Ambitious, joyful learning: Archer educators work to instill ‘joy of learning,’ reduce stress levels


Photo credit: Grace Dieveney

A binder sits on a desk in Leila Chakravarty’s math classroom. Her ninth and 10th grade Integrated Math III class completes practice problems on solving quadratic and linear systems of equations.

Imagine waiting in line to take the SAT on a cold Saturday morning, filled with anxiety. You’re in an unfamiliar environment with a pencil in hand, and this one test could determine your educational future. However, is all of this pressure really necessary for education?

At Archer, teachers and administrators experiment with different teaching styles to emphasize long-term rather than short-term learning and to reduce stress from test-taking.

However, for many students, high school is still inherently stressful. Applying to Archer itself requires taking the Independent School Entrance Exam [ISEE], and most upperclassmen take the ACT or SAT when applying to college.

Stress in Academics

Many students noted that they feel stress in high school to succeed academically.

According to a 2013 poll conducted by NPR, 40 percent of parents say that their high-schooler feels anxious about school. In most cases, such stress is academic-based and not as a result of social issues or bullying.

Co-Director of College Guidance Gabrielle Dorsey said, in her professional experience, most of the pressure on teens comes from themselves. She said such worrying can lead to students assigning more meaning to a letter grade than actually exists; they often tend to feel that grades will determine the outcome of their lives.

“There is this internal need to be competitive and this worry of, ‘If I don’t go to this particular set list of schools, I won’t be successful in life,'” Dorsey said.

Dorsey, however, has found these concerns to be largely inaccurate. In order to combat this stigma, Archer’s College Guidance department works to improve anxiety about grades and college admissions through educating girls about the 4,000+ colleges they can choose from.

Photo by Grace Dieveney
Students Gwen Hanson ’21, Sarah Khnysser ’20 and Camille Colker ’21 take notes in math class. Integrated Math III classes at Archer review quadratics, then build on what they know by solving systems in new ways.

Despite these efforts, Dorsey noted that stress surrounding the college process still remains incredibly high.

“Any time there’s an increase in stress, there is a decrease in the enjoyment of learning,” Dorsey said. “A national trend is that [kids] stop thinking about the courses [they] enjoy taking, thinking, ‘Well this is what I need to do for college,’ or ‘I need to take this level of rigor for college.’ This is something we really discourage here at Archer.”

Many psychologists have also studied the contributing factors to this decrease in enjoyment. Anthony Rucker, a psychologist at Family Time Inglewood, explained the purpose of their research.  

“Psychologists study behaviors and attitudes about learning and where they originate from, and teachers are the ones who implement this,” Rucker said. “Since there is no open communication typically between the them, there is sometimes a disconnect between psychologists and educators.”

However, Upper School Director Gretchen Warner said stress is not always purely negative. According to Warner, it can also serve as a motivating factor for students to thrive in some specific cases. How well students handle stress is also greatly considered when they choose their course loads for the following year. Warner wants to ensure that they don’t become overwhelmed.

“Some students think that college is the end game, when really, it’s learning,” Warner said.

Archer is currently working to help students select classes they are passionate about rather than merely for honors or AP credit.

“Archer keeps in mind that everyone learns differently and wants to pursue their passions in different ways,” Cat Oriel ’18 said. “I think Archer does a really good job of making sure students are pursuing their interests and not just doing something because it looks good on a college app.” 

Rucker emphasized that methods to lower tension are needed now more than ever as the pressure on students continues to grow.

“Pressure is increasing as standards rise,” Rucker said. “The master’s [degree] is the new bachelors.”

The Center for Disease Control found that stress at an early age can have long term effects on both physical and mental health. It can also result in an inability to calm down and a withdrawal from learning and social interactions.

“The pressure on kids is ridiculous,” Rucker said. “There is no such thing as having fun [anymore], and education should be fun.”

Intrinsic Motivation

In the modern education system, the standards for success are created and measured by standardized testing and GPAs.

“Standardized testing doesn’t work for all learning styles. Some people just don’t perform as well on tests as they do in class, so I don’t think it’s an effective way to assess knowledge,” Amber Calvert-Jones ’21 said.”Everyone’s brain is programmed differently.”

Rucker said he did not enjoy his own experience with academics in high school.

“I hated the idea that no matter how much effort I was putting forward, you couldn’t see my effort in the grade,” Rucker said.

In order to find a way to combat disengagement with academics, psychologists examine different types of motivation within students and how these different motives may produce enjoyment. Rucker said that internal motivation is much more beneficial than external motivation in the long run.

“Intrinsic motivation is self-motivation. It can be instilled in children by helping them set their own standards for excellence,” Rucker said. “You get A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s. What is excellent is decided by other people. You don’t get to decide what your criteria for excellence is, and that takes away intrinsic motivation.”

Up(grading) the System

Students, administrators and teachers at Archer have recognized the flaws in the grading system.

“Schools are set up now to have finals, grades and GPAs be the end all, be all,” Oriel said. “Grades definitely discourage people from being able to explore their passions in a stress-free way.”

However, the educational system is being updated in some schools. Colleges such as University of MichiganNorthern Arizona University and Purdue University are now offering competency based degrees.

Data gathered from a survey emailed to students. 98 students responded. Infographic by Grace Dieveney.

“The transcript that just has letter grade after letter grade after letter grade is not the best reflection of everything that goes into being a student,” Warner said.

Although the grading system may not be changed at Archer, Warner is investigating a variety of methods to represent student achievement in ways other than traditional transcripts, letter grades and percentages.

“One of the things I am looking into and doing some research about right now is called the Mastery Transcript,” Warner said.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is a collection of schools working to develop a new way to measure student achievement through alternative transcripts and assessments.

According to the MTC’s mission statement, “The MTC hopes to change the relationship between preparation for college and college admissions for the betterment of students.”

Despite the prevalence of stress on campus, Warner she she feels that the majority of Archer students genuinely enjoy learning.

“Everything that the teachers and faculty do is exceptional,” Warner said. “Every in and outside of class activity they do helps students to really love learning.”

Overall, Dorsey and Warner hope that students will be able to explore their interests and discover the joy that is education throughout their lives.

“Learning is not always fun,” Warner said. “But in the end, it’s the best part of living.”