Imagine that your academic crush is coming to town. You have followed her work for years; you’ve read her book; and, you can safely say that her work has made an indelible, positive impact on your life. You learn that this crush will be giving a talk at the local auditorium, so you quickly make your reservations and anticipate the event until its arrival.
Sadly though, during the talk that you were so looking forward to, your crush flops. Her messages, ones you know have life-changing capacity, which came through so resoundingly on her other platforms, just don’t penetrate to the audience. In addition, this person was clearly nervous, perhaps from presenting her ideas to a new crowd, with added pressures coming from both time constraints and, implicitly, the other speakers who presented beforehand and brought the house down. Your crush just froze.
Here’s the point: as she walks off the stage to a polite applause, would you silently renounce your admiration for this person’s work? Would you think that maybe she doesn’t really know the stuff she’s been espousing for years? Clearly, you wouldn’t. You would simply reason that she had an off night, that the pressure got to her and that she wasn’t able to deliver this time. You might even feel bad for her, seeing her underperform on this big night in her career. Regardless, you wouldn’t doubt her expertise.
Recently I’ve made a profound realization. This is the type of scenario we subject our students to on almost a daily basis. When we give students tests for example, the grade they receive is not based on their knowledge as much as it’s based on a single performance. “How can this person deserve an A?” we reason, “just look at his test scores!” And yet, we’re the same people who let our academic crush off the hook for having a bad night on stage. What’s even more startling is that we give a pass to the person who’s a professional in her field before we give a pass to the student who just recently learned the material. We defend the professional in her poor performance but shaft the far younger student for his even though that student was just introduced to the material only weeks ago.
It’s unfair and unjust. It’s time to let that all go.
It’s time to let go of what we’ve all believed the role of tests to be. Everyone, myself included, has been okay with the idea of the performative requirement of tests. “Want to do well in class? Great, just do well on the tests.” I’ve held fast to this doctrine since the very beginning, since being a student myself. But I proclaim right now: I’ve reversed my position on this. Grades must not be performance-based; they must be knowledge-based.
This is one of the hallmarks of a growth mindset educational practice, created by Stanford University's Carol Dweck. Among several major tenets, one of them is doing away with grades that stem from performance-driven assessments, which have rigid and arbitrary deadlines. Instead, we need to redefine our educational culture. We must convey to our students that falling short is only the first in a series of attempts to grow and progress. That everything we do is grounded in a philosophy that stresses, “not yet.”
If you’re a teacher who won’t consider examining the role of tests in your practice, then this message is directed squarely at you. I wonder if you approve of scribbling an “F” on a toddler’s forehead who stumbles multiple times on the way to learning to walk.
It strikes me that as a society we’re willing to understand that toddlers learn to walk and speak on their own timelines, classified as early life stages, and we vindicate public figures who bounce back from failure in later life stages. But in the critical schooling stages, it’s all-or-nothing, make-or-break, deliver the first and only time or you’re screwed. It just doesn’t make any sense. Most importantly, it systematically amputates the opportunities our students need to reach greatness.
In the coming posts, I’ll dive deeper into how we can evolve our practice to better meet our students’ needs and inspire them. To evolve, though, we first must take a giant look in the mirror and be ready to let go of what we’ve believed for possibly our entire lives. I openly ask for all of us to dial back our egos and dial up our courage. We’ve been a part of the problem, and we can fix it. It’s time to change.
Robert Ahdoot is a math teacher and founder of YayMath.org, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom and in studio, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10-plus years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.
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