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Guest Post by Jieye Fang: The Banking Model of Education and Grades Are Damaging Critical Thinking

Dear Readers, Please enjoy this insightful article written by my stellar student, Jieye Fang.

Most of us are probably very familiar with the words “critical thinking.” We hear about it all the time, both in schools and outside of schools. Since people are constantly talking about it, it must be an important skill that students should start developing at schools. However, statistics from surveys suggest the opposite. In the news article “Overconfident Students, Dubious Employers,” higher education reporter Jeremy Bauer-Wolf points out that 79.9 percent of students consider themselves “proficient” in critical thinking, but almost half of the employers think students lack critical thinking skills (Bauer-Wolf). Apparently, there is a huge perception gap between employers and students on the idea that education contributes to the development of students’ critical thinking skills. What seems wrong about our education that causes this problem? The answers are the banking concept of education and the grading system. They should be changed because they take away students’ critical thinking ability, which is crucial for both students’ decision making and the societal battle against oppression.

The banking model of education is the first factor that discourages the development of students’ critical thinking skills. To discuss this, first of all, we need to define critical thinking. The Oxford Dictionary defines critical thinking as “the process of analyzing information in order to make a logical decision about the extent to which you believe something to be true or false.” Basically, critical thinking is the ability to use available information to make our own judgment about a situation. Why are we not developing this ability in school? The Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire offers an answer in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he introduces the “banking concept” of education. He explains, in banking education, “the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor”. Like the way we deposit money into the bank, the teacher “deposits” the knowledge into us students’ heads, and all we need to do is to “record, memorize, and repeat” whatever the teacher tells us. He also illustrates that the banking model of education is based on “narration”, meaning the teacher is the “narrating subject”, and the students are the “listening objects”. (Freire 1). In brief, in banking education, teachers are the narrators who present information, and the students are the passive receivers of information.

Even though this book was written 50 years ago, it turned out to mirror today’s education system. My educational experience has been mostly lecture-based, whether. One prominent example is history class. In class, the teacher listed the historical events that are important to remember for the tests in the power points, and explained their significance. All that students had to do was to highlight and write down whatever the teacher said was important in the textbook and memorize them for the exams. Admittedly, many students like narrative education, especially when the teachers are humorous and tell good stories, because we don’t need to worry about getting called on to explain what we think. Nevertheless, the problem with this narrative banking education is, the teachers’ interpretation of the materials can be biased. No matter how well the teacher delivers the materials, in the banking model, he is the only one who is outputting ideas. Students, being mere listeners, are not given the chance to think through the information presented to them or forming their own judgments and opinions. In fact, stories told by a good lecturer are more compelling. When students are so into the teacher’s narration, they are more likely to believe whatever the teacher says. Therefore, they are unable to detect biases in the teacher’s lecture. Developing critical thinking skills requires practice, but narrative banking education is not prompting students to practice this skill. As Freire says, “The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop … critical consciousness” (Freire 2). To sum up, because banking education makes students passive receivers of information, students don’t have the chance to practice critical thinking in class. Without practice, students’ critical thinking skills can not improve. Therefore, schools fail to help students develop critical thinking skills.

Even though the banking model of education doesn’t help develop students’ critical thinking skills, why is that important? Students should gain critical thinking skills, or the ability to form their own judgments from education because it’s significant for improving the quality of their life. When people are little kids, they don’t know much about the world, so their parents make most decisions for them. As they get older, however, they become responsible for making their own decisions. For instance, when teens turn 18, they can apply for credit cards and have total control over their money. Without critical thinking skills, they are vulnerable to being misled by the consumerism promoted in social media and getting into debt by abusing credit cards. In addition, when purchasing properties and making investments, being able to analyze available information and making logical decisions help people make the best deals. Moreover, when high school seniors decide which university to go to, when transfer students decide what school to transfer to, when college graduates decide their career paths, when working people decide which job offer to take, they all need critical thinking skills to help them make the best decisions.

