We, that is this thing we call our “self”, are a narrative construct. We are the stories we tell ourselves. This should come as no surprise to teachers and other educators. We know that positive self-talk is correlated with higher levels of success and happiness in all students. But these narratives are not crafted in a vacuum. We are, after all, social creatures, and thus our narratives include the lived stories we craft based upon how we perceive others perceive us. As the philosopher Charles Cooley posits, our “self” is a narrative crafted within the social realms, that is, between us and others (or, as Jason Silva puts it: “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am”), and so our words, our deeds, and the actions we inflict upon others are immeasurable in their repercussions.
In other words, Stories Matter! A lot! We are, to borrow the words of Jonathan Gotschall, “Storytelling Animals.” Thus the narrative turn in our understanding of who we are should play a larger role in how we help the next generation learn than the faux empiricism of evaluations couched in letter grades.
When we turn this theoretical lens onto our classrooms, we should immediately recognize that grades and the narrative we (adults) have shaped around them are a major influence on the selves whose stories we help craft. And their influence is, by and large, negative. By all accounts, student (and parent) grade-watching is rampant, stress and anxiety are increasing in our children, and the stories our students tell themselves about themselves hang too precariously upon a letter.
We need to shift the focus away from largely arbitrary (and therefore mostly meaningless) letters and numbers to narrative assessments. At least there, going back to Cooley’s work, we are not inflicting the system’s narrative upon the child/young adult. Instead, we are opening a dialogue, negotiating, and collaborating in the authorship of this human being’s learning narrative by helping them understand what we mean by “growth” in a cognitive sense.
“The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.” — Vikram Chandra
No doubt, many students and adults become successful because they fit within the narrow confines of the system’s narratives. And there are those who succeed in spite of the narrative…who are not prisoners of the thoughts and perceptions of others, of the worth implied via evaluative grades and the even worse “evaluative gaze” as author Carol Black terms it.
But how many persevere, silently or quietly, despite the system, all the while internalizing ideas of who they are based upon systemic labels (“I’m not an honors student. I’m not good enough for …. I’m never going to be….”)? We talk about how students need to overcome their “fixed mindset” and use “Grit” to develop a “growth mindset” (“I’m not an A student…YET”).
That’s dandy, but we know that’s easier said than done. We also know it denies social, economic, and countless other inequities. If these students are constantly on the receiving end of grades which are often manufactured or, worse, inconsistently applied, if they perceive that they have no control over the system’s narrative…? If that is the case, it is a sick and sadistic system that doesn’t ask itself, “What harms are we committing in the name of “Adequate Yearly Progress” or “proficiency” or other “normalized” notions of human potential.
It is part of our shared story that we are all human beings in the becoming. (That’s the only perspective through which those videos of “The Power of Yet” make any sense.) If that is so, then grades, which imply for so many students an endstate, need to be seriously rethought, or in the very least their implementation needs to be reconsidered given the understanding of their power to prematurely end students’ learning narratives.
One of my academic heroes was the Nobel Prize Winning physicist, Richard Feynman. As he sat by his young, first wife on her deathbed, he discussed how those he was working with on the Manhattan Project may be viewing his constant trips away to her hospital. She asked him point blank, “What do you care what other people think?” (Those words were to become the title of one of his amazing, anecdote-filled memoirs).
I would love to think that all of us had enough fortitude to live by such a credo. But we can’t. I don’t think anyone, even a mind like Feynman, can live that way 24/7. However, when we continue to evaluate and judge students as we do, we send the message that we’re all supposed to be people pleasers, and that our self-worth is predicated upon how much others find our presence in class pleasing, our work satisfactory–“Are you an “A” student or a “C” student?”
As educators, we must ask ourselves, is our work to help students coauthor their own ”Learning Narratives,” an ongoing subplot of the stories of themselves, or is it to be complicit in (and if so to what extent) the continued creation of compliant rule-followers who seek the approval of others to validate their existence.
One should not read that choice as a pure binary. Obviously, boundaries and knowledge of what constitutes quality work and pro-social behavior are necessary, but they are not sufficient for the full realization of human potential. Only narratives and shared stories help us understand one another that deeply. And that, more than anything, is at the foundation, at the heart, of education.