Making the Grade

By April 24, 2014Education

Learning is a wonderful thing. Being given the opportunity to discover new things, making connections that we didn’t know existed before, adding information to prior knowledge that helps us understand our world more clearly. All of this is learning and we grow as individuals because of it.

I’ll make more of the difference between a TEACHING system and a LEARNING system later. Our conventional system of education is founded upon a teaching system. While this served us well for years, the system has become a barrier to true innovation and responsiveness to today’s learner.

When organizing the model for schooling, our nation turned to men who were well known for developing models that also organized factories and industrial processes. Break the year into a predetermined ‘first day to last day’ of school, decide how much and exactly what a child should learn between those two days, divide that content into well-paced segments equally separated into six week or nine week sections, further break it down into week-long sections, then day-long sections, then finally give each subject area an amount of time each day for kids to concentrate on each one equally. Bring the students in, have them focus on a subject for that determined number of minutes during the day, then ring a bell that tells them to stop thinking about that, go to the next section and think about another subject for the same number of minutes. If everybody behaves and just follows the flow, the subject gets covered for that day, that week, that six week period and, in the end, for the entire year. Do it right and the student gets a fair and equal presentation of every subject during the school year.

So organized and pretty.

But it’s not a learning system. It has never been a learning system. It’s a TEACHING system. It was created to organize schooling. To manage overwhelming numbers of children. To make sure every subject was covered equally. And to make sure that we adults could rest in the fact that we gave opportunity for all kids, all subjects, all content equally and fairly.

But, again, it’s not a learning system. It has never been a learning system. It’s a TEACHING system. And if our goal, our hope and our intent is to provide a teaching system for our children, then I say “well done”. I’m not sure I could have organized a better system. It’s seriously a great factory model. And, when that system was created, it was needed. We should be proud of the way we responded to the needs of our country during the Industrial Age when this style of addressing tremendous growth of possibilities was necessary.

However that day is long past us. This world we live in is not an updated version of the former, slightly better because of technology and modern convenience. My 3 year old granddaughter can video and post on the iPhone. And she’s three. It isn’t going to slow down. I have no idea what it’s going to be when she’s twelve. Or fifteen, twenty……….I don’t even know what it’s going to be like when she’s six.

Please tell me she won’t be stuck in a factory model of education that was created during the industrial revolution of this country. Please don’t tell me she’s going to be forced to learn how to navigate a TEACHING system that doesn’t respond to her as a learner but demands that she responds to the system instead. If so, I’m sure she will be ok because she’ll do what the majority of American kids do; she will LEARN how to navigate the system and will make sure she is PASSING (more than 70%) on the last day of school.

How many high school students today have achieved the Algebra I credit and are unable to do Algebra? I personally could tell you stories of many students from some of the best schools I’ve known who fit in this category. Kids are smart. They know how to adjust. They learn the TEACHER. And they know how to run the numbers.

Teachers, most teachers, want the best for their students. They don’t want to make them repeat a grade level. Well-meaning adults who allow all kinds of options to help kids get the grade; show up for the school play and I’ll give you 10 points in the grade book, redo that assignment you failed, do this or do that and you’ll get extra points. We see negotiated grades and students who know how to charm their way to a passing grade all the time.

I’m seriously not trying to simplify things here to the point of being ridiculous. Honestly, though, it can reach ridiculous at times. The single greatest mistake we make is when we state that our system of TEACHING is a learning system. It isn’t. This is not the way we learn. But I’ve talked with, and heard from, countless numbers of people, mostly educators, who call anything other than the factory industrial system of education “alternative”. Alternative to what? If you say it’s ‘alternative’ that’s edu-speak for “something designed for the kids who just don’t get it”. Oh, you’re talking about “those” kids. It’s a negative connotation meant to diminish the most natural, most successful and most logical approach we should have in our schools. It’s protectionist, territorial and damaging. It’s designed to protect the teaching profession as we have designed it and expanded it in this nation. But, it’s not sustainable into our future. Don’t call it a learning system.

So, let’s talk. Well, not talk. I’ll write. You can read or not. Your choice. But, let’s talk.

Grades. In a teaching system, grading is a big deal. The teacher assigns and then assesses. Teachers understand it. Kids understand it. Parents understand it. It’s a comfortable part of the system. Everybody knows the rules. Learn the teacher and do what you have to do to make sure you’re aware of the time limit and can be above that 70% line on the last day of school. Done. Credit granted and you don’t have to worry about that course any more. “What’s my kid’s grade?”.

So what should we really be looking for when we talk about learning? Mastery. Objective mastery. Not subject to any argument or decision-making on the part of a teacher. Learning is a progression of adding new knowledge to prior knowledge. In order to truly LEARN, one has to show mastery of content. If you are adding new knowledge, you must show mastery of prior knowledge. A teaching system, well-organized but totally dependent on a timed, paced calendar isn’t suited for objective mastery. And you can’t have objective mastery if it’s in the hands of subjective adults who have the massive responsibility of GIVING GRADES.

All students should be involved in mastery learning systems. In a mastery-based system, it’s not the grade that matters. So what does matter? One word – PROGRESS. If you’re in a mastery-based learning system, the only thing that matters is whether you are progressing. You can’t go to next levels unless you master the level you’re currently on. Therefore, instead of looking at grades, you’re looking for progress. If you’re progressing, you’re “passing”.

And, what is sufficient “passing” in a mastery-based learning system? My opinion? 90%. If you truly master content objectively, you should score 90% before being given the privilege of moving to the next level of new knowledge. You should be able to prove that you know 90% of the current content before you’re ready to add new content on top of that.

In this day of emerging technology, when learning is available and accessible 24 hours a day, we must respond appropriately. We’ve passed the days when we needed to control the timing and pace of exposure and introduction to content for learners. It’s already out there and they know how to get it. We have to start being aggressive in our response. There are pockets of educators, districts, campuses trying. I personally work with some truly creative educators who are acutely aware that we have to give all we can to this. I’m watching it happen but it’s on such a limited scale because it’s so hard to truly fight the entrenched teaching systems that have such a hold on the entire educational environment. We are starting to turn some corners in our efforts. But, we’re not there yet.

In due time, our entire educational system will be based on objective mastery and the role of the 21st century educator will be redefined and retooled to meet the new needs and demands of today’s learner. I appreciate the factory model for what it was and how it served us when needed. But, rather than believing that “things are changing”, I am convinced that “things have already changed”. Learners are different. Disrupting the system of schooling in our nation is upon us and it won’t suddenly disappear. Focusing our resources on developing a LEARNING system that gives opportunity to every student is risky but worth it. In our very near future, when a parent asks, “How’s my kid doing?”, they won’t be asking for the GRADE. They’ll be asking for the PROGRESS.