The banking model of today’s education does not help cultivate students’ critical thinking skills. The teachers, or the school district, determine what information they want to present, and pour this information that they think are useful along with teachers’ own interpretation of the materials to students through lectures. Since banking education is a one-way communication, students never get to express what they want to learn or what they think of the materials, let alone making decisions. This leads to the consequence that students gain information from the teacher, but they don’t know how to use this information to help them in life. Therefore, students think what they learn in school is useless, which diminishes their interest in learning and thinking. One example is the required reading Romeo and Juliet at high school English class. I remember in class, the teacher and students took turns reading the lines out loud, and the teacher paused from time to time to summarize the plot. I didn’t enjoy the book at all. I thought, I don’t need to understand the obscure Shakespearean language or to know the plot in Romeo and Juliet to live my life, so what’s the meaning of reading this book? I believe most students have asked this question: why are we learning this? The problem is not that the materials we learn are not useful. The problem is the banking concept of education keeps students from discovering the connection between the materials we learn in school and real life. The story itself is not important, what’s important is students’ interpretation of the story. If students were to discuss what they think of the story and to hear other students’ opinions, the students will be able to discover that different people have different values. This helps them understand why they make certain choices while others don’t. However, narration-based banking education doesn’t give students the chance to practice critical thinking. In short, students need critical thinking skills to apply the things they learn to make correct decisions in life, but banking education is not teaching students how to use information to form judgments.

The grading system also aids the banking model in minimizing students’ critical thinking abilities. According to Lumen Learning, “Critical thinking…involves being skeptical and challenging assumptions, rather than…blindly accepting what you hear or read” (Lumenlearning.com). It points out that critical thinkers should hold a doubtful attitude towards the opinions or information they receive. Nevertheless, the grading system is taking away this ability from students. Growing up, we’ve been taught to believe that grades determine our future. If we get bad grades at school or score low on standardized tests like SAT and ACT, we can’t get into good colleges. If we can’t get into a good college, we will be at a disadvantage in today’s highly competitive job market. As a community college transfer student, getting good grades is even more important than when I was in high school. This overrated value assigned to grades results in our fear towards people who give out the grades—the teachers and the college professors. This fear is certainly not born—it’s learned through experience. Jennifer Hurley, a college professor who has over 20 years of teaching experience, points out in her blog post “Why I Had to Give Up Grades Or Give Up Teaching” that teachers are using grades as a “tool of control” (Hurley) to “shape students’ behaviors.” It’s true. In high school, whenever my English teacher assigned a reading assignment, we would have a quiz on the reading contents the following day, and the quiz score was a significant part of my overall grade in that class. I did question whether the assignments were helpful for this class, but I simply did what the teacher told me to do because if I didn’t, I would end up with a bad grade, which I believed would ruin my future. Overtime, I just stop questioning the teacher’s decision and do whatever he tells me to do. Freire says in his article, “The more completely [students] accept the passive role imposed on them, the more they tend simply to adapt to the world as it is and to the fragmented view of reality deposited in them” (Freire 2). Every time the students swallow their questions and doubts, they are practicing complying with the ones in power—the teacher. As time goes on, they gradually believe that it’s the correct way to live. In a word, when students adapt to the grading system by blindly accepting orders given by the teachers, they lose the ability to challenge the authorities, which is part of the critical thinking skills.

Lacking critical thinking abilities is dangerous because without it, students are unable to recognize or fight the existing social oppression.  Although equality and liberty have always been the pursuit of Americans, oppression is still a prominent issue in the U.S. society. Oppression refers to the unfair use of power or authority to enforce a set of beliefs and to prevent a group of people from gaining power. For example, racial oppression is one of the hottest social topics recently. The killing of George Floyd, an African American who was murdered by a police officer, demonstrates the existence of racial discrimination against the black community in the country. The college admission scandal is another example of social oppression. Rich celebrities bribe prestigious colleges to earn their kids privileges in the admission process. People who are involved in these illegal transactions are oppressing other applicants by taking away their rights to get a better education. There are all kinds of oppression happening in this society, but many people are not aware of them or ignoring them because education is minimizing students’ abilities to identify and speak up against oppression. As Freire mentions in his book, “banking education…mirror[s] oppressive society as a whole” (Freire 1).

