Wednesday, February 17, 2016

School for School's Sake

Well, this is depressing, but worth the read.

Over at Inside Higher Education, John Warner shares a reflection on a recurring research project he performs with his own college students. If they could receive an A in the course in return for doing absolutely nothing except keeping the secret that they had done absolutely nothing (no assignments, no showing up for class, no nothing at all), would they take the deal.

Roughly 85% of Warner's students say yes, they would take the deal.

When they ask what the trick is, Warner points out that they would learn nothing. They're okay with that.

An “A” is an “A,” and “A’s” are good because they help their overall GPA. It would mean more time to dedicate to their other classes. They could sleep in later. They do not like English classes and would therefore dodge the unpleasantness of such a thing. They could check off a requirement without having to do any work. They could take 18 instead of 15 hours and be closer to graduation. They could pick up an extra shift at their job.

Warner's conclusion? Students are not coddled; they are defeated.

We have divorced school from learning, and this is the result.

For most of my students, the purpose of school is to do well in school so you can climb the ladder to the next part of school. I am giving them a free pass at school, so it would be silly not to grab at the opportunity.

And many of you who teach are nodding your heads, thinking, "Yes, that sounds about right."

I'm not going to blame this on reform. Students like these have always been around-- I went to college with a whole bunch of them.

But ed reform leans into this. Reformster philosophy is what education would look like if "reformed" by the same students who would take Warner's deal. Students attend K-12 to get "college and career ready," which just means they need to get A's in K-12 school so that they can get A's in college so that they can land a good job. That's literally our administration's plan for ending poverty. It is surrender. It is redesigning schools so that we can focus on getting a good grade so that we can get more good grades so that we can get a paycheck because that's what will help really rich people get more money which will raise their score in the success game.

Actually learning something? That's only useful if it will get you a good score on the Big Standardized Test, and while we are supposed to pretend that the BS Test score is "proof" that you are a Good Grade Machine and maybe learned something, the learning is not as important as the BS Test grade, and if anybody could get a high score on the BS Test without learning something, they would probably take that deal. Not only would they take that deal, but the reformsters would cheer the "success" of reform.

Meanwhile, reformsters are trying to align the ACT and SAT and college itself so that Warner's ladder to nowhere stays in place and the rungs are all Standards-aligned.

I don't know how we put learning in the center of education, just as I don't fully understand how we arrived at a place where trying "to put learning in the center of education" is even a thing that needs to be discussed. But boy do we need to figure it out.


  1. If we ever get through this nightmare that is rephorm, I am seriously hoping that we as a nation will use it as an impetus for re-thinking what school is and how it should be run. I've been reading Peter Gray's FREEDOM TO LEARN, and, while I think he goes over the edge a bit, I agree with him about a lot. Babies are born natural learning machines, but somehow by around early elementary school they start to lose interest in learning - is it a coincidence that that's when formal schooling starts? Rephorm has simply doubled down on all the worst aspects of public schools, but it didn't start the fire - schools have always relied on the coercion of kids being forced to be there and have always worked more or less on a factory model.

    Interestingly, a commenter over on Diane's blog posted a piece about Utah potentially passing a bill to decriminalize truancy: The person who posted it thinks it's ridiculous, and I'll admit I do have concerns about it, but I do agree with the thrust of making school a place kids would choose to be if they had the choice, and I do have issues with parents being held criminally accountable for their children's attendance, especially older kids.

    I think one of the best things schools could do would be to get rid of grading, although to most people that would be like getting rid of the basket in basketball. But if rephorm has taught teachers anything it should be just how unpleasant and constricting it is to be evaluated externally and to have negative stakes attached to such evaluations. My kids are in progressive school and they've never gotten a grade in their lives, yet they love school and they're eager to learn. Hmm. Maybe Dewey was right.

  2. Allow me to add another piece to the scary. Parents in all economic levels are buying into this garbage.

  3. Depressing and worth the read.

    If you put a graded task before a child, where is the emotional hook? On the emotional yearning to master the material, or the emotional yearning to feel successful or at least not like a loser?

    Grades are the currency of education, and kids are required to trade in it at a tender stage in human development. A utilitarian message is communicated directly and indirectl: learn this material for a reward or punishment. That isn't the intended message, but it is still the message. For the developing mind, the tangible aspect of grades can quickly an adversely overshadow the innate intrinsic curiosity or desire to understand because there is a pricetag. There are definitely strings attached.

    We try to cultivate a love of learning while attaching a personal cost. The idea of cultivating oneself is not the idea most third graders understand. They understand grades.

    When the idea of personal cultivation becomes more relevant to the maturing student, the conditioned thinking about grades has alteady taken root.

    I used many different methods to overcome this problem with my college students. You eventually become a salesperson for your discipline. How to make people work for the right reason. That is the bottom line. With grades being supreme, the task is not easy, but I have made it my life's work.

    1. "The idea of cultivating oneself is not the idea most third graders understand."

      I'm not sure I agree with that. "Cultivating themselves" is what young children do, instinctively and almost obsessively, from the day they're born. But they do it in their own way, often in ways that we grown ups tend to find "unproductive", so when they're "old enough" for "real learning" we ship them off to school to be cultivated in the "right way". If anything, most third graders have forgotten how to cultivate themselves.

