From a young age, society has fostered a fixed mindset in many students, where extrinsic motivation and social comparison dictate their actions and self-perceptions. Paly’s rigorous academic environment and inflexible laning system distorts students’ perceptions of their academic abilities and leads them to believe that intelligence is innate, rather than learned.

In sixth grade, the introduction of the laning system, also known as tracking, determined whether a student excelled in math or belonged in the lower lane. Many students perceived this as an indicator of not only their mathematical abilities, but also of their intelligence. Throughout middle school and well into high school, opportunities to lane into higher pathways are faintly publicized by teachers, further leading students to falsely believe that their academic abilities are fixed.

The tracked courses quickly opened up conversation for comparison among students, contributing to the unhealthy academic culture on campus. Along with the academic gap, the social divide between students in regular lanes and advanced lanes becomes more pronounced by the increased opportunities to take advanced level classes in high school.

The social pressure to take rigorous classes plays a large role in the judgment that surrounds students who take advanced level classes and those who do not. Sadly, a detail as trivial as the math lane you are in can be perceived as a revealing indicator of intelligence, and news of students dropping down to lower lanes often circulates like gossip. Although this mentality most prominently surrounds math courses, the same effects of the fixed mindset can be seen in students across many other academic pathways.

The harmful culture of extreme competition and overachievement leads many students to experience intense feelings of self-doubt and low self-worth.

Students’ feelings of discouragement largely stems from the tendency to judge their own abilities on a scale of how they compare to those of their peers. Rather than direct pressure from parents, many students feel the most stress to bulk their course loads from themselves and their peers.

Paly’s cutthroat environment leads many students to believe that if they are not taking the highest level of a certain subject, then they must not be “good” enough to pursue that field in college or as a career. This sentiment echoes the perspective of many students, as they believe that their time and energy is best spent on pursuing studies in which they believe they can become the most competitive candidate.

Although 88 percent of Paly students who are taking AB Calculus in their senior year earn perfect scores on the AP exam, many still believe that they are not competitive enough to pursue STEM majors in college.

Schools are supposed to nurture students’ potential, but the emphasis placed on taking advanced classes hinders the natural progression of students’ growth, leading them to prematurely close off options for possible career interests. This type of fixed mindset prevents students from coming to revelations about their interests for academic subjects that they may not have liked in high school later on. While college may be the place where students discover their true passions, many students may never allow themselves to venture into these subjects as a consequence of beliefs they made in high school about their incompetence.

In addition, Paly’s deflated grades in certain courses and difficult curriculum give students a false impression of their academic abilities, as the B’s and C’s earned at Paly can be comparable to A’s earned in some other school districts.

This misrepresentation further locks students in narrow perceptions of academic success. Students have been made victims of course titles and labels, where the difference in one letter, A and C, in AB and BC Calculus can dictate their perceptions of their intelligence and future academic pursuits.

As much as teachers love to defend the philosophy of “do what you love,” society has raised us to act in the opposite and forget how to be intrinsically motivated by our pursuits. Outside of the classroom, students have learned to equate passion with skill. From an early age, many students are thrown into a variety of sports and extracurriculars by their parents in hopes they will discover an interest they will stick with and master.

This act sends a subconscious message to children that they should choose sports or activities that match their strengths rather than their interests. The message becomes more direct in high school when environments become more competitive, causing some students to quit their sport or extracurricular activity upon realization that they do not compete at a level high enough to be recruited for college or have a professional future in the field.

As humans living in a specialized society, it comes as no surprise that people are more inclined to devote their energy towards doing what they are best at rather than what they like to do. However when students are inaccurately led to believe the limitations of their achievement,, premature specialization can be harmful.

As the students in advanced classes become increasingly younger each year, the academic environment will only grow more competitive. While the laning system is largely responsible for facilitating Paly’s unhealthy academic climate, getting rid of advanced courses is not the solution, as schools need to create a stimulating educational experience for all students, including higher-achieving students.

However, interventions must be made to combat this culture and to give students a perspective from beyond the bubble they live in. Receiving a teacher’s words of encouragement feels detached and robotic, like receiving ribbons for participation. Instead, administrators need to make greater, more personal efforts to educate students about the implications of their academic course loads — whether that be hosting teachers and alumni panels or inviting guest speakers to give insights about how their high school careers affected their future successes.

Students are the future, and the collective advancement of society is dependent on student achievement. Kids at Paly will inherently place greater academic expectations on themselves to keep pace with the rat race of life; however, adults need to do their part and educate students of their individual achievement.

About The Author

Shannon Zhao
Senior Staff Writer

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