Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


What Are We Teaching Our Students About Learning?

Suppose you are a student in a high school or college course and a magic fairy offers you the following choice: (1) You will learn the material in the course well, but will get a low grade (a D).  Or (2) you will not learn the material at all, but will get a high grade (an A).  Which would you choose?  Be honest.


I remember showing my report card to my mom after my freshman year of high school--I can't remember if it was the first semester or second, but I know it was freshman year.  My grades were okay but not great, maybe a B average.  I was okay with that because I felt I was learning what I needed and the grades themselves didn't really mean a lot to me.  But Mom wasn't okay with it.  She didn't get upset or lecture me, just said with a sad expression that she was disappointed because she knew I was capable of doing much better.  That disappointment was very motivating to me, and my report cards were much more impressive the rest of my schooling because I knew it mattered to her (and my dad (and others)).

I don't know that I necessarily learned more in my classes after that, though.  It's quite possible, but I can't say for sure.  I'm lucky in that school has always come easily to me.  Both of my parents were teachers--along with much of my extended family--and my environment was conducive to both intellectual curiosity and learning how the system worked.  I naturally think like an academic and test extremely well.   During high school (and unconsciously, I'm sure, much earlier) I began developing the skill of giving teachers exactly what they wanted and had perfected it by college; I was that annoying guy who always had his papers read to the class by professors as examples of great work.

Yet I was raised as a Mennonite to value humility, so while the praise felt good I also felt embarrassed by it and the public shows made me squirm.  Particularly since they were praising my ability to earn a grade and not the actual learning I had (or had not) accomplished.  The personal challenge I always gave myself was finding a way to both earn the grade and take ownership of the material so I would connect with it and learn from it.  It was the times that I really learned things while getting good grades that felt significant and made me feel good about myself.

Last night my wife and I were sitting at a traffic light behind a car with one of those "My Student Made the Honor Roll" bumper stickers.  As we're expecting our first, I asked her how she felt about them.  I'm happy to have them for the sake of others, but for myself I'd never want my parents to display one.  Part of it goes back to that Mennonite humility, part of it is that they found many other ways to let me know they were proud of me, and part of it is that I never felt getting good grades was much of an accomplishment for me so I didn't feel the need to celebrate them.  I'd rather celebrate something that felt more significant and meaningful.


I've written before about motivation and how much more important and valuable intrinsic motivation is than extrinsic.  What Do You Want to Learn Today?, for instance and Active, Not Passive; Autonomy, Not Subordination.  Some very good stuff there, if I may say so.  I've also mentioned the idea of Connected Learning, something I continue to explore and feel excitement about.  It's based on helping students learn by pursuing their personal interests--not working to get them excited about learning, but helping them learn more about what excites them.  Of course, key to that is not activating the usual school dynamic described by Mark Twain in Tom Sawyer:
He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it – namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain. If he had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
School has ruined many an interest by turning it into Work, creating artificial structures like assignments and tests, by making the interests fit into rigid frameworks and methodologies, and by passing judgment on them in the form of grades.

I have always been attracted to many elements of movements like unschooling and homeschooling.  One of the aspects I'm not attracted to is that not everyone has the time, resources, and luxury to provide them.  I am a big believer in the concept of government-provided schools for everyone.  I just think our system gets it wrong in many ways, gets bogged down in the bureaucracy of being a system.  So while the ideas I'm espousing in both my writing and by sharing the article that follows are great for those who don't want to be part of the system, what I'm really advocating is finding ways to reform that system so that everyone can benefit from them.

I think this article is great.

Schools Are Good for Showing Off, Not for Learning

Suppose you are a student in a high school or college course and a magic fairy offers you the following choice: (1) You will learn the material in the course well, but will get a low grade (a D).  Or (2) you will not learn the material at all, but will get a high grade (an A).  Which would you choose?  Be honest.

Nearly all students (except for a few rebels), would unhesitatingly choose Alternative 2.  Students are rational beings.  They know that school is about grades, not learning. . . .

We, the parents, maybe even more than our kids, think it would be stupid for our kids to choose Alternative 1 over Alternative 2.  We would forbid them from making that choice, if we could. . . .

One thing we know about learning is that it is inhibited by the kinds of pressures that we use at schools to motivate performance.  Many psychological experiments have shown that contests and evaluations of all sorts lead those who already know well how to perform a task to do it even better than they otherwise would, but has the opposite effect on people who don’t know it so well. . . .

I’m sure that lots of factors figure into this education gap, but here’s one I’d like you to consider.  Let’s suppose that children from economically better-off families learn, at home, much of what they are tested on in school.  They perform well under the pressure of tests and the constant evaluation that occurs at school, because they already know a lot of it.  They are used to this way of thinking.  Let’s suppose that children from economically worse off families don’t learn so much, at home, of what they are tested on in school.  They perform poorly on the tests, right from the beginning, because they don’t already know it.  The high pressure of constant testing and evaluation—coupled with the embarrassment and shame of failure--makes it very difficult for them to learn at school what the others had already learned at home. . . .

If we really want to reduce the education gap, we must design schools for learning, not for showing off.


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