It’s been four years since Sonya terBorg published her phenomenal free eBook “Imagine A School”.
As a member of the #teamSonya fanclub I’ve passed her text onto as many colleagues as possible. Why? Because Sonya’s work reminds each and every one of us that it is our responsibility to keep wondering about what the future of education could be.
Sonya’s work is seeded in what Seth Godin mused in his manifesto ‘Stop Stealing Dreams‘:
If school’s function is to create the workers we need to fuel our economy, weneed to change school, because the workers we need have changed as well.The mission used to be to create homogenized, obedient, satisfied workers and pliant, eager consumers.No longer.
As of this very moment, May 24th 2016: what is the function of school?
Thankful For: Humor https://t.co/QkhYsX0cjjpic.twitter.com/4TZy1IO42Z
— Diane Ravitch (@DianeRavitch) November 26, 2015
To answer this question, you need to look at where the majority of your school’s focus goes, and question how your academic calendar is organized. Go to your calendar and highlight the weeks dedicated to formal timed exams. Highlight the official revision weeks. How many days now stare back at you in fluorescent yellow?
Now highlight the number of weeks spent in mixed year levels, with students mentoring other students.
Now highlight the weeks spent on service learning projects.
Now highlight the weeks spent on mindfulness, and developing empathy.
If you are lucky, your school might have the same number of weeks highlighted for exams as they do mentoring, serving their community, and learning to become a more caring member of society. But is that the message we really want to send students, that empathy and testing are equals?
In a world where students can write for a global audience, book clubs can span continents, and a mystery Skype session can develop more curious global citizens, are individual tests even relevant anymore?
In a Forbes post already two years old, a list of ‘Future Ready Skills’ suggests the answer to that question is ‘no.’
If your staff had the power to pioneer a new prototype for educating societies, would testing be a part of your new vision?
Jonathan Lash, director of the World Resources Institute has taken some pretty rad steps in a new direction, check out his full (re)vision for schools via The Washington Post piece What one college discovered when it stopped accepting SAT/ACT scores:
We completely dropped standardized tests from our application as part of our new mission-driven admissions strategy, distinct from the “test-optional” policy that hundreds of colleges now follow. If we reduce education to the outcomes of a test, the only incentive for schools and students to innovate is in the form of improving test-taking and scores. Teaching to a test becomes stifling for teachers and students, far from the inspiring, adaptive education which most benefits students. Our greatly accelerating world needs graduates who are trained to address tough situations with innovation, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and a capacity for mobilizing collaboration and cooperation.
What happened when Lash did this?
• Class diversity increased to 31% students of color, the most diverse in our history, up from 21% two years ago.
• The percentage of students who are the first-generation from their family to attend college rose from 10% to 18% in this year’s class.
I think we can take this model a few steps further. Isn’t it time to seriously reconsider whether or not we need grades at all? Students have the tools and the means to generate authentic portfolios. Students have access to projects in ways we never dreamed possible a decade ago.
What if projects and portfolios were our narrators, rather than numbers and letters?
“The Case Against Grades” by Michael Thomsen unpacks the possibilities sprouting up in forward-thinking spaces:
Free schools have taken the gradeless structure even further, treating the school as an open space where students are not only allowed to self-direct but are given equal responsibility in the organization and rule-making of the school itself. The Summerhill School in England is one of the most recognizable and longest-running, founded in 1921 by A.S. Neill. Summerhill is built around the idea of creating stable, happy, and compassionate humans capable of filling any role in society—a janitor being no less a success than a doctor. In place of dedicated courses, students are free to follow their own interests while teachers observe and nudge them toward new ways of thinking about what they’re drawn to. Students with an interest in cooking, for instance, might learn the basics of chemistry by way of thickening a sauce. Those drawn to playing soccer might learn to improve their game with some fundamental principles of Newtonian physics.
Report cards put learning in a false context.
If a reimagined school truly believes that education is (in the wise words of Sam Seaborn) a silver bullet, why are we spending so much energy on measuring, if we could be investigating better approaches to mentoring the future change-makers of the world?
Melissa Harris-Perry says this best in her Washington Post opinion piece:
Without grades, we would be forced to offer detailed, critical assessments of our students’ strengths and weaknesses, both to them and to future schools and employers. We would need to pay closer attention to their process and their progress rather than just their final products.
In an interview with German philosopher and author Richard David Precht, via The Financialist, we are reminded of the limitations of grades:
A child’s personal development is more important than acquiring a certain body of knowledge over the course of a school year, and that can’t be captured in numbers. For example, I was good at gymnastics as a child. Jumping over a beam was easier for me than for an overweight classmate, so if he managed to do it, his achievement was greater than mine. Grades aren’t very helpful in measuring accomplishments like that. A written evaluation at the end of the school year might be the best approach.
As part of #teacherappreciationweek, one of my 9th grade bloggers reflected on a poignant moment years back. Please see her full post available here.
She came up to me and my mum, and she said “Wow, she should be journalist” And now, when I look back, I think of how she didn’t have to say that, she didn’t have to bother saying anything, but she did, and it made my day. And since then, everytime I present anything, I think of that.
That 9th grade blogger reminds me that instead of spending so much time telling students where they are on an isolated exam, we should be looking out at their horizon together, having a conversation about where they could go.
FLICKR, have I told you lately, that I love your CC images?
I’m reminded of the first time I read Alfie Kohn when I was in grad school back in the early 90s. I was shocked that kids could get into Harvard based solely on their portfolios. Everyone quotes Alfie on being Punished by Rewards…did they forget to read the rest of the book? We are still operating on this old-school model, though we know it doesn’t produce the learners and thinkers we want.
I’m hopeful and frustrated at the same time. We are still so focused on exams and scores. I would much rather we started the year with a focus on the past Grade 12s biggest accomplishments as human beings, rather than their accomplishments in their IB and AP exams. Will we ever arrive?
Thanks for reading and responding, Val.
I think we will. I think more and more alternative schools are becoming known entities, think Alt School, Khan’s new school is doing well–and they have the financing to do even more.
The boat is being rocked by students too–teenagers can make their own project go viral. Have you seen the amazing SoSonia? She’s a teenager in Jakarta who is doing AMAZING things: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3n-DFgs7Dvc
What a lovely piece, as always a great and informative read. Not sure what to add apart from that I agree. Moving from numbers and percentages to thoughts, portfolios and ideas can only improve educations. However, these would need to be free expressions – the danger being that you move to an idea driven system , that still hangs onto the need to assign numbers and grades. In many ways the IBO had good intentions with the PYP and MYP – however as soon as you need to assign numbers then you lose some/most of the creativity.
What I am going to do is highlight the calendar – I think this would be interesting for me and should be essential in the whole school planning meetings. What a great way of visualising the health of a school!