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The Educational System Should Be About Learning …But IT’S NOT.

shutterstock_211313479Meg Hanshaw Ph.D.

I met a young boy named Steven one morning at a car repair shop. He was the son of Jack, the manager. He was a bright, personable, and adorable 12 year old. As I like to do with students, I began a conversation to get to know him. He was in 6th grade and told me he loved school and his teachers. He enjoyed gymnastics, soccer, hanging out with his parents, and having fun with friends. He was very outgoing, social, caring, and spontaneous. Then after a few more moments, as he began to trust that I was someone that truly wanted to hear what he thought without judgment, the floodgates opened and he delicately told me how he really felt about school. Steven said that he believed he wasn’t very smart and didn’t really like how stressful the work felt in school. I asked him why. “I don’t do well on tests. I just don’t get it like the other kids.” he replied. “Mmm,” I responded. “…and I don’t like homework either,” he added. “Why?” I asked. “It is boring. I don’t always make good grades, and I don’t have time to do the things I really love,” he replied. “I just get tired of school work,” he concluded.

This is a typical conversation that I hear from all aged students. They say they feel stupid when they don’t get something right, and that they don’t have time to explore the things that really interest them without being overwhelmed about studying, doing assignments, and memorizing for tests that seem pointless. And most of all, to high school and college students, there is a constant pressure in the back of their minds to make high grades.  They have developed a belief system that without good grades, they won’t get a job and make enough money. Not enough money to them equals they won’t survive in the real world. To many students, school feels like a high-stressed job beginning in about 3rd grade with the personal overwhelm peaking their junior year in high school and then again as a senior in college.

Are high grades really the key to making enough income? You would think so. But it’s really not the case. There are many people that don’t go to school or make low grades and create careers where they make plenty of money (…and vice versa). There is something just not right about correlating high grades to making a good enough income. It feels controlling and manipulative because high grades really don’t mean you have learned. How many times have you studied for a test and forgotten everything you crammed into your brain the next day. Grades are outcomes that depend on a myriad of uncontrollable factors, such as the students motivation to learn the material, their physical and emotional state on test day, the teacher’s philosophy, the reliability and validity of the test, and how fairly the teacher grades. In my post-graduate work, I took two classes on the science of creating tests and grading fairly. It is not an easy task even after I took the courses!

I cannot tell you how many times as a teacher, I made tests just so I could give students a grade. I was taught that high grades would show that my students were learning. I would teach to the test and lecture excessively instead of creating experiential activities so they could retain and use what was really important. One semester, later in my teaching career, I was teaching a college wellness course and I tried hard to make the class experiential with as little grading as possible. The students freaked out when I went over the syllabus and told the head of the department that if I didn’t tell them exactly what they needed to learn and what to study so they could make an A, they would drop the class! I remained as true to my experiential beliefs as the Dean would let me. It was a struggle to say the least. Two years later though, I ran into the student in my class that had complained the most. She told me that she was sorry that she behaved the way she did and that my class was the best class she had ever taken because she had been using what she had learned out into the real world and it changed her life.

Focusing on grades as a measure of learning has horribly backfired. It has created students who struggle to learn on their own and trust their own learning process. Our educational system has lost its trust in our young people’s inherent abilities to WANT to learn. It believes it has to control our students’ (and teachers’) efforts to ensure they are learning. Why have we done this? Our great educational minds have come to believe that kids need to learn a set curriculum out of fear that our country’s students aren’t as smart on standardized testing as other countries’. So they created, a one-size-fits-all standard and curriculum and decided to make sure students knew it by testing, testing, and more testing to ensure (so they thought) students were learning the right things so they could compete globally. And we wonder why our students lose their passion for learning and hate school work. How would you feel if you were made to learn things you didn’t want to and made no sense and then judged you on how well you knew them? Would you be passionate about learning?  The only thing to keep students on track learning in today’s educational system is to force an outcome on them (grades) and say if you don’t get that outcome, you won’t make it in the world.  Grades then become the student’s identity, …not learning, not skills, not creativity and innovation, not contribution, and not being well.

Learning is actually a natural, positive, fun process if the educational system would stop making it wrong not to know something. Think about the pressure you have felt when you were made to learn and regurgitate information for a grade. Grading has become an evaluation of who the student is at his/her core. i.e. “If I make good grades, then I am worthy of making good money.” “If I make bad grades, then I am not good enough.” “I will do anything to make good grades.” “Grades equal my worthiness!”  The brain actually begins to view “making the grade” as a perceived threat/fear and moves into a constant low-grade survival mode (a fight, flight, or freeze state). In this state of survival, the brain shuts off the flow of energy to the higher brain and the student is not able to problem solve, make decisions, connect to his higher thoughts, and figure things out easily and calmly. It’s like trying to do math fast in your head when you feel you aren’t good at it. You stress and can’t think. It’s hard and not fun. I remember taking a course after graduating from college where there were no grades. The professor said, “I hope you’re taking this course because you’re excited and passionate about the subject.” Novel idea. I felt like I wasn’t learning anything because it was experiential, easy and fun. But in reality, I was actually taking in and using the information as I was changing myself and my skills on a deep level. I had never experienced anything like it.

