What Counts and What Matters in Learning?  (Contrary to over a century of practice, it is not really the grades.)

(This post was originally published in July of 2018 on the website of the design consultancy, Form and Faculty.)

Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes.  Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation.  The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself.  While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning.

Learning≠Making the Grade

The research on grades is fairly clear:  little to no evidence exists to support grading as having a significant impact on student learning (Listen to Scott Looney’s podcast on this–referenced in a previous post).  In fact, most of the research on grades fails to return any positive advantage in terms of learning.  The real impact of  our obsession with grades and grade point averages is that parents and students have become more focused on the grade than they are on learning.  The persistent pursuit of the A+, of meeting the requirements the system demands, not only diminish the human desire of learning for learning’s sake, it perverts the very enterprise of public education.

Florida National University

Of course, designers and most students of the arts are familiar with such a situation, for we are practiced in creating our own criteria for success, undergoing countless critiques, and we are driven to learn through iteration.

That schools and universities across the nation have put serious research and funds behind shifting the goal of education from grade point averages to actual assessment of learning is heartening and indicative of a larger shift in education in general:  a shift from superficial achievement to deeper learning.

Curiosity, Relationships, and the Depths of Learning

Deeper learning labels teaching methodologies seeking student mastery of content knowledge by, among other things, engaging them in collaborative work that demands creative and critical thinking, increasing student voice and communication…all through real world learning, through projects whose relevance is not merely found in a letter grade, but in making a real-world impact.

https://www.innovationtraining.org/steps-to-design-thinking/

The confluence of these current educational initiatives with design thinking is clear:  If all learning is based in relationships either between the learner and others, or between the learner and the things they want to learn, then all learning begins in curiosity…in finding a problem…an itch to scratch.  The building of a relationship (be it a learning relationship or otherwise) begins in empathy.  The learning that derives out of empathy is then driven by a deep curiosity.  All these states are not unique to school and its insistence on lesson plans, disciplines, class periods, etc.  They are innately part of what it means to be a human being.  And, perhaps most importantly, they cannot be reduced to the quotidian, to mere numbers on a data set of evaluation.

Form and Faculty is founded on the knowledge that design and the mindsets of design thinking are innately human, and that it is the learner’s human right to express his or her desires as the impetus for learning in the first place.  Our own work and the work we do for others always begins from a human-centered orientation.  For in the end our work would matter little if we did not believe our users mattered.  And our work would count for little if we did not take into account the humanity of our clients.

Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything, There peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

Education as a Gift Economy

The Gift
I originally posted this piece in 2012 to the group blog “Cooperative Catalyst” (a wonderful site where I first met David Loitz, John Spencer, Paul Freedman (of the Salmonberry School) and other amazing educators.  Having just read another amazing article by Arthur Chiaravalli on his journey to gradelessness, I was reminded of the notion of teaching and learning as a type of economy.  I’m reviving this article here as I’d like to think it might spark some discussion regarding the “economies” of education, especially given all the recent and growing criticisms of the “neoliberal agenda” in the realm of education.  (See here, here, and, most importantly in our Trumpian world, here for more on this interesting critique.)

Merry Christmas…

Einstein Teaching

In a monthly meeting at my middle school, we were discussing the issue of grades and homework.  I thought this bit from Prof. Einstein might offer some way of illuminating part of the discussion we were having, but it has led me even further down a wondrous rabbit hole, so far it demanded a blog post of me.

I’ll begin with an assumption, namely that parents don’t send our children to school with the solitary belief that after 12 years and college they’ll land a solid job and make more money than we ourselves do and thus perpetuate a sort of social mobility that, for a large portion of the population, doesn’t even exist anymore.  We send them to school because we believe, whether we know it or not, that a public education will provide the sort of well-rounded, liberal education that will help our children grow into good people.  Thus, when a teacher tells my oldest child, as his kindergarten teacher did once, that school is his job, well…I bristle and my wife has to hold me back from making a scene and assuring a dire future for “the children of that man.”

As regards Einstein’s observation, the assumption is couched in these words: “Never regard study [read, “school”] as a duty [read, “job”] but as the enviable opportunity to learn to know the liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit for your own personal joy and to the profit of the community to which your later work belongs.”  Too often students do see study as a duty and only that.  It is our job as teachers to change that perspective, to enlighten them, which is, so far as I’m concerned, the ultimate end of education–light:  light for ourselves, but also light for the community.  Education, then, is not about racing to the top and “winning” (whatever that means/looks like it probably has something to do with grades and test scores), which so far as I can tell is a very solitary thing…solitary, competitive and hardly healthy for our children, our system, our world.

