From Brent’s Desk
“We give the information; we give an exam; we assign a grade, and then we move on.”
These words were hammered into me while sitting in a vice principal’s office during my first internship while studying to be a teacher. The fact that I used the term “first” internship should be very telling – you’re only supposed to have one – and the fact that it was the vice principal’s office should also conjure up all the fear and anxiety normally associated with being sent to the vice principal’s office. The difference here was that this time I was not some ”errant youth” being chastised for skipping class or having been caught spray-painting anti-establishment propaganda on the wall outside the woodworking shop. Nope… this time I was an adult, an intern, trying to be able to spend more time in the classroom, not less; trying to become an integral part of that very establishment. And at almost 40 years old, I was in trouble at school… again.
I had returned to school late in life. There I was, a middle-aged student sitting in class learning what the “system” thought was the proper way to teach. In many ways, returning to school when I did should have given me a tremendous advantage over my compatriots. Simply by virtue of my years on this planet, I had gained a wealth of experience that most of my classmates could not have had. I already knew what the goal of the teacher was (to produce fine, upstanding and productive members of society) because I’d already been there; I’d been a productive member of society for decades. It was like having a secret codebook with all the answers. That made it easy to write the essays and exams, but in a different way, it also made it much much harder.
Maybe it was because I was also a parent of school-aged children; but being my age was actually harder because, with all this advanced experience, I often found myself clashing with the powers-that-be over the fundamental nature of education itself. It wasn’t the “this is how we teach” that I struggled with; it was more the “this is what we teach” that I began to question. That query naturally led to many follow-up questions all terminating in a study of “this is why we teach.” I found that the more I learned about the history of public education and the reasons for it, the more I began to question its legitimacy as an institution of public good. And by “public good,” I’m defining it as representing the best interests of the child… no… scratch that… representing the best interests of the people being educated in public schools, and of their parents who, through their taxes, pay to have their children educated in these same public schools.
Regardless… here I was, having a “debriefing” after having taught one of my carefully prepared lessons. My field of expertise was film and photography, having received a degree in it from one of the top four schools in North America over 10 years earlier. The equivalent at the secondary level was an art class and as my designated graded lesson, I had chosen to teach the concept of the “Golden Mean.” Also known as the Golden Rectangle, it is a set of guidelines and ratios incredibly important to all artistic periods, and art forms. It was well-known thousands of years BCE, and is still used in art, architecture, commercial art, and logo design, photography, sculpture, and literally, everything in all the art worlds; it’s just that important.
Since it is such an important concept, I thought that it was my job as a teacher to guarantee that absolutely everyone in my class understood it thoroughly. After all, the chances that everyone in my class would use this in the future were high and not understanding this concept would be extremely detrimental, even if some students didn’t go on to make a career in the art world. The trouble started when I was asked to show the assignment I gave, the evaluation I had used (the exam), the grade sheet, and describe by what criteria I had evaluated the class. I said the assignment was that given a starting point, their task was to calculate the ratio three steps up and three steps down from that point. I explained that I didn’t give a grade sheet because everyone understood completely and it seemed pointless.
“How is it possible that everyone got it? Was it a ridiculously easy assignment?” she asked.
“Not really, but it’s easy for me to see from their work who gets it and who doesn’t. And I simply sit down individually with those that don’t, and go over the concept until they do get it,” I replied.
“You can’t do that,” I was told. “You won’t have enough time.”
“I can do that because I already did it.” And guess what? I can guarantee that everyone in the class gets it now.”
“Mr. Kreuger. That is not how we do things. Our procedure is; we give the information; we give an exam; we assign a grade; and then we move on.”
“But I was abl…”
“WE GIVE THE INFORMATION; WE GIVE AN EXAM; WE ASSIGN A GRADE, AND THEN WE MOVE ON.” DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR!
(Yes, the use of capitals was intentional because that is how the information was conveyed. And as you can probably tell, this was not the first time, nor would it be the last time, that I and the school system saw things differently.)
You might have rightly guessed, I didn’t complete my internship at this time, but it did set me on a path. I started to question everything I had ever been taught about educating youth, and today, after an additional 20 years of research and experience working with learners of all ages, I’ve come to the conclusion that much of what I had been taught, and much of the conventional wisdom that exists within the educational system, is absolutely wrong. As an example, let’s dissect this supposedly “correct” procedure and see what we come up with.
I can understand the “we give the information” part (or at least a version of it [I actually prefer to orchestrate a situation where students discover the information, but that’s an argument for a different day.]) But can someone please explain to me, why exactly do we give exams? One of the most commonly blurted out answers would be “to give a proper assessment of what the students know.” However, if that were the case, when we were doing these evaluations, wouldn’t we start with a blank slate, and give marks for knowledge and skills that a student has proven to have acquired?
