Inspiring Learning, Not Grades

Dinner was almost over at our house and I casually asked my daughter how her project was coming. As a senior in high school, I expected her to be a bit worried about the project. It was after all a pretty in-depth assignment. Her response, however, took me by surprise. She said, “I think I’ve done enough. The reality is that I already have a 108% in the class and if I just turn anything in I’ll have more than enough credit to get an ‘A’.” As my blood pressure skyrocketed, I unleashed a lecture on doing our very best, blah blah blah, and how the teacher would not have made a project if it wasn’t important to the learning process, blah blah blah. Of course, I got the traditional eye roll, and then she proceeded to tell me about life as a high-schooler.Ins

Once I cooled down, I realized that I couldn’t blame her entirely. For 12 years, her life had been shaped around grade performance. Her teachers prescribed each assignment. Rarely did they talk to her about learning. Instead, they talked about what she needed to do and what was required to get an “A”. My daughter, my son and countless other students who have great grades have mastered the art of delivering exactly what is expected of them in school. They have learned how to meet the demands of the teacher, and consequently how to put forth minimal effort for maximum effect.

How do we help our students step out of that paradigm? Some would say we just need more rigor. We need to expect more from our students by making the assignments harder so that an “A” represents a huge effort. However, I don’t think it is all about effort. We’ve all seen those teachers that refuse to give an “A” just out of principle. They don’t want students to think they can be figured out. I say, those teachers are de-motivating and don’t have clear outcomes for their courses.

I can give example after example of excellent teachers who care so deeply about the subjects they teach that students get caught up in their passion. I also know of teachers who fan the flame of their students’ curiosity day after day. What we need is a system that allows teachers to worry less about the grade and more about the learning. How do we reward curiosity, passion, and learning? How do we identify the basics that a student needs to know in order to become lifelong learners?

Although these are challenging questions, my answers are not meant to be exhaustive on the subject. In fact, I would welcome readers to chime in with their list of answers. There are 4 things that I believe we can do in schools to move students into a learning paradigm.

  1. Create an environment for learning. Space matters. Move students out of a teacher-centric environment and into a learning environment. There are dozens of examples to review. Bob Pearlman has created a website with many ideas for elementary and secondary K12 environments.

  2. Engage students in THEIR world. Students of all ages struggle to learn concepts or facts that are not relevant to their life. Identify areas that are immediately relevant to the student and draw the student into discovering new concepts for their world. To research this further, see topics on Place-based learning and Project-based learning.

  3. Identify areas in the curriculum that must be taught “Just-in-case”. Leave all other areas of the curriculum to be learned “Just-in-time.” There are some non-negotiables in learning. For example, a student needs to know how to read for both pleasure and for understanding. But, how sophisticated does the reading level need to be for every student? Can we get students to the place where they love to read and therefore they are able to find answers when they need them? At what point do students need to know the Pythagorean theorem? Do they need to know it by Tuesday’s test? Or do they need to know it when they are building a kite? How about deciding the size of the ladder to buy? Or the length of a slide that will stand 10 feet off the ground? Let’s move the learning process to the time it is needed, thus the phrase, “Just-in-time learning.”

  4. Integrate subject matters. Our school world tends to be broken into 50-90 minute segments divided by subject. We spend 55 minutes working on English, 55 minutes working on Math, and 55 minutes on Social Studies, etc. That is not the way the real world works. Social Studies issues often require math (budgets) to solve a problem. In order to solve those issues, we have to talk and write persuasively about them. We also have to read and research. It isn’t going to be an easy shift (especially at the secondary level), but we need to begin merging the subject matters together into real-world learning opportunities.

I would love to hear your ideas on how we intentionally and systematically help students from K-20 love learning. I believe that if they love learning, the busy stuff we have them doing to complete a grade will happen.

Eric Kellerer

by Eric Kellerer

Eric Kellerer is currently the Director of the Doceō Center and the Director of International Relations at Northwest Nazarene University. The Center, established in January, 2013 exists to inspire personalized learning through innovative practices in education. The Center is responsible for the development of the H.A.C.K. Model for Innovative Instruction. He is currently involved in education reform movements in Liberia and China. He has established relationships with universities and high schools in China, Korea, and Liberia.