The American Obsession with Numbers | Savanah James

(To be presented as a TED Talk.)

In November of 2019, the Hong Kong Extradition Protests reached a peak of intensity. School was cancelled city-wide, bomb threats surrounded us, and protests filled up our streets almost every night. Every day, the news was an endless stream of stories about police brutality, citizens being tear gassed, vandalism of public property, and a growing hatred towards the chief executive: Carrie Lam. Debate tournaments were postponed, my school relied on Skype to justify continuing to charge tuition fees, and a theatre production we’d been working on for months was postponed to February, only to be permanently cancelled by the coronavirus.

During that period of chaos and unrest, my family and I made the quick, some would call it “impulsive” decision to relocate to the US. And naturally, as a student, my biggest stressor was school. Now, you have to understand that I was brought up in an environment in which my only exposure to “American School” was through movies, TV shows, and the experiences of my dad 20 years ago. I thought that all kids under 5”6 got slammed up against lockers, I thought teachers all hated their jobs and could care less about their students, and I truly believed that mean girls would bully me for being the “new kid”. But to my pleasant surprise, none of those things happened, and I’ve come to accept and embrace American school and many of its quirky features. I willingly dressed up during Power Week, the school fight song no longer sounds so cultish, pizza for lunch doesn’t seem as weird, and I now own school merchandise. I’ve also come to learn that to an extent, some public school teachers have more of a genuine, deep-rooted passion for educating than some of my former teachers. American school is much more supportive of passions, namely the arts and sports. Schools in the US let you set your own difficulty and choose how hard you want to make it for yourself. But sports games and acceptance of students with special needs aside, there was one thing academically that stood out to me, and that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get over — the obsession with numbers.

My old school functioned under what I believed was a relatively simple grading system. You worked hard in class, and throughout the year and at the end of the quarter or semester, you took an exam. The grade you earned would be a strong influence, and combined with in-class presentations, participation and progress, your teacher would choose your final grade. Whereas in America, I’m finding that it’s very different. Every single little assignment, quiz, pre-quiz, homework task, and test all add up and average out into your final grade. You, the strength of your GPA, is not defined by the progress you make or by the challenges you face, but by how perfect you can be in the present. And from my fresh-eyed observations of students studying in American public schools, that deters and prevents one incredibly important thing — risk-taking.

A study that followed 1,500 kids from kindergarten to elementary, middle and high school continuously asked the students a new question in each stage of schooling. “How many ways can you use a paperclip?” The surveys concluded that 98% of kindergarteners scored a “genius level” of something called divergent thinking: a combination of creativity, originality, and problem-solving skills. The notion that problem-solving and thinking are developed as one gets older is simply not true. In fact, the one thing all these kids had in common was that they spent the large majority of their days studying and working under the American school system. So clearly, divergent thinking isn’t being developed with age, it’s being reversed; and there’s a very good explanation as to why.

In my own experience at a school in which grades weren’t given for every assignment, that created an entirely new approach towards learning. Knowing that you weren’t going to be judged for every move you made and that everything you did didn’t have an irreversible weight to it allowed room for creativity, exploration, and creation. When you put a label on every single task, you are asking students to be perfect in the present. You are asking them to stick to what they know to obtain a guaranteed “safe” grade —one that wouldn’t ruin their report card, but wouldn’t truly reflect the student’s potential as well. Risk-taking, something incredibly important in this age of development, is inhibited rather than encouraged. I know personally that some of my best work has come out of assignments I knew I wasn’t going to be judged on. Sure, sometimes the drama performance was a bit awkward, or the debate speech didn’t really have a strong impact, or the essay didn’t add up. But at the end of the day, it helped me understand myself better as a person and as a learner, so that when I walked out of that classroom on the last day of class, I was satisfied by how much I learned and how much I retained. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve crammed and established useless short-term memory connection for fill-in-the-bubble Scantron quizzes throughout the school day, from English to science, history to math. Since the beginning of the year. I also can’t stress enough how much the information and connections that have come up in my own exploration and research have, conversely, stuck.

