Taking Charge of My Own Learning

Written by Shannon Yang (United States | Senegal ’18)





The word “learning,” as it has come to mean in our society, has been synonymous with “school”: a mandatory, formal and structured system put in place to educate the next generation. The problem with this 1:1 correspondence between learning and school is that it fails to recognize that school often is not conducive to learning and that sometimes the best learning occurs outside of the classroom.


In the context of my gap/bridge year, it’s been difficult for me to internalize this idea for myself, despite the fact that I was exposed to “alternate paths to success” and the idea wasn’t difficult to grasp intellectually. Fears pop up in my head comparing me to my friends, who are leaving for college, to learn and to grow and to lead, while I would be creating a “gap” in my life.


For the first eight-ish years of my public school journey, school was incredibly fun. I haven’t been able to process or reflect on this until recently, but I remember the day my first-grade teacher, Ms. Bruno, asked the class to split our mini whiteboards into halves of the same shape and equal area. We each squeaked our markers and drew a line either horizontally or vertically across the center of our little rectangles. As we wiped our rags to erase, she asked us to split it into quarters, to which we responded by drawing pluses and X’s. Then eighths. And then Ms. Bruno asked us to do thirds, and we were all stumped.


My classmates and I drew lines from the center of the board, almost peace-symbol-looking, spread out at 120-degree angles. One student I peeked at who was frustrated at the rectangular shape of the board had actually drawn a circle on it and split that circle into three slices. After much agony, something finally clicked and I had a breakthrough. I realized that, unlike the other examples, the solution wasn’t to have equal sectors radiating out from a center but to draw two parallel lines on the board. I was mindblown. With two proud squeak noises, I had completed the challenge, and slowly, the whole class had figured it out, too.


It was moments like these that drove me to push myself. Moments that made me itch in curiosity. Moments that provided me with the exhilarating thrill of figuring something out that was so new and unfamiliar and challenging, yet so rewarding. I loved being able to connect what I had so ingeniously figured out to the next concepts we learned. And since I had figured it out myself rather than things just being told to me, I felt like I was playing an active role in my education and was able to understand the concepts better because I understood why. I was encouraged to ask questions, to find creative solutions and to collaborate with my peers.


As I approached the high school years, things began to change. At some point, I had stopped deriving formulas and started to memorize them blindly just to regurgitate them. I didn’t understand how they connected, how they fit into a bigger picture. I had lost the meaning in homework—it was often frustrating and felt like a waste of time. Suddenly, school became a race for the best grades, the best scores. It became unsafe to take risks, to be creative, and to make mistakes. It became seemingly impossible to fail and come out of the other side okay.


The purpose of grades is to incentivize students to do well in school and to measure their progress, whether that means for themselves or for parents or for college apps. But sometimes the best learning happens between or beyond the metrics, and doing well in school didn’t always mean learning. It meant quickly cramming and just as quickly un-cramming, filling in the blanks and writing to fulfill the bullets on the rubric rather than to simply write well.


Through the value placed on grades over learning itself, I had lost my intrinsic motivation to succeed and was faced with the decision to compromise my values for the larger system at play. In fact, multiple teachers in my high school career have told me that what I needed wasn’t to get good at the subject matter. It was to get good at playing the game–at “doing school.”


How do you expect me to think deeply when I’ve been continuously wading in this shallow scenario? How do you expect me to think outside of the box when my classrooms my whole life have been boxes?


In the classroom, nothing real is at stake. Your dignity, reputation or friendships are never really on the line—only your grade is. So important skills like grit and empathy are turned into impersonal, robotic factors if they are even considered at all. In the classroom, decisions are made for you without ever needing critical thinking, and there are right and wrong answers, with no gray areas.


Over the past week, I’ve connected with others who will be embarking on similar journeys, and I’ve realized that though I may come from a high school with a reputation for being especially competitive and stressful, my experience with the education system is nowhere near unique. It’s echoed in the stories of students from different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, throughout the nation and even the world. We’ve all been stuck running on the treadmill of a toxic system, a broken system. And through our gap years, we are getting off.


I need to rekindle that love of learning that I’ve always had, feel the same sparks of curiosity that I felt in first grade. And I’m not ashamed that I have to take a year “off” to do that. I need some time to cleanse myself, to take life slowly and to be carefree. I want to learn according to my own needs, not for my goals to be dictated by an educational institution. To me, it’s actually a year on.


For the next year, the world is my classroom. It has so much to teach and to offer. I can’t wait to immerse myself in a new language and culture, build connections with those around me, be vulnerable and open to new experiences, understand global issues from a different perspective, learn how to be grittier, more compassionate, become a better leader and discover the complexities of the gray areas in life.


I hope my experiences will make an indelible impression on me. I’ll emerge refreshed, with that childhood curiosity in a mature adult mind. I’m excited to go back to college afterward with the lessons I’ll learn this year in mind, keeping me grounded and motivated, and informing the work I do, giving me a sense of purpose.


So here I am, sitting in the middle of John F. Kennedy International Airport waiting for my flight to Dakar to board, trying to hear my own voice amidst the beeping of carts, the news on the TV, the PA system, others’ phone calls and the wails of babies. The brew of emotions I’m feeling is indescribable. I think I’m scared, excited, overwhelmed and in denial all at the same time. But I remind myself that it’s for the better.


There’s a story I was told when I was younger. A war general and his troops had crossed a river to reach enemy territory. After everyone got off the ships, he burned them. There was no turning back. There was no retreat. They were all in.


I used to think this was incredibly stupid of him to do. He had removed his backup plan, his safety net. But it turns out doing that meant he didn’t need it. Knowing that retreat wasn’t an option, they were motivated to fight harder, to win. Burning the ships drove them forward.


Soon, I’ll be scanning my boarding pass to board the plane, and when the wheels leave the ground, I’ll be burning the ships behind me. I’m taking a huge leap of faith, but I know I can’t live in two places at once. I want to be all in, to immerse myself fully and be present. Retreating would be the wrong choice. Because using the world as a tool to learn is magical.

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