The Productivity Paradox

Stella discusses problematic ideals of productivity within the education system and suggests solutions to shift these standards.

What does the word “productivity” mean to you? For some, it’s toiling in front of a math textbook with Desmos open on a computer screen, trying and failing to wrap their heads around a math problem. For others, it might be struggling through a rhetorical analysis of Romeo and Juliet. You might also feel an emotion associated with it stress, guilt, anxiety most of us will think of grades and expectations, formulas to cram and paragraphs to spout to appease that looming deadline. 

For me, it’s churning out this piece on the very subject matter, wracking my brain for words to put on a page. 

To be productive requires concentration, time, and motivation, things that always seem to be in short supply we all sometimes wish that we could make our responsibilities disappear with a snap of our fingers. But finding pleasure in our work need not be a rare occurrence, and the burden we associate with it can be traced back to a common source: school. The current education system has turned the concept of productivity on its head. We’re taught to work not for fulfilment or self-satisfaction, but a 100 on a report card and acceptance to that prestigious university. The various detriments of this cannot be overstated, and students go into the workforce or higher education baffled by the sudden disappearance of their singular extrinsic motivator.

The mindset that school boards hold is a cynical one. They assume students to be lazy by default, and therefore in need of quantitative measures of success. The curriculum is reduced to jot notes on a PDF, shoes that students are expected to fill perfectly regardless of their desire to do so. 

The best example of this is mathematics. The joy in mathematics lies in the creative problem-solving, in the deductive reasoning, the logic — but that is all stripped away in the fast-paced spoon-feeding environment where you spend the whole week cramming the trinomial expansion for the test, only to forget about it as soon as you’ve secured your passing grade. 

In English class, the structure is similar, with both students and teachers chasing after the completion of a checklist. Last year’s culminating Grade 10 English assignment, to analyze a George Orwell novel, required the same old three-paragraph cookie-cutter essay structure we’d been drilled on since grade school. I have no qualms against this, but the problem arises when these teaching strategies are the only ones being used. We stumble through this system, learning not how to analyze a text, but how to fit our words into the boxes provided for us. When we don’t get any boxes. If we ever needed to write something for ourselves we’ll have no clue what to do. After all, how are we to know whether to use three or six body paragraphs?

According to the Ontario English Curriculum, students with a good grasp of the language achieve level 4s — a “high/thorough degree of effectiveness” — in the categories of Knowledge and Understanding, Thinking, Communication, and Application. These divisions facilitate a robotic approach to writing, considering the sum of the parts instead of the whole. Teachers have no choice but to mark us like this, checking first if we Knew and Understood the content by using the right vocabulary, if we critically Thought about our work by including multiple perspectives (regardless of how relevant they are), if we Communicated properly by running the document through a grammar checker, and if we Applied our knowledge by making connections to the real world. Ontario wants to think that this bottom-up approach makes us good writers, but the core of why we write — to get messages across effectively — somehow got lost in translation.

To be successful on Ontario’s terms, not a single student needs to understand it. The biggest standardized testing agency of the province, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO), ensures students in Grades 3, 6, 9, and 10 are on track with their curricular learning. The EQAO files a recommendation for schools that perform below standard to implement an improvement plan, doubtlessly putting even more focus on testing material and less on a holistic education. 

According to Toronto real estate agents, these test score discrepancies have the potential to dramatically skyrocket prices of a high-performing school district as it becomes more coveted for its “better” education. For a system that is funded on a student enrolment basis , it’s hard to argue against the fact that teaching students according to the predetermined standards— without actually teaching them anything — is a surefire way to increase school reputation and garner attention.

No student can look you in the eyes and tell you that they enjoy memorizing logarithm properties, nor constantly cross-referencing with a thesaurus to check off the “sophisticated use of language” box on the rubric. There is no investment in learning. The only questions ever posed in class are “will this be on the test?” and “how many points do I need on this to get an A?” Nothing is even remotely related to the content. Instead, we’re scrambling for the number that will satiate our groomed perfectionism or our need for validation, catalysts for a slew of mental health issues. 

Academizing productivity turns it into a chore, tacking on a negative connotation to everything remotely related to school that the student will carry around for a lifetime. Take the act of reflection. Inherently, there is nothing bad about reflecting on a project, an exercise designated to help you recognize your strengths and areas to improve as well as get to know yourself better. In school, however, reflections are an assignment for students to fabricate, one that they save up all their flowery introspective language for because that’s what the teacher wants to hear. School has turned reflection from a healthy life habit into another source of work and stress and pain.

Here’s the kicker, productivity isn’t supposed to be associated with work and stress and pain. The school system erases the primary purpose that is, to get things done. There is satisfaction in producing something that you are proud of, pleasure derived from the focus that comes with generating meaningful ideas even if they aren’t perfect. Turning tasks mechanical takes the purpose out of it. What’s the point of making something that the teacher has seen hundreds of times before? 