School is a microcosm of the society. In banking education, teachers tell students what to do. If students don’t listen, the teachers bring out grades to make them obey. In the long run, students form the habit of complying with those who have power. This power can be helpful, but it can also be used to oppress people. In schools, teachers are the mother figure for students. Therefore, in the same way that children want attention from their parents, students naturally desire recognition and praise from their teachers. Teachers understand the influential power they have in students’ emotions, but they use this power to enforce the grading system. I still remember one sentence my classmate said to me, “The teacher doesn’t like me because I’m bad at math.” I suddenly realize that it’s almost a norm that the teacher’s favorite student is always the one who scores high in every test. Teachers would smile at the “good” students and praise them in front of the class, which wouldn’t happen to those “bad” students. By discriminating students based on grades, teachers reinforce the importance of getting good grades. Banking education tells students that the teacher is always right. Hence, students wouldn’t realize that the teacher is oppressing them. They would blame themselves for not being good enough to earn the teachers’ approval. Friere claims in his book, “Indeed, the interests of oppressors lie in ‘changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them’” (Friere 2). Those who abuse power are not helping the vulnerable gain their own power. Rather, they numb the critical thinking abilities of the oppressed so that they can’t realize their disadvantaged condition so that the former can continue to dominate society and maintain their power. Sadly, banking education and the grading system are aiding oppression by teaching students to submit to power.

Some might argue that subjects like sciences require lecture-based banking education. They believe the materials are facts that have been discovered and developed by scientists. For example, the things we learn in human anatomy class are based on scientists’ findings through dissection experiments, so there is no need to discuss what has already been proven to be true. Teachers’ job is just to present the information, and students only need to memorize the names and locations of different body parts. In this case, lecture-based banking education is the best way to convey information to students. Nevertheless, what we learn in science are not necessarily all truths. Todd Rigg Carriero, a former college astronomy teacher, explains, “Science is an evolving discussion of the way in which we humans with our limited sensing abilities and our slowly changing patterns of thinking are able to make sense of the world”. He says, science “can not prove anything true, ever. It can only iteratively weed out what’s false” (Carriero). What he means is that current scientific understandings only uncover a very small part of the world and that they are subject to change. Freire also argues in his book, “Reality is really a process, undergoing constant transformation” (Fieres 3). He reveals that the world is not static. Everything changes every day. However, banking education doesn’t convey this idea to students. The textbooks, which teachers rely on to teach, remain the same every year. Although there are new editions every three or four years, some publishers are just moving the sequence of chapters around and trying to gain more profits by releasing so-called new editions. In fact, the contents remain the same. As the world changes and discoveries come out, the unchanged teaching materials simply become outdated. Moreover, since scientific discovery is still an ongoing process, the education system needs to cultivate students’ ability to recognize problems, pose questions, as well as challenge and overturn outdated findings objectively for scientific breakthroughs. To conclude, current science findings can not fully explain the constantly changing world, so static banking education doesn’t help the scientific community make progress.

The society we are living in is not perfect, neither is the education system that has been employed for decades. In order to make progress, we and our descendants should be able to identify problems, overturn outdated systems, and construct new and up-to-date systems. The education system plays the major role in developing youths’ awareness and abilities, but it fails to cultivate students’ critical thinking abilities due to the banking model and the grading system. Therefore, they should be changed so that students can learn critical thinking skills that are not only helpful for life but also helpful for building a healthy society. Without critical thinking, people become blind followers of those who are in power. If no one has the ability or the courage to stand up against oppression, will the society become what George Orwell describes in his book 1984, where people’s lives are controlled by one dominating power? For the liberty we pursue, we should prevent that from happening. The first step is to initiate change in the education system.



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