The Reflective Educator

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Day: September 11, 2010

Let’s Prepare Students for Life

What types of things are actually going to happen with any frequency in our student’s lives? Is there anything obvious for which we are not preparing them? I know a lot of current effort is being put into preparing students for events which are unlikely to happen, but what about the common things?

Here’s a list of things practically everyone will have happen in their lives.

  • Serious illness
  • A car accident
  • Death of a family member or close friend
  • Paying taxes 
  • Find a life partner

Here’s a list of things that will happen to a significant portion of people (25% or more) at some point in their lives.

I argue that schools actively work to discuss the issues in the second group much more than things in the first group. How many schools have a grief program? How many schools teach kids how and when to fill out their tax forms? What to do if you become seriously ill?

I think schools tend to leave these things which happen to practically everyone as a job for the family of the students to teach and then we cover these other activities which happen more than they should, but not to everyone. I’m not sure why we do that. One could easily argue that a serious illness is as difficult to deal with as anything on the second list, especially if that illness becomes chronic. Why don’t we talk about this in schools? I’m not saying that we need to have an exhaustive discussion of everything that could happen in life, but some preparation for the bigger events of life is pretty important in my opinion.

Some schools do talk about everything on this list. Some schools bring in grief counselors after a major incident related to the school community. Some schools teaching nothing on either lists, which I think should be criminal.

Our job is to prepare students for life. We can’t teach them absolutely everything they need to know or completely take over the job of parents to prepare their kids for life, but we should recognize that not every family has the same ability to talk about these important issues. We must claw back some of the time we spend preparing students for tests for the more important discussion of life.

We Don’t Give Grades.

We don’t give grades as teachers do we? We expect our students to complete the work we assign, we assign them a mark on the work depending on whatever we perceive the quality of the work, and then we use a bunch of similar assignments and tests to determine a mark for the students. So we don’t give grades, we just give absolutely everything else the kids need in order to be able to "earn" a grade. 

When I worked in NYC, we were required to give a participation grade for our students. This participation grade couldn’t be based on the students attendance, tardiness, behaviour, or anything "bad" they did in class. As a result, almost all of us quickly realized that we pretty much had to give the maximum amount for attendance, which in our case was 20%. So we gave every student 20% right away on their grades (in NY they need 65% to pass).

Next we had to give students marks for homework, again another 20%. Now here, we did have to actually assign homework everyday, but our administrators had us play a different game. We had to accept late assignments because many of our kids would be absent (some months our attendance rate was hovering around 60%, shhhh… don’t tell the city!). We also had to make sure we went through the homework assignments at the beginning of the classes. Oh, and we had to hand back the homework once we had it marked as well. We had a terrific homework completion rate, if we didn’t mind 33 copies of the same assignment. Note that now, almost all of our students are hovering at around 40% without having really done any thought or demonstrated any learning.

We were next encouraged to give quizzes on a regular basis. I gave one every class at the beginning of the class and I made the quiz a very simple review of what we had covered before. Essentially everyone got 100% on the quiz, if they were in the classroom in time. The quizzes were collectively worth another 20%.

Now, if you are keeping score at home, you recognize that students only needed to earn an additional 5% out of a possible 40% on the class tests in order to pass. That means that if the students earn a mere 12.5% on our class room tests and assignments, they will pass our course (which was always the only objective 99% of our students had). Believe it or not, even under these conditions I only ever had a pass rate at around 70% of my students overall.

The point I’m trying to make here is that every school with a grading system has a set of steps (or if you prefer hoops) that the students must go through in order to be successful in your course and pass or get a "high mark."  These benchmarks are always set by the students, the school, or the state, and students never have any control over how they are graded. Not every school sets the bar as low as the school I worked at in NYC, but all of them have a bar set at some level which is the minimum level at which the students need to succeed.

To me, a system where a student is given complete guidance on how to be successful, and has no control over the terms of success is not a very good system. We could argue that the students have not "earned" their grades, they have been "given them" since they have no ownership over the process.  

This system to me is broken.  Students shouldn’t be trying to jump through hoops to earn grades, anymore than teachers should be spending their time constructing hoops. Both the teachers and the students should be focused on the student learning, and the ownership of that learning should be the student’s.