Love of learning

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By: Steven Singer

My daughter probably would be shocked to discover what I truly think about grades. They don’t matter all that much. The other day she brought home a pop quiz on sloths from her third grade class. It had a 40% F emblazoned on the top in red ink.

I grabbed the paper from her book bag and asked her to explain what had happened. She smiled nervously and admitted that she had rushed through the assignment. I told her I knew she could do better and was very disappointed.

Then we reread the article in her weekly reader and found the right answers to the questions she’d missed. But if my little girl would be stunned, my students would probably be even more gobsmacked!

As a 7th grade Language Arts teacher, it’s my job to hand out grades. And I don’t give my students too much slack. Just this morning, I turned to one of my kiddos placidly drawing a Spider-Man doodle in homeroom and asked if he had given me yesterday’s homework. He wasn’t sure, so I pulled up the gradebook and surprise, surprise, surprise – no homework. So he took out the half-completed packet, promised to get it done by the end of the day and promptly began working on it.

Don’t get me wrong. No one would ever confuse me for a teacher obsessed with grades and test scores. I’m way too laid back for that. But my students know I will penalize them if they don’t hand in their assignments. And if it isn’t their best work, I’ll call them out on it.

The way I see it, grades and test scores offer an approximation of how well a student tries to achieve academic goals. In Language Arts classes like mine, that’s reading, writing and communicating. After a year of study, I want my students to leave me with an increased ability to read and understand what they’ve read. I want them to form a thoughtful opinion on it and be able to communicate that in multiple ways including verbally and in writing.

An overreliance on testing and grading can actually get in the way of achieving that goal. According to a University of Michigan study from 2002, a total of 80 percent of students base their self worth on grades. The lower the grades, the lower their self-esteem.

Common Core fanatics like probably would say that’s a good thing. It provides incentive for children to take school seriously. However, I think it transforms a self-directed, authentic pursuit of knowledge into grade grubbing. It makes an intrinsic activity purely extrinsic.

Learning no longer becomes about satisfying your curiosity. It becomes a chase after approval and acceptance. We already know that measuring a phenomena fundamentally changes that phenomena. With a constant emphasis on measurement, children become less creative and less willing to take risks on having a wrong answer.

That’s one of the reasons I prefer teaching the academic track students to the honors kids. They aren’t used to getting all A’s, so they are free to answer a question based on their actual thoughts and feelings. If they get a question wrong, it’s not the end of the world. It hasn’t ruined a perfect GPA and put valedictorian forever out of reach.

Too much rigor (God! I hate that word!) creates academic robots who have lost the will to learn. Their only concern is the grade or the test score. It also increases the motivation to cheat. According to a national survey of 24,000 students from 70 high schools, 64 percent admitted to cheating on a test.

But if the goal is authentic learning, cheating doesn’t help. You can’t cheat to understand better. You can only fool the teacher or the test. You can’t fool your own comprehension. If you find a novel way of realizing something, that’s not cheating – it’s a learning strategy. I know this is heresy to some people.

Even some of my colleagues believe that grading, in general, and standardized testing, in particular, are essential to a quality education.After all, without an objective measure of learning, how can we predict whether students will do well once they move on to college or careers?

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Grades and Test Scores Don’t Matter. A Love of Learning Does’


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