April 4, 2019

I recently heard a story that reflects a common occurrence in our current school system. The narrative arc of the story will sound familiar. An Honors level teacher gave a final exam to their class. The teacher takes pride on being “difficult” so very few learners passed the exam. Parents complained to the building principal about the poor grades. The principal then met with the teacher and suddenly more learners passed the exam.

Let’s deconstruct this story through the lens of learning. After all, we tell ourselves that kids go to school to “learn” so it seems appropriate to use learning as a lens.

Learners are grade obsessed (or parents are grade obsessed)

    The parents and learners in this story did not complain to the principal about a lack of learning.  Rather, they complained about the grades on the final exam. Most were concerned about the ramifications of the poor grade on their learner’s grade point average and class rank.

Infactuation with Rankings

Our society is infatuated with rankings. Look around and you will find almost everything in our life is ranked highest to lowest. Never mind the fact that the criteria for the rankings often have little to do with what is purported to be measured. For example, the “best” colleges are often those that manipulate their admission and graduation numbers to make them look “selective” thus placing them on a list of “best” schools. What makes a college the “best” really depends on so many factors centered on the needs and desires of each individual learner. In the same vein, class rank and GPA trick learners and parents into believing that learning may have occurred when in actuality both criteria have little to do with actual learning. Learners learn to “play the system” to artificially inflate GPA and class rank. It is our job to change the focus from artificial measures of success (things like GPA) toward meaningful measures of success that reflect learning.

What do final exam grades “prove”?

If I could ask the teacher one question it would be, why didn’t your learners learn anything in your class? The job of a teacher is to facilitate learning (thus, in the world of Mass Customized Learning we call teachers learning facilitators). In our system, we attempt to measure learning through exams…in this case a final exam. I argue that since the teacher’s students did so poorly on the test that they did not do their job and make sure students learn. This is the problem with our current system. It has been ingrained in teachers that to be viewed as “rigorous” they must fail students. Many schools celebrate “hard” teachers for having the reputation of not giving “A’s”. By doing so, the narrative of schooling is that the artificial measures of success (grades) are more important than the stated purpose of school, which is learning. Organizational energy that could be spent developing techniques to assure learning occurs goes toward manipulating grades. What is the usefulness in that? Our educational system wastes valuable capacity propping up systems that have nothing to do with learning. Educators must challenge the systems that do not support learning to assure that students are learning.

About the author 

Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.

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