This week I was talking with a friend of mine, also a teacher, and the conversation turned to discussing what our ideal school would look like. We kicked some ideas back and forth about what we saw as the most necessary changes. I won’t take the time here to enumerate all of them, but I’d like to throw out some ways I think we could radically change our classrooms and our schools for, I think, the betterment of our students.
1. Throw grades out the window.
When I was in college, I took a seminar my junior year with a professor who didn’t believe in giving grades. She said she would spend hours reading and commenting on our essays, and, the minute she gave it back, the only thing that mattered to students was the letter at the top. “You’ll look at the grade and either be happy or angry and nothing else will matter.”
In our age of standardized testing, I believe students are increasingly sent the message that their learning is tied to a number. Their work and their growth and their effort are encapsulated in a single numerical value. This numerical value then becomes a sign of whether they are smart or stupid. This numerical value becomes part of their self-worth and their identity as a student.
As a teacher, I mostly find grading an exercise in futility and frustration. What makes an 85 paper different than an 80? Or a 70 from a 65? It’s nearly impossible to pin down an exact number on the cognitive process that is writing. Writing, after all, is about risk taking. We become better writers when we take a risk, when we try something new. Most of the time, when we try something new we fail at it. Progress isn’t linear. How can you put a number grade on a student’s ability to take a risk?
Grades also, often, undermine the growth mindset we should be fostering in our students. I have a student who, bless her heart, works as hard as any student I’ve ever taught. She asks questions when she’s confused. She takes risks. She stays after school. However, her disability has significantly inhibited her educational progress. She reads on about a 3rd grade level and struggles to write simple sentences. This year, though, she has made impressive progress, but when she takes a vocabulary test or writes an essay, she often scores in the 40’s. Her grades do not reflect her growth as a student and– for a different, less intrinsically curious kid– these grades could severely undermine their motivation because the grades tell them they aren’t making progress.
Grades have been a linchpin of our educational system for about 200 years, and I feel like we stick to it because we lack the imagination and perseverance to try something new despite what research shows about the potentially harmful effects of grades.
2. Compartmentalizing Learning
For me, learning is most exciting when I see how information connects. When I was in college, one semester I took a Latin course on Cicero, a history seminar on scientific imperialism, a literature course on Black Women Writers, and a course on social psychology. What excited me so much about learning was seeing the connections between each course; seeing how Cicero was using psychology to construct his argument; understanding how scientific imperialism impacted and was impacted by racism. These connections are exciting, and they are the sign of learning. Learning is making these connections.
Why, then, do we insist on compartmentalizing learning for students? Why do we insist that you learn math here and history there and reading and writing over there? Why do we separate out skills and content, when we know the brain and the soul thrive on making new connections?
There’s a practical purpose: teacher certification and expertise. But what if we challenged teachers and schools to prioritize interdisciplinary learning? What if we threw out traditional compartmentalization in favor of humanities and STEM classes? What if we based our curriculum on themes and skills, rather than isolated learning activities? What if we built our schools to reflect what we know about the brain and learning and set up our classes so students can make connections, so that the connections we know are essential to learning become the norm rather than the exception?
3. Stop making college the only end goal.
College is a wonderful thing. I would love all of my students to graduate from my senior English class with the opportunity to go to college and be successful there.
But, I believe our singular focus on college from a young age is harmful to students. More and more, I read about elementary schools that name classes after colleges, or tell students daily that they need to work hard and go to college. Students at that age can’t conceptualize what college would be or look like–the word is nearly meaningless to them– but they see it as the end goal. When these students get to high school, they still see college as their only option. They see not going to college as being the same as failing because they’ve never been exposed to other options.
I think this singular focus is detrimental to the emotional well-being of our students. I think this singular focus, in some ways, inhibits risk taking as students fear looking “stupid.” Students often lose sight of what they can do because they fear what they can’t do. Learning Algebra prepares you for college, being able to take apart a car engine doesn’t. Going to college is success, being a car mechanic is failure.
I also think that the singular focus on college harms us as a system. Students should leave high school with the potential to lead fulfilling lives, regardless of whether they choose to attend college or not. If we, as a system, focus less on college and more on fostering citizenship, critical thinking, social-emotional learning and other important aspects of our student’s personhood.
Other countries do not share this singular focus. And while it’s limiting to look at entire systems through a single lens, I think it’s telling that, in addition to having one of the best general education systems worldwide, Finland has been recognized for its vocational education. In secondary schools, many students are exposed to vocational training and can take classes on Vehicle Technology or Logistics.
As department head, I used to start off every year with a discussion about who we wanted our students to be when they left our school. What skills and knowledge do they need? What habits and attitudes? I wanted us to have a goal of what student learning should look like divorced from what students choose to do once they leave. I think it would be helpful for us to ask the same question to our system.