    2. I wholeheartedly agree that by nature, third graders cultivate themselves. When you add a grade to the same work, the grade overshadows the personal experience. That is when, I believe, third graders can begin to forget how to do it and how gratifying learning can be. They are not aware they are learning...they are just being natural which is how all human beings learn at a young age. Grades can and do have a negative effect on that that gratification.

      I meant that we don't usually literally say to a third grader that we want them to cultivate themselves. Discover and explore is enough. We are born cultivators. On the other hand, especially after so many years of grades being the focus, it makes good sense to say it to an eighth grader: take learning as an opportunity to cultivate yourself. That word can take on a special meaning for students.

  4. Going back to the topic of bumper stickers (personally, the whole concept eludes me, but they are revealing), how many schools would circulate bumper stickers that say:

    My child enjoys reading.
    My child cannot get enough of quadratic equations.
    My child built a robot without a manual.
    My child enjoys learning about the connection between plastic production and the problems with landfills.

    For some reason, those pronouncements are embarrassing. But it isn't embarrassing to say your kid got high grades. We should spend time with students discussing the function of bumper stickers. They will, of course, ask if it will be on the test.

    By the way, I gave a final exam once where the students had to come up with thirty substantive questions (related to the course content). They thought it was a hard test! I was not picky in the grading and it counted for 10% of the final grade, so I didn't worry about getting flak from the administration. The substance of the questions (or lack thereof) revealed what students had truly learned. Our questions are more revealing than our memorized answers.

  5. School is often useful for learning, but it is not necessary for learning. What schools are necessary for is certification of learning.

    What John Warner was offering was to falsely certify that his students had learned something. The students were willing to accept this false certification because the truth of this certification did not matter to their future.

    Contrast this to other possible false certifications. The wise student would turn down the offer to falsely certify that they could code in C++ because it would be readily apparent to the people relying on the certification (employers) that the certification was false. The wise student would turn down the offer to falsely certify that they understood calculus if their lack of understanding meant that they would not be able to pass their engineering classes. The wise student would turn down the offer to falsely certify that they could pilot a plane or scuba dive because doing these activities based on this false certification would endanger their lives.

    If students see the relevance of learning, they will object to not learning. If the learning is irrelevant to their lives yet certification is still required, certification without learning is a choice that many would make. I think teachers would much prefer the false certification when it comes to much professional development, for example.

    1. "What John Warner was offering was to falsely certify that his students had learned something."

      Ah, you started off pretty well, but then you got to that. He couldn't "falsely" certify to his students' learning because he couldn't *truly* certify to his students' learning. No one can certify that anyone has learned anything. All that he could have "falsely certified" was that his students met his requirements by performing certain tasks to his satisfaction.

    2. What a good post! I agree wholeheartedly. That's why I strongly agree with a major part of the ccss. If schools were skill based over contest based, students would see the relevance year to year. It doesn't have to be ccss but (here is where I disagree with Peter Greene) without the standards it will be lost. If everyone is mainly doing tests for content and you are trying to still teach skills, it won't work.

    3. I always taught both skills and content. In my field of foreign language, you can't teach skills without content, and content is meaningless without skills. It might depend on the field. I suppose you could teach some skills in biology, like using a microscope. I never had any interest in that, and it seems like you could learn those skills later if you were interested in a career where you needed them. But I thought the content knowledge of biology was fascinating. Math, on the other hand, seemed to be totally made up of skills.

      Luckily for me, foreign language isn't part of the "Core" so I never had to do test prep and could actually teach. We have state standards, but they're crap, and I only taught in one school where I had to pay attention to them enough to write down numbers in my lesson plans for the principal. I had my own guidelines I developed, synthesized from various places. I always had completely clear what my objectives were for each and every activity we did and how it fit into my guidelines.

    4. And then there are concepts. I think in any field concepts are the basic framework, so any curriculum should be concept-driven, with content and skills subservient to this framework.

  6. From reading warner's entry, it's a pretty big leap saying they feel defeated. I agree with most of what he's saying, but how is being passionless towards education "defeated"? Kids who do great in school mainly care about grades because that is what their parents care about. The bright kids love testing over projects because they know tests are easier to do. Education is like a huge checklist of things to them. Check as much as you can without a deeper understanding. It's quantity over quality - zero stamina.

    I'm someone who does not believe education is always fun - I think it's hard work. I think you know when you truly learned something, and that makes it exciting. Plus, as you learn new things you begin to figure out what interests you. But the beginning is not much fun especially if you have not built up any stamina for harder work. It's like seeing a great old foreign film like l'avventura, the first ten minutes you question if you really want to sit through it all, but by the end you're so engrossed that you never forget the experience.

  7. "If education is the key, school is the lock." -- Suli Breaks

  8. "Students are not coddled, they are defeated." I am a teacher at a private progressive grade-less school who is also attending the local community college to get my teacher credential. In spite of being one of the top students in my cohort over the past four semesters, the institution will not grant me a credential if I choose to do my student teaching at the school I work at, saying I need to teach at a "more traditional" school. If I leave my teaching position the private school will hire someone to replace me, so I am forced to choose, credential or private school. I tried to do everything right and feel like I received a slap in the face for it. Not sure if I want to appeal or try to move on to another teacher education institution to get my credential. Even though I don't need a credential to teach at a private school, I wanted it so I could join the rank of "professionals". Now the whole experience feels like I stepped in dog poo. Feeling totally defeated by the teacher education program in which I earned all A's, but am failing to receive a credential.