I spend a lot of time in a philosophical tug-of-war with students and parents over what grades mean, why we give them, and how they should be interpreted. Parents want to know how their child is doing, students want to be left alone, and teachers just want everyone to think a bit more critically about the material. We end up with conflicting pressures, and a grading system that has overstepped its bounds with disastrous results for student psychology. Cheating, lying, extra credit for bringing in a box of Kleenex—it’s all the same disease.
As I stare out across the ocean of students I teach everyday, I wonder if their obsession with grades comes from an unexpected source: the way we schedule their classes. Perhaps clamoring for meaningless grades and inflated A’s is a side effect of the herd mentality present in schools and the schedules we use to create and maintain that mentality.
Maybe my students are worried about grades because they know their time is short. They get about an hour a day to think about a subject before they are shuttled off to yet another class with a cryptically planned lesson with equally puzzling assignments. I don’t mean that the assignments are impossible, I mean students have almost no narrative hook to hang their hats on. "Why are we learning this material now?" is a question few students even think to ask.
How can we expect them to connect Hemingway, vectors, pottery, cells, and ancient Greece every day? It’s a disjointed nightmare—to which you might say, "deal with it, that’s school." But what I see in my students is that "dealing with it" results in a lot of material crammed for a test and then forgotten.
Here’s the worst part: All of that planning teachers do to create beautifully succinct lessons is exactly where the deep thinking is happening. Students need to be a part of that. They need to see that you can't always get the right answers from the back of a book. How many times were you allowed to mess up a chemistry lab in high school? Most likely you were graded on how well you reproduced a set of instructions the first time you tried it. That’s not how anyone really learns. Students need to know that things go wrong, and they need to be comfortable—dare I say happy—with failing and retrying.
What if we removed the passive course-to-course drudgery of the school day? What if there was no schedule? What if students were left with a list of coyly worded benchmarks targeted at creating quality humans, and we just waited to see what they could do? What if teachers were seen as mentors for projects designed to help students meet those benchmarks? What if the students initiated these projects and the teachers spent their time recording TED-style talks that would serve as inspiration and help students generate benchmark-related ideas?
Instead, I will go back to my classroom tomorrow, where my students are slated for yet another period of biology. Once a day for 90 days—evidently that’s the prescription for understanding biology. How can we possibly know that’s enough for them to learn biology or any other subject?
I’ll be trying a few experiments aimed at giving my students the curriculum and the freedom to generate projects that are asynchronous but productive. If you’re a teacher, I hope you’ll join me in giving your students power they didn’t know they were missing. If you’re a parent, I hope you’ll ask why your high school student just got credit for organizing her binder in government class instead of meeting foreign language and government benchmarks by designing a website that can educate immigrants about the constitution.
If students spent their time producing authentic projects instead of driving toward test scores, it would provide tangible measurement of what they can do, and the tug-of-war over the meaning of grades would end. But as long as we keep the current way classes are scheduled, we will continue claiming that we just don’t have time for learning.