Putting work that is supposed to be open-ended onto a levelled rubric and giving it the binary of good and bad negates the satisfaction of creation. The whole point of teaching kids to be industrious and to aim for that A in the first place is so that they are productive members of society. But after school is over and there are no more As to aim for, this generation will rapidly find that there is no motivation left to be productive. 

This recognition of flawlessness as the desired result can manifest in one of two ways, and both of them regard school as the ultimate chore. The first is the perfectionist the one that starves themselves of sleep to memorize their math formulas. Their definition of success is a row of 100s on a report card, and having good grades is one of the biggest sources of social validation. The other type of student is the one that has given up on the system, maintaining only the grades necessary to meet their goals (be it university or social belonging). But despite their mediocre academic performance, many of these students are successful in areas outside of school. They see through the facade and they know that school is not the place to be productive.

In many ways, the second type of student I’ve described is happier. On an individual level, this is what we have to strive for: purpose outside of school and motivation to do something bigger than getting full marks. This is where we will find the real preparation for life beyond high school. Something I discover over and over again is that while you’re struggling to be the star pupil in class, so many people are out there doing meaningful things with their lives. School is not the place where we find our purpose, so let’s put it on the back burner for a second. There is a fulfilment to doing things you care about that you can’t achieve by conflating your self-worth with your test scores.

This begs the question: what kind of education system do we have if we need to tell kids to put school second to be the most emotionally fulfilled? It should not be a requirement to venture into the unknown to find how to blend into society, especially when that’s what school advertises itself as a platform for in the first place. The reality is, in postsecondary education it is up to the students to find the motivation to show up to class. Too many young people are going into university expecting the same kind of academic pressure to perform. When that’s not there, they realize too late that A) it’s up to them to unearth the motivation, and B) there is no motivation to unearth because it was never instilled in them before. This is why high school needs to change. 

We assume that students by default are inherently lazy they’re probably sleeping in, skimping on homework, or playing video games. While it is true that many students exhibit these actions, laziness is not the root cause but a symptom. The root cause is disinterest. It’s difficult to get excited about the consequences of World War I or the derivation of the quadratic equation when there’s a big threat of failure looming over our heads. We’re too worried about our quantitative metric of success to care about the more nuanced factors of education. Genuine interest is an afterthought.

Fortunately, there are ways to increase investment without completely upending the system. From my experience as a student, the best way for a teacher to engage a class is to encourage creativity. The best class I ever had was in Grade 8, the teacher gave completely open-ended assignments: the criteria would be broad on purpose so we could take it where we wanted to. I experimented with stop-motion to explain triangle properties, shot a short film full of ducks to demonstrate my understanding of Archimedes’ principle, and weaved my passion for storytelling into every assignment, whether math or science. I could tell you with fondness what Archimedes’ principle is today, despite having forgotten every other physics law I’ve learned from longer than a year ago. The benefits of such an open-ended approach are numerous. By allowing us, the students, to decide how to approach a goal, there is a reason to put effort into the work, the effort that would have been half-hearted and soulless at best without such a choice.

There are a few ways this might be implemented in a more rigorous high school setting. In math class, students should be allowed to start from scratch, making them question the basic principles and building onto these foundations one step at a time, letting them figure out formulas on their own instead of forcing them to memorize. In science, it may mean more flexibility with assignments outside of lab reports, an exploration of different media as a vessel for communication. In English, let students write their Shakespearean text instead of making them analyze Macbeth’s conventions. Ultimately, the key is to let creativity thrive. 

Providing an opportunity for a student to have an intellectual stake in their work an opportunity for them to be proud of it is how to get them invested. If the initiative is the student’s and the student’s alone, if they choose the means to their learning, if you let them have fun with it instead of adhering to the strict requirements of the curriculum, we will learn by default. We will be less hung up about our grades, knowing that no matter the number we gave it our all. Most importantly, we will find passion in our work and discover for ourselves the true purpose of going to school.

But while this sounds ideal, it isn’t always feasible. On a feedback form issued by a teacher, my friend commented that the class lacked creativity, but the teacher replied that nothing could be done when there was so much curriculum to get through. This was before COVID — now, a survey conducted by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation reported that 70% of them felt “very stressed, struggling to cope and increasingly feeling unhappy.” Teachers are also increasingly taking leave (temporarily or permanently) from the profession, unwilling to risk their lives for work, exacerbating the teacher shortage that had started a few years prior. Because of this, classes are stuffed to the brim. Despite COVID restrictions, two of my four classes this semester have over 30 students — legislation being careful to only mandate the average class size of a secondary school, not individual classes.

Productivity isn’t staring at a screen for hours, it’s creation. A school system that facilitates this revelation will create a generation of more passionate artists, innovators, and thinkers. The primary stakeholder of the education system should always be the students, and the sooner it realizes this, the sooner it can start putting us first.

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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