You see, I agree with Einstein’s framing teaching as a gift.  Several years ago I attended a one-day conference at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking called, “Why Write?”  Which was, of course, about why we (teachers) write and teach writing.  The common text we studied for the conference was a book by Lewis Hyde called, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.  

The GiftHyde’s premise is that there are some human endeavors (the arts, obviously, but I include teaching in that group) that escape the traditional exchange economies of “I give you money…you give me a good or a service.” Teaching, as I mentioned, is not, or rather, ought not be thought of as part of an exchange economy.  Rather, it is part of a “gift economy” (I defer now to Wikipedia’s explanation):  For Lewis Hyde, the gift is an object that must continuously circulate throughout a society in order to keep its gift qualities. In this way the gift perishes for the person who gives it away, even though the gift itself is able to live on precisely because it has been passed on. He calls this the “paradox of the gift”: even though it is used up, it is not extinguished. This gift exchange is responsible for establishing connections and emotional ties between people which in turn serve as a basis for community and social cohesion.

“The gift lives on because it has been passed on….”  Tell me that’s not teaching.  I don’t impart knowledge.  No.  It is not that that “perishes for the [teacher] who gives it away.”  Rather, I impart a way of being in the world, a way of approaching problems and paradoxes and conundrums and to say (paraphrasing Einstein again) that the mystery is the most miraculous thing we can experience.  Teaching is a strange gift, though, in that I feel no sense of loss, nothing perishes with the gift I offer, perhaps because I truly offer nothing.  I’m simply revealing themselves to themselves…Awakening the genius, if you will.  And it is that sense of genius that is part and parcel to this “way of being” over which I wax so poetic.

Back to Einstein, then:  “Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift….”  It is, for many of us, a perspective flip that requires great effort…to view teaching as part of a gift economy and to view the student as something more than a repository for all the weighty hopes, fears, lies, dreams, wishes and anxieties we ourselves have about the future and “the real world.”  When we teach that way, we rob children of their own lives and potential in the name of some perceived future which, in all truth, we can never see with any clarity.  But when we offer ourselves, our art, as a gift, then we offer them the chance to know the “liberating influence of beauty in the realm of the spirit.”

I know the difficulty of the perspective flip that precedes the offering and the truth of the gift economy–that one need not ever accept a gift.  Thus, just as in the capitalist economic model where a student need not “buy” what a teacher is selling, the same is true of the gift economy–the student need not accept the gift.  But oh!  How much more simple it is to accept when nothing is required in return.

 

Do No Harm: A Teachers’ Hippocratic Call to Action

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Teaching as a Subversive Activity

So my district is talking about “doing school different.”  Sorry, but haven’t many schools been talking (or avoiding talking) about it for long enough?

There’s plenty of reason to stop talking about it and start doing it, and most of the reasons stem all the way back to Postman and Weingartner, if not  John Dewey himself.  But then there’s this blog post, the first lines of which are chilling:  “We’re not helping kids…we’re actually imperiling them!”  If this is true, and I tend to think, given all the voices in this direction, that it is, how much time can we waste?  How much of my own children’s time is being lost to outdated, outmoded, never-more-than-compliance-seeking methods of learning?  This isn’t just about my district doing school different…this is about every school.  You can call me an evangelist…fine.  I’ll be evangelical if that’s what it takes to make sure my own children and those children I serve are provided with a thought-ful classroom.  And if that means I’m called on the carpet…then fine, because I refuse to be complicit in a thought-crime.  If my refusal paints me as crazy…then I’ll accept that.  “Here’s to the crazy ones/the misfits, the rebels/the round-pegs in the square holes/the ones who see things differently….about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them./Because they change things.”

I know the following reeks of clickbait, but the article’s title is:

“Traditional School Imperils Kids; They Need to Be Innovators”

As well, the title implies an agenda (creating business-world ready “innovators”).  But don’t make me a Cassandra.  Too many people are shouting the same prophecies.  We need to change how we are doing.  (Emerson said as much: “A foolish consistency is the Hobgoblin of little minds.”)

But it’s frightening, right?  Change is frightening.  We talked about this in my 10th grade classes yesterday.  It’s frightening because it carries with it a sense of loss–loss of the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and others) about who we are for so long.  The fear is deep, existential; we try to bury the fear, ignore it…but it doesn’t go away. It eats at us and for most of us…we just retreat further and further into what we know, seeking ever-shrinking security from a future of change that looms ever larger.
The same is true for institutions.  And SCHOOL is an institution.
Last year I worked with twin girls in an independent study where they sought to bring more curiosity and student inquiry into the classroom.  One of those girls, Cali, wrote a brilliant blog post this summer about how she experienced the institution of school, about how it distorted her sense of self and robbed her of her health. Sure…there is opportunity and good that comes from “doing school,”  but the results of a cursory cost-benefits analysis are clear.   If the lives of students are not reason enough for teachers to question their practice and make substantive changes, then I would unapologetically argue that those teachers are part of a system whose leaders need to be replaced, for both the leaders and the teachers who refuse to or are not actively seeking out change are imperiling the lives and livelihoods of the children in their classroom.

