Let’s Talk About Education Tuesday: Episode 5

“From the moment you enter an AP classroom, you’ll notice the difference—in the teacher’s approach to the subject, in the attitude of your classmates, in the way you start to think. In AP classrooms, the focus is not on memorizing facts and figures. Instead you’ll engage in intense discussions, solve problems collaboratively, and learn to write clearly and persuasively.”

This, good readers, is the College Board’s description of the Advanced Placement program’s goals. So it’s really funny to me that so many AP students expend so much energy in pursuit of facts and figures. It’s true that AP classes are more likely to be rigorous and taught by more enthusiastic teachers, which is great. It’s also true that even motivated, talented kids studying under motivated, talented teachers are likely to get distracted from the importance of engaging with the material by the pressure to score a 5 on the test. (Which is not to say that the two are mutually exclusive, just that the mania of flashcards and review books that afflicts everyone come April can obscure their reasons for studying the subject in the first place.)

Education matters. Specific subjects matter. Understanding why a subject is relevant matters just as much as the information itself. Earlier this year, I did a presentation on Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. It’s a great book: the protagonist’s emotions and thought processes are realistic, the descriptions lengthy and beautiful, the symbols overt but atmospherically fitting. But what’s even more important about it is the fact that it presents the dilemmas of living in Creole society at the end of the 19th century in a tangible manner and can be easily connected to feminist literature (it isn’t that, but it played a notable role in the feminist movement of the 1970s). Chopin’s use of language and method of characterization are wonderful, but the historical context, the implications of the text, and its initial critical reception are the main reasons I care about that stuff.

AP can do an incredibly good job of informing students, and some would argue that it teaches critical thinking and writing skills. But I don’t I buy into that as a measure of intelligence or passion, largely because the emphasis on the test itself limits the amount of thought put into the big picture. IB is a little better about this, but even their attempts to connect course material to real life are a little cheapened in the process of organizing that information into a curriculum. Perhaps that’s unavoidable; I’m not sure. I do know, though, that context is everything, good scores on AP essays are not necessarily indicative of good writing, and even native French speakers sometimes fail AP French.

How To Succeed In AP Without Trying

  1. Organize your writing as clearly as possible. Be formulaic; that’s what they want.
  2. Find reasons to remember facts. Whenever I think about the Battle of Stalingrad, a miniature freakout about Shostakovich is not far behind.
  3. Pick topics you actually enjoy. The tests can be sort of fun, if you do this part right.
  4. Fill in some bubbles. Write some essays. Forget about it and go play tag.

One thought on “Let’s Talk About Education Tuesday: Episode 5

  1. A wonderful post on the mania that is known as AP examination, my darling. But when I read that first paragraph, I thought you were being sarcastic. But then I realized it was what the CollegeBoard said about AP classes… Yeah right. If only AP classes were completely like that but sadly standardized testing just restricts what people can actually learn in a school.

    Sadly, many of us (myself included) fall victim to the AP testing pandemonium and the desire to get the perfect 5 (or at least pass). And that means catering to the wishes of the AP test takers… it’s sad that most of the things we learn are with a little side note stating that it might be useful to know for the AP exams in May or that it is something to put in a little flash card. And then what happens after paying so much money to CollegeBoard and taking the tests? You get a score that seems to hold the weight of your entire future in its shoulders… And maybe that’s what it will feel like for awhile (and I’ll admit that’s the way it is for me due to pressure and expectations from childhood). But looking back several years from now, I have a feeling the lessons and awareness gained from the studies will be more important than that measly, one-numbered score on a piece of paper.

    Thanks for another thought-provoking post! It’s pretty relaxing to read these things while I’m scrambling to memorize some equations for the AP Calc exam (and there you go – another example of how AP is memorization at its finest).

    Signing off…

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