From a cultural standpoint, as an “outsider” looking in, there are huge differences between the ways Americans talk about grades and how Asians talk about grades. When my American friends try to “raise their grade”, they’re talking about submitting work for extra credit or studying harder for weekly progress checks. It’s about the number online and the day your number goes above your goal, it’s a huge celebration. But this door also swings the opposite way. As the nature of taking averages goes, the more data points you have, the harder it’s going to be to raise that average as the semester goes on. I’ve seen friends get discouraged, unmotivated and annoyed at their grades and the class in general. By defining things too early, we risk slapping conclusive labels onto these classes and the student’s impression of said classes. The average American SAT score, a test designed for our education system, is 1068; whereas in our old school, we were constantly being told that averages lay around the 1550 range. Americans are losing at the game they designed for themselves. However, in Asia, talking about grades is not a game of “bank on the Scantron”, it’s a game of “bank on the performance.” I can’t tell you how many times my friends and I have derived schemes to stage situations to help our struggling friend look smart in class discussions. As fellow students, we proof-read each other’s emails before sending them out to teachers asking to set up one-on-one meetings. It’s about asking for more responsibility during a group project and more words of feedback from your teacher. Because self-motivation, leadership, participation and maturity are values that most learning around the world promotes and tries its best to achieve. Not the number of purple strikes on a multiple-choice paper.

Now, it would be ridiculous for me to come up here today and comment on the problems with mass education in the West and compare it to semi-private education in the East, completely ignoring the economic side concerned with resource allocation. And I think the one thing that makes learning in America so difficult — for teachers and students alike — is overcrowding in classrooms. Teachers often turn to quizzes and scantrons because that’s the only way to grade 40 kids quickly; they don’t have time to read over hundreds of essays and provide detailed feedback on each one; class discussions get looked over because what is the point if each kid can only talk once? With budget cuts coming up in my school district soon, that problem is only going to get worse. It’s true that an increase in funding could be very beneficial to a lot of schools in the district; more intimate classes, more teachers, and increasing the staff to student ratio so that each kid gets time. But when that’s not an option, there is one thing that I think all of us can do, totally for free, that would create a much more proactive and effective learning environment. And that is increasing the respect between students and teachers.

In almost every society in the world, teachers are held in high regard and granted respect, no different from the respect the Western society so generously gives doctors and lawyers. In my local Chinese elementary school, it was expected that every time you saw a teacher, you were to bow in front of them and wish them good morning or good afternoon, regardless if they walked by and ignored you or not. Having only been in my current American public school for 2 months, I’ve already seen 3 fights break out. My second day of school in America was probably the first time I’d had my homework collected and checked by every single teacher in over 5 years. And I still remember, when my teachers asked for my work, I felt slightly insulted. I thought it was rude that they didn’t just believe that I had completed my homework; I felt patronized when they ran my essays through TurnItIn to make sure I wasn’t plagiarizing; I felt frustrated because the only way they decided whether or not we needed to have a conversation was if the letter grade of my recent quiz was below a C. When all that happened, I discovered a shift in the way I treated my work. If I didn’t do my homework, I only had to justify it to my teacher — I didn’t have to justify it to myself. I was putting down what my teacher wanted to read, and not what I wanted to write, because all the work and time I put into that task depended on the satisfaction and approval of one mind. And when I realised that shift in mentality, I became incredibly nervous. I realised that my learning had become accountable to someone other than myself, and that meant that I didn’t care about it as much anymore. There’s always going to be the concern that if you don’t grade everything, don’t count up everything, and don’t check every assignment for completion, there will be students who will be unmotivated to work hard or will simply skip the homework because it doesn’t count, or because they think they can outsmart you. But I argue that the space, the independence, and the respect you give them creates a learning environment in which there is increased appreciation for the teacher, because you’re treating teenagers like the adults they so desperately want to be. And that’s worth the occasional slacking off. When you teach kids to care so much about how many purple lines are on their Scantron, and you teach them to respond to the phrase “completion credit” as if it’s some sort of miracle, of course you’re going to get a strong reaction and low performance when something isn’t graded. Similar to addiction, when you’re addicted and go one day without, you’re going to see catastrophic results. When you’re not addicted and you go one day without, you’re hardly going to see a performance difference. And right now, that’s exactly what’s happening in schools. Every single kid who goes to school here is addicted to these numbers. They’re addicted to the quantification of achievements and they’re addicted to the letter A. They don’t see their teachers as people sent to teach them, they see them as people sent to monitor them. And there’s a huge difference between someone that wants to see the best from you and someone who doesn’t want to see the worst.

Our world is undeniably progressing towards an age of quantification. With social media, the “uberisation” of services and targeted advertising filling up our lives, we as individuals are being constantly quantified. Our online behavior, preferences and identities are being reduced to binary strings of 0s and 1s. And that’s all fine, as long as the relationship is between a person and an inanimate object. But students, teenagers, and the future tax-paying members of society are not inanimate objects. They’re human beings who also crave respect and appreciation. And in schools — where they spend 8 hours a day surrounded and instructed by people whose job it is to shape them — they need that even more. On behalf of my friends, my peers, and my classmates still living in Hong Kong, developing students aren’t robots, so let’s stop feeding them numbers.

Thank you.