And sure, the Institution offers a pretense of change.  It has catchphrases, it goes through the motions of “change.”  But are enough of our institutions of schooling doing so?  And more important, are they doing so quickly enough?  I don’t see it. But the rocks are starting to roll thanks to people and organizations like Ken Robinson, Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon,Grant Lichtman,Education Reimagined,certainly Don Wettrick (see the Twitter Thread below) and countless others.

 

We can do better, we can be better, we must be better.  Otherwise, we, as individuals and institutions, become like Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye— stagnant, depressed (and depressing) creatures trying so desperately to hold on to our past that we rob ourselves of the opportunity to grow into larger, more genuine and healthy senses of ourselves.

http://www.bie.org/blog/traditional_school_imperils_kids_they_need_to_be_innovators

 

Design Thinking For College Admissions

FullerI received the letter below from one of the counselors at my HS today.  As a recap, I piloted a Design Thinking and Open Source Learning class last year for 13 students.  For several reasons it didn’t fill up enough this year, but with the endorsement below, I’m hoping to be off and running like nobody’s business next year.

The course referenced in the student letter below was a hybrid between a course based in design thinking and one that was based on the work of Don Wettrick and his Innovation and Open-Source learning course at Noblesville HS.

The upshot of the letter?  The student gets into a select class in design thinking for engineers at Syracuse BECAUSE she had a class in Design Thinking in HS.  img_3055

Dear Mrs.___,

HELLO THERE!!! How are you? I’m so sorry I didn’t email you sooner, college has been so extremely busy, and I have way less time than I thought I would. Classes just started yesterday, and it’s overwhelming, but I am so ready for the next four years, and honestly, that’s thanks to PVHS for preparing me. 🙂

I remember coming into your office all the time last year panicking, but I can honestly say I made the right choice. I live in the engineering dorm at Syracuse, and my whole hall became really good friends right away (which for some reason hasn’t happened in other halls). As I spend more time with these kids and get to know them, I’m realizing how similar we all are, and all my doubts about whether I picked the best school for me and very quickly fading away. I wish I could have told myself last year to just CALM DOWN, because everything truly does work out in the end. XD

In addition to the residence halls, the college itself is really really cool too. It’s much more progressive than I imagined it, and for the most part, they’re really good at addressing certain situations appropriately and with grace. Everyone feels really safe here, and I’m so grateful for that.
And I’m not sure if you remember, but I was freaking out last year because my design thinking class dropped my GPA (it was prep) and I didn’t think I’d get a lot of scholarships. I want to tell you this because I feel like a lot of incoming seniors NEED to hear this, so if you could please please please tell them about my experience, I honestly think it might help them decide what electives to take.
I am majoring in chemical engineering. The scholarship that I got at Syracuse is called the Engineering and Computer Science Leadership Scholars Program. When I got into the program, I was required to take this class called ECS 100 Seminar…I had no clue what it was, but when I showed up for the class I found out that it’s a new program they’re trying out, and it is COMPLETELY DESIGN THINKING BASED. We all need to find a problem in society, and as future engineers, design some sort of solution. We go through the entire design process and constantly revise. At the end of the semester, we present a prototype and a presentation to the class. We don’t get homework, and class time is devoted to working on the project. The class isn’t graded on a grade level…you basically get an A based on how well you work as a group, attendance, and participation. They want us to utilize all our resources and come up with creative and innovative solutions on our own, and without a real template. In addition to this kind of exposure, we get a lot of money, a paid research position, and invitation to the honors program, and priority consideration for study abroad, among other benefits. It is SUPER cool, and I will definitely let you know how it goes. It’s amazing to me that a college is trying this hard to change with the times, and I’m really glad to go to a school that does this.
HOWEVER, I honestly think part of the reason I got into this program is because I took design thinking. I was talking to the admissions director because they handpicked the recipients, and they told me that the fact that I had experience taking this type of class really stood out because although engineering students need to know about the design process, a lot of them just take math and science classes and aren’t well-rounded. I REALLY wish someone had told me this, but if someone ever asks about it, here’s a first-hand experience 😉
Thank you for everything you’ve helped me with for the last four years, and I REALLY look forward to college and keeping in touch with you!
Best,