Saturday, March 30, 2013

If You Want Students to Learn, Value Learning

Here's a little discussed fact about our education system:  We don't value learning.

We pretend to value learning.  We use the term lots.  We add it to our mission statements.  But we really don't care about it.  At least not enough to actually focus on it.

What we care about in schools are grades.  This is obvious to anyone who's spent 15 minutes in a school.

Grades reflect intelligence.  Grades reflect compliance.  Grades reflect socio-economic status.  Grades reflect parent involvement.  Grades reflect family stability.

Grades do not reflect learning.

Let's explore a few examples.

We all knew the really smart kid in school who didn't have to study but got a report card full of 'A's anyway.  Did those 'A's reflect how much that kid had learned, or how much they already knew?  Think about how much better that student would be served if we eliminated the grades and asked him/her to show evidence of new learning.

How about the kids we all know who learn early on in school that they will never be the 'A' students.  Many of them figure out early on that there is no point in exerting any effort in school.  What if we asked them to show evidence that they learned something new instead of punishing them for not complying, being smart enough, having enough family support, etc.?  Think of a system that encourages them to maximize their potential instead of pushing them toward dropping out when they hit high school.  Think of how much better they, and society would be.

If we really did value learning, that's what we would report.  Instead of a meaningless letter or number on a report card, we'd have a list created by students and their teachers of new things those students have learned along with links or other evidence to proof of that learning.

Instead of "Math - 88", we may see something like this:
Jimmy learned basic statistics and data analysis, including using the mean and median of data as a part of the decision making process.  He also learned how to write a business letter and how laws are made within his township.  This learning is evidenced by the attached letter and diagram which he sent to the Smith Township Supervisors in October in which he used traffic data he collected on Main Street to support the need for an additional traffic light.
Which do you think is more meaningful to the student?  To his/her parents?  To potential future employers?

Often I'll hear in response to this push for a more learning-centered approach to education, "Colleges don't care about all that stuff.  They only care about GPA and SAT scores."  This is not true.  Many students who come from homeschool situations and schools (like the Circle School in Harrisburg, PA) that don't give grades get into our top universities every year without having a GPA.  They get accepted because they provide those universities with detailed descriptions of what they've learned and what they've done.  They provide those universities with the same thing that others provide potential employers all the time - a good resume.

The time has come for our schools to stop pretending they value learning, and to start actually valuing learning.  It's time to stop defining students by meaningless numbers and letters.  If our students learn to love the extrinsic rewards of good grades and praise, they'll have trouble succeeding in life after school when grades are non-existent and praise is rare.

But if our students learn to love learning instead of those extrinsic rewards, their futures are bright with opportunity.  If we help them become the "life-long learners" so many mission statements describe, they will have the skills they need to meet the challenges that are inevitable in life.


  1. You get it! Love the vision! But you know your biggest fight would be from teachers who will say I have 30 kids in my class, I can't give each one that kind of individual attention.

  2. our district is talking about formative assessment and feedback...and that is the pushback "i cant do that with all my kids" ...."i circled where they went wrong, what more must I do"

  3. It's true. If we continue a teacher-centered, top-down approach to education, giving this kind of feedback to our students becomes a logistical nightmare.

    Which is exactly why we need to shift to a student-centered, learning-focused approach to education. Kids should drive the learning. Failure should be embraced, not as something to be avoided at all costs, but rather as an inevitable part of the learning process. Teach kids to analyze mistakes and to learn from them.

    And feedback does not have to always come from the teacher. In fact, it should usually come from more authentic sources. Take the example in the post. What's more powerful feedback for a kid - his/her teacher explaining why the statistical analysis is wrong, or a letter from the township supervisors explaining why the data provided isn't convincing enough? Part of our job as teachers in this new connected world is to expose our students to a wide variety of authentic feedback sources.

    When teachers are not driving the learning, grading research papers for whom there is no audience other than the teacher, and delivering test-prep, it's amazing how much time is available for real learning and real feedback.


  4. I love this! Your example was fantastic. The best part of the example is that the student should be reflexively writing that statement. All the teacher has to do is facilitate the process, encourage when necessary and guide when necessary, and sign off at the end of the student's statement to authenticate it. I love it and I believe it's possible even in those 30 student classrooms (though certainly it would be more difficult - time is always the enemy).

    Unfortunately, even when a teacher is on board, schools themselves can be the greatest enemy. They want to see two grades in the grade book per student per week. They want to see formative assessment (i.e. a test score) once every two weeks. They want benchmark exams and "mastery of the standards" (i.e. test scores). The two concepts are at odds with each other and send the kids mixed messages - and makes my job an awful lot harder to try to meld the two in a meaningful way!

    The push and pull of education...the only thing to do is quietly go about offering actual learning experiences, but I wish admins could see and understand that what you've argued here is the better way :)

  5. If only.... well, if only. Teaching is a lifetime of learning and inviting students to share that passion - if only we could focus on learning, not on the distracting issues du jour.