You are the best teacher in the world and you’ve just turned in your grades for the best class you’ve ever taught. If you are a college professor you know what comes next: the barrage of complaints about the low grade, the litany of excuses for why this or that missed assignment was due to health reasons, the pleading that the B+ be raised to an A- or medical school plans will be foiled and a life ruined, the thinly veiled threat that changing a grade is easier than dealing with a student judiciary complaint (or an irate parent). It’s the most demoralizing part of being an educator today.
And here’s the paradox: if our students weren’t all tireless grade-grinders, we educators would have failed them. Yes, you read that right. They were well taught and learned well the lesson implicit in our society that what matters is not the process or the learning but the end result, the grade. A typical college freshman today has been through ten years of No Child Left Behind educational philosophy where “success” has been reduced to a score on a test given at the end of the course. For a decade, they have had the message that a good teacher is someone whose students succeed on those end-of-grade standardized tests. Teacher salaries can be docked in some states, whole schools can be closed or privatized in others, if students’ score too poorly. The message we're giving our students today is all that really counts is the final score. No wonder they fight for a good one!
Conversely, for all that colleges say about not being solely concerned with test scores, almost all boast their average score and that score helps colleges with their own rankings in U.S. News and World Report and more serious collegiate ranking and accreditation systems. And, to go one step higher, aggregated scores on those tests are what make the world educational rankings in the 34 Organization of Economic Development (OECD)--you know, the ones where our students humiliate us each year by coming in 14th in reading, 17th in sciences, and 25th in math.
It’s not like an examiner is standing there really probing to see what each child in the world does or does not know, what they remember, or how well they apply their knowledge. All those rankings reduce all the skills and content one learns in a subject to how well one does on a standardized test that research shows might actually cover about twenty percent of the actual content of a course, de-motivates actual learning, and can be “scammed” either through intensive cram sessions, pre-testing tutoring in the form of the test, or enormous amounts of class time dedicated to “teaching to the test.” None of those are good educational philosophy but in a world where the final score is what counts, those methods get the end result you want—not of more learning but of a higher score that opens doorways.
So don’t blame the next eighteen-year-old who calls, knocks on your door, or emails to boost that B- to an A-. He’s been taught his whole life how to get the good final score that equals educational success. Why should he be able to forget that lesson just because it’s a seminar and the grades are based on essays requiring eloquence, persuasive rhetoric, critical thinking, and analytical skills? If he has absorbed the educational philosophy of our nation that grade achievement constitutes educational success, then whining for an A- makes him . . . what? Well, eloquent, rhetorically persuasive, and a final critical and analytic thinker. Right? Doesn’t he now have the grade on his transcript to prove it?
I wish I were being simply ironic and flippant here but I think this is very serious. I know just how serious when I talk to corporate recruiters about the current crop of students and they tell me that, whereas it used to take six months for a great student to become a great coworker, it now takes a good year to two years. This generation of student is still waiting for the final grade, for the test score that shows they’ve aced a subject, not for some demonstrable achievement of mastery or—the most crucial workplace skill—an ability to survey one’s skills and knowledge, understand where one might be lacking, and then find someone to fill in that gap through a collaborative effort or to find some way, typically online, to learn the skill one needs in order to make up for previous educational losses.
It takes nearly two years because they’ve been educated in a system where the grade is all but have to live adult lives in a world where self-awareness, diagnosis of a problem, an ability to solve a problem by applying previous knowledge, and collaborative skills all count—along with eloquence, persuasive skills, critical thinking, and analytical skills.
Here’s the punch line for college profs out there: We will not eliminate the grade-grubbing until we change our current educational system. Until then, we will need to be putting up with a lot of whining by students who have mastered the system that educators and policy makers have created for them.
Here’s the punch line for college students out there: Until you educate yourself beyond the assumptions of the system we’ve foisted off on you, you’ll be depriving yourself of the real skills and knowledge that constitute the only educational test worth anything: the test of how well your formal education prepares you for success in everything else. Cherish the great seminar teacher, even if she gives you a B-. It’s what went on inside that classroom—not the grade at the end of it—that truly constitutes achievement in the world beyond school.
As an editorial postscript, I should mention that I almost never experience grade-grabbing and whining but, for over a decade, I've been using peer-grading, contract grading, and other forms of participatory learning (such as the class writing its own standards and constitution at the beginning). I write about a lot of that in Now You See It [link below].
And, if you never have a chance to take a class with a truly inspiring seminar teacher, you'd do worse than to master the "rules for schudents and teachers" offered by the great avant garde composer John Cage: http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/2012/10/28/john-cage-some-rules-s... You'll notice he never says anything about test scores, grades, teaching to the test, or OECD rankings. The test he wants you to pass is the big one: success in the rest of our life.
And one final bit of wisdom for today, something of Gandhi's "rules for an ethical life" circulating on line today, great rules for teachng and learning too: http://www.upworthy.com/the-7-warnings-from-gandhi-in-the-final-hours-of...
Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9500+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change. Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when www.hastac.org moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge. She is author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network. NOTE: The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, www.nowyouseeit.net . The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 : http://tinyurl.com/bqquoaz