Monday, March 29, 2010

But What Did You Learn?

Leslie got her 3rd quarter report card today. A in Science, B+ in Mod Tech. I'm proud, of course. Especially since through most of her Mod Tech class, she didn't have any idea what she was doing.

I asked her today what she thought she had learned in science this year. She thought a while and said she knew she had learned some new things, but it was all muddled in the back of her mind somewhere and she couldn't pull it out on demand. Hmmm. If that means that it is knowledge that will surface when it's necessary, I guess I'm okay with that.

What I was wondering was, how would I feel about her getting an A in a class in which she felt like she didn't learn anything? I mean, I certainly remember classes in middle and high school where I didn't learn anything -- or, at least, anything that stuck. Does it matter now that I got an A in the class? I guess in high school, any A boosts your GPA, which is important for getting into college.

But this is kind of my point. Why should colleges care what grade I got in a class where I didn't learn anything? Isn't learning the whole point of school?

My last couple years teaching high school English, I completely redid my grading system. I got tired of my honors students who focused all their energy on racking up points and disengaged entirely once they had the points to get the grade they wanted. I knew they weren't learning -- they knew they weren't learning -- they were simply very adept at playing the school game.

Until I changed the rules. I set before them the major objectives of the class: demonstrate a thorough understanding of this novel, write an effective persuasive essay, etc. If they wanted an A, B, or C in the class, they had to meet every objective. Some of the objectives could be met in a variety of ways. You could show me you understood Of Mice and Men by writing an essay . . or taking a test . . . or discussing the book with me one-on-one after school. I had one girl draw this amazing mural that showed beyond any doubt that she understood that book inside and out. Fabulous!

You wouldn't believe the crap I got from students about this grading system. Agreed, it was a new system and had kinks I was still working out. But mainly, they couldn't get by with doing the minimum anymore. They had to actually meet the course objectives -- they had to learn something -- or they got a D. They hated it.

Frustrating that our top tier of students should find such an expectation to be so odious.

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