expected.

On the rare occasion that opinionated essays were assigned, students pushed their own thoughts aside and wrote what they believed the teacher wanted to read. After all, it was the teacher who was assigning the grades at the end. Instead of analyzing and connecting with the material in history classes, students were expected to memorize random dates and events that would later escape their short-term memory. Rather than fostering and nurturing interests, many students — including me — grew averse to the humanities.

Taking humanities courses in college is a completely different experience. The essays assigned in my philosophy and English classes are less rigid and more arbitrary. It allows for the student to be more creative with their argument and thesis. It probably makes for a more interesting read for the professor since each essay is about the student’s perspective and take. Writing my first philosophy essay was an enjoyable activity because I was expected to think outside the box to construct my arguments and learned to later refute those arguments.

English classes in college take on a seminar setting, in contrast to the lecture-based learning that occurred in high school. In my first college English class, the majority of time was spent for discussion surrounding the pieces that we read. Student input was celebrated, and thus kept students alert and proactive during class. I think every student in high school would agree that they would rather have an open dialogue about “King Lear” than listen to an hour-long lecture about it.

The number of humanities majors have started to dwindle recently. In order to foster interest and encourage students to seek out majors in the humanities, it is important to target the learning material in a way that engages students’ creativity. Instead of predominantly lecture-based learning, schools should encourage seminar and discussion, allowing students to discuss their thoughts and confusion on the learning material. This also further diminishes the likelihood of students zoning out.

A difference I have noticed in college is that the majority of my humanities class includes participation in the final grading rubric to motivate students to speak and discuss the material during class. This didn’t happen in my high school, which created an environment where the teacher spoke for the majority of the class while students retained little to no information.

Schools should also alter their method of assessing the material taught to students. Multiple choice tests inevitably cause students to memorize information, only to forget it the second they walk out of the testing classroom. Rather, essays or projects that encourage students to engage with texts and historical occurrences can better help students to engage and learn from the material. As I said before, no one is ever ecstatic about a multiple-choice test for “King Lear.”

By incorporating new methods of teaching, schools can assist students in finding out their true passions. The previous methods can still exist, but with an equilibrium to the new methods, allowing students to pursue their true interests.

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