I’m writing this post as a question, not a statement for a reason. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I’m honestly not sure. Writing this post is an effort to organize my thoughts.
This struggle is mostly connected to the conviction I have that students are all individuals who have a variety of strengths and talents. The primary function of education should be to help students to recognize and develop these strengths and talents to their fullest capacity. Saying that students must reach the same standards at the end of the year based solely on their birth year seems counterintuitive to this notion. It’s giving the message that everyone can and should grow at the same exact rate each year. It is rare that I have found this to be true.
Additionally, most grade-level standards are broken into different subject areas. This places emphasis in school on mostly academic learning areas like math, literacy, science, and social studies. Students whose strengths lie in areas outside of these traditional subjects seldom get an opportunity to shine in school because of this.
Breaking standards into different subject areas also sets up the false dichotomy that subjects are always separate from one another. In the world outside of school, new ideas and solutions are overwhelmingly created using interdisciplinary work.
Finally, no matter how much we tell ourselves that grade level standards-based reporting is better than traditional grades, it still communicates to parents and students that the purpose of education is to get some sort of score. We can share the descriptor for the grade level standard, and continue to give them feedback towards mastery, but when a number is factored in, it still shifts motivation towards a number instead of the reward of progress and learning.
Instead of using grade-level standards, what if we looked at learning as a continuum? Instead of breaking this continuum into subject areas, it would incorporate broader, ideas. Asking questions, constructing ideas with viable support, collaborating with others, creating plans and executing long-term projects are just some of the ideas that would incorporate multiple subject areas.
Instead of using numbers or letters to communicate progress to students in report-like format, what if we met with students weekly in conferences to discuss their progress on the learning continuum. At the beginning of a cycle, we would set goals with students on areas they wanted to work on based on the continuum. We decided with them artifacts that would show they had progressed to the next stage in the continuum. We gave them time to work on the standards individually as well as in groups. These conferences would be recorded and shared with parents. Parents could even electronically be a part of the conference through a digital tool like Google Hangout. This would make education truly a collaborative effort between home and school.
Instead of putting students into classrooms based on age, what if we put them in multi-age classrooms? We developed their leadership and collaborative skills at all ages. We celebrated mentorship and the ability to help others, instead of placing a focus on being better than others. Better yet, what if we grouped students into classrooms based on areas they wanted to explore more deeply? We put kids who had mutual passions in the same classroom who were passionate about the same things and empowered them to explore these ideas. What might happen to kids’ perceptions of the purpose of school then?
What about time?
What about college?
What about basic foundational learning that everyone needs to know?
Setting up school this way would definitely require a different way of looking at the way we organize the school day. Instead of teaching in subject blocks, students would need to work for longer periods of time.
I recognize that colleges currently select students based on their grades and ability to score highly on standardized tests. Getting rid of grades and grade-level standards definitely muddies the water on this, but should we really never change what we are doing solely based on a system that colleges set up hundreds of years ago? The world is changing exponentially each day. Colleges need to change as well. If we continue to keep our system the same, there is no motivation for colleges to change either. We need to stop viewing change as an unwanted thing and embrace it for its possibilities.
There is no reason that this shift would abolish foundational knowledge. When learning is seen as a continuum, any type of knowledge can be included. Learning to read, write, draw, perform, code and build foundational skills for math (the list could go on) would all be included.
Using grade-level standards is an easy way for us to communicate progress to parents because it is a system that most people have experienced and understand. As a principal, I see student success in a variety of standards on a daily basis. I also see students struggle. I hear conversations about meeting standards. I see kids celebrated and I see kids defeated. I am wondering what the shift in the percentage of celebrated success might be if we looked at education differently. Ultimately, is ease of communication really the standard we want to use in deciding how we give feedback to students and structure our schools?