You may be able to see now why the “learning by grading” educational philosophy has created an entire system that is going down the wrong path. This path is to boredom, a lack of creativity, and fear. A path where learning can’t happen the way it is meant to happen without the control of grading. But again, learning is intrinsic; it comes from within. It shouldn’t have to be forced. When a toddler begins to walk and take her first steps and then falls down, she is going to get back up and try again if even if the parents never say a word. She will keep trying until she walks, jumps, hops, skips, and runs. She will do it. Mom and Dad don’t force her to walk. They set up a safe environment and encourage, guide, coach, and validate the progress that she is making. When the child falls down, the parents don’t reprimand her and call her a failure and mark her down on her mistake.

Learning is a self-organizing principle.  It happens when the child is ready and interested. It of course would be detrimental for parents to say to a child, “I don’t care if you’re not ready to walk; it’s my job to teach you to walk and today is the day that I’m supposed to teach you to walk so you’re going to walk today. I am in charge of you to make that happen and if I don’t, I am a bad parent. So get up and walk and if you can’t do it and cry and scream or refuse, then I’m sending you away; when you’re ready to come back and walk, I’ll accept you. No playing around, It’s all work.”  Isn’t this what we are covertly saying in our educational system? More frustratingly, teachers have been placed in this no-win, stressful situation. Making teachers force learning on kids who are not ready and punishing them if they don’t want to learn or don’t get it right is no fun for anyone.

kidsplayingWe MUST allow students to build their skills out of their passions they already have. Let’s set up the educational system so kids get to explore everything in elementary school. Let them try music, art, recreational games, building, anything that allows them to experience the process of expressing themselves in whatever ways they want. Let’s allow them to master resiliency to challenges in life with effective social-emotional skills by learning to move through conflicts, be a friend, effectively communicate, find purpose and contribute. Let’s set up learning situations that truly promote problem solving by giving them problems and supporting them in finding the solutions (growing self-worth and confidence).  And most of all, let’s set up the environment so they are building healthy, lifelong habits (eating, moving, relaxing), and balancing all of life’s dimensions, -emotional, -mental, -spiritual, -social, and physical is crucial.  Learning to read, write and do math will inherently come from a student’s passions and be applied effectively if the environment is setup correctly.  There is no strict time a child NEEDS to learn anything. WHO SAYS THERE IS? What is the rush? When a young child is ready to read and is having fun, he will read easily. When a young child wants to naturally understand “why” and “how” on his own terms, a fire for learning is lit that can never be burned out.

In middle school, we MUST build on the elementary philosophy and begin to allow students to focus in on their passions. Allow them to be coached and supplied with resources to actually to begin to further distinct skills. Have them write their own tests and guide books and evaluate themselves. Have them teach and present what they love to others. If there is something they need and want to learn, provide it. (“Classes on Demand”) Get the community involved in supporting students with their passions. You would be surprised how when kids’ passions come together in the right environment, resources will show up.

In high school, students MUST be given the ability to hone in on certain areas of expertise and begin to work in the community contributing and growing their skills. If not ready, continue to work with the students where they are. Allow them to bloom into who they are without judgement. By this time, they will be creating, innovating, problem solving, and changing the world as they see fit. Continue their coaching and allow them to find their way. Applying to college should not be stressful. It should be exciting and fun to find a place that you can grow your passions to the highest level you can imagine.

This framework of Empowerment Education gives kids what they really need. Their brilliance will be unleashed. We have seen it over and over. Real learning takes place without the need to control, force, or grade.

All children are amazing and brilliant. Our educational system in its current structure tends to make children feel like they’re not….that they need to be a certain way to be successful. Steven was feeling this way and is not alone. After spending thirty minutes with me talking about his passions in life, who he loved, and describing all about the visiting dog in the car repair store as if he had known the dog for years, his brilliance was shining all over the place. He couldn’t see it though. I reminded him. “Do you know that there are many ways to be smart?” He said he didn’t know that. I replied, “You are athletic, care about people and animals, and love to talk to and help others.” His eyes lit up and he smiled and said, “Just like my dad!”

(Disclaimer: I am a huge fan of schools, teachers, and administrators. I was a teacher. My goal is to change the focus of the educational system so schools and teachers are actually allowed to do what we know kids really need to learn, grow, innovate, problem solve, contribute, and feel loved, purposeful, and safe. Students do learn in school despite the drawbacks of the educational system because of the great teachers out there.)