11/20/2012 09:18 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Learning Is a Way of Life

In elementary school, I was a stellar student: I would speedily complete all my homework (which was not much) during lunch (yes, I was that kid). Now, I wouldn't necessarily call myself a stellar student... a doer-of-everything-except-homework might be an accurate term.

I became a procrastinator in eighth grade, when I switched from project-based learning in my elementary school, which encourages learning itself, to test-based learning, which encourages cramming knowledge into our already-stuffed brains.

I distinctly remember the turning point -- the first time I'd stayed awake until one in the morning to finish schoolwork. Ever since then, I've been the person who doggedly crams the dates of Roosevelt's presidency in my head the night before an AP U.S. History test; I'm the student who mutters Elizabethan curses she read on her "Shakespeare insulter" app under her breath as she graphs logarithms on a piece of crumpled lined paper on the ride to school in the morning on the day the homework is due. So it's not that I don't get the work done; it's just that I drag my feet while I'm doing it.

At my progressive elementary school we didn't have grades, we weren't assigned homework until fourth grade, and we didn't have tests in anything other than spelling. The curriculum was structured around "studies," which were periods of the year devoted to learning about a certain subject, which ranged from Ancient Persia to the US postal system. I loved it.

I was excited to learn, to start projects, to build structures with wooden blocks, to write reports. I put a lot of effort into everything, but I was never tired and never bored. Everyday there was something new to do: an Inuit recipe for ice cream (an altered, vegetarian version) to test, Japanese wooden sandals to hew from planks of wood, a class discussion of Ahura Mazda to participate in. It all sounds bizarre, now that I think about it. And if it sounds strange to me, you must be thinking, "How on earth do hippie children in Los Angeles learn anything?" But back then, interacting with and exploring material was learning.

Now, at my competitive college prep high school, "learning" is synonymous with lessons, textbooks, and tests. When I sit down to start a math worksheet I mentally brace myself, as if I'm about to march onto a battlefield. This is not at all to say that I don't enjoy my classes: I do actually love many of my classes. It's the attitude with which I sometimes approach my work outside of class that isn't always loving.

Somewhere between handling ginormous loads of homework and bearing witness to meltdowns in the hallways, learning became, in my mind, a chore; something that I had to do to get good grades and get into a good college, instead of a way of life, which is really what it was to me before.

Obviously, pressure to do well at a prep school is extremely high, but the pressure to learn only to get good grades and go to college is prevalent everywhere. Product over process is the mindset of schools in America.

I have learned valuable skills in school, though, even through managing excessive amounts of homework; I am sincerely grateful to have been able to attend Marlborough, which prides itself on teaching students to become hardworking and competent young women.

However, these invaluable skills come packaged with a utilitarian attitude about learning as the means to accomplish something rather than pursuing a passion for knowledge, or whatever your passion might be, that's satisfying in and of itself. I don't know how it'd be possible to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting ways of learning: one that emphasizes the end result; a good test score, or admission to college, but teaches us life skills as well, and one that values the process, and therefore encourages you to develop a passion for something specific.

We're encouraged to pile on extracurricular activity after extracurricular activity, and take AP after AP to puff up our college apps, but what do we do that is truly meaningful to us -- that will matter to us in college and after college? And if we are already doing the things that we love, do we necessarily give them enough of our time and energy? I think our focus -- the focus that the system perpetuates -- is a bit skewed, because, in the grand scheme of things, college is only four years, whereas the rest of your life is well, forever.