That’s not what we do though. Instead, we start by defining only the parameters that students will be tested on, not what they actually know, then we set a maximum number of marks achievable, and then begin deducting marks for what a student doesn’t answer exactly how the teacher wants it answered, and sometimes for trivial little things like clerical errors. Our system isn’t designed to reward students for what they have accomplished; it’s designed to penalize them for what we deem they haven’t. And it sets the exams to guarantee that somehow we always get that nice even symmetric, bell curve because someone someplace thought that that’s how it should be.
And if that “proper assessment” excuse was truly the right reason, then after we identify what a student is still weak at, wouldn’t we naturally take steps to strengthen them in exactly those areas the student is lacking? Instead, though, the procedure used by most public school systems around the world, is exactly the procedure previously discussed; to “…assign a grade, and then move on.” What this indicates is that for a child who has been assigned a passing grade of say 75%, there is at least 25% more material he should know and still doesn’t. And that 25% gap in the student’s knowledge will now make it at least 25% harder for that student to grasp 100% of the next lesson. As you can see, this gap actually compounds itself throughout the student’s entire educational experience. What the system is explicitly saying when it chooses to “move on” instead of guaranteeing that the child attains that missing 25%, is that “yes, we know that from now on, it will be harder to acquire the next lesson… but we don’t care.” This, to me, is not the behavior of an entity concerned with representing the best interests of those individuals it is legally charged to protect.
Let’s put this into perspective. We are told the purpose of the school itself is to prepare students for their future role in life after school and specifically in the working world. That being the case, let us imagine a world that actually operates as your typical public school does.
A student is studying math. He understands addition, subtraction, and division but is a little iffy on multiplication. He writes an exam and gets 75%. And since 75% is a pass, the system follows its mandate of “and then we move on.” No one inside the system is concerned. The only people who are concerned are the students, but because students aren’t considered part of the educational system, nothing is changed, (and also the reason that today, we see almost an entire generation of adults who do not know their multiplication tables.)
His father is a surgeon and happens to be operating that day as well. In medical school, the father did quite well. He understood cutting, and stitching and interpreting x-rays, but was a little iffy on anesthesia. After the allotted amount of time had been spent trying to teach anesthesia, they had an exam and assigned a grade. This gave him a 75%, and since 75% is a pass, their procedure was to “…and then we move on.” No one inside the medical profession is concerned, because it only affected the patients, and patients aren’t considered part of the medical profession. Many of this particular surgeon’s patients go through their procedures without anesthesia. It’s often a little noisy in the operating theatre, at least at first, but this surgeon is very much in demand because of his excellent reputation which is due to his very high success rate (i.e. most of his patients live). That “other” surgeon totally understood anesthesia but missed the day they were teaching stitching. Her patients finish their heart transplants with the heart where it should be, but it’s usually not connected to anything. That requires stitching. Since both surgeons had the same passing grade, they were deemed by the medical profession to be equal and adequate.
While the father was in surgery, the mother, an architect, is meeting with her contractor and building inspector regarding a high-rise office tower she has designed. Today, they were evaluating the foundation. Being that the blueprints were only 75% accurate, the contractor had struggled with some of the dimensions. His own 75% effectiveness, when coupled with the inaccuracy of the blueprints, meant that the inspector was only able to give the foundation a grade of 62.5%. It seems that the cement was still a little wet on one section and not entirely level on many other sections. It should be noted here too that the mark given didn’t take into account the 25% of the other inadequacies that had gone unnoticed by the building inspector himself. So really, the actual quality of the foundation was only 75% of 75% of 75%, but since nobody knew 100% of the math they were supposed to, nobody picked up on the error, and since the assigned mark of 62.5% is still a pass, they simply did what they had always been taught to do; they moved on.
No one from the general public will notice problems with the structure from the basement or even on the first floor. The second floor would be a slightly different story and by the time they get to the 20th floor, the building will look like something out of the movie “Idiocracy.” But, since it will be very similar to every other office tower built under the “Rule of 75%,” no one will give it a second notice.
We see that put into these terms, actually living in a world like that would be ridiculous. But it’s exactly the message that we are unknowingly passing on to our children. And since, regardless of what the student has or hasn’t learned in that given time period, there will always be a point at which they “…and then we move on,” we’re in effect telling them that mediocrity is okay; that ignorance by choice is okay; that if you just wait long enough, you won’t have to do any work, and it really won’t matter anyway.
If you’re of the mind that an educational system’s responsibility should be to actually educate our children instead of looking for ways to penalize them and blame them for their inadequacies, there is a much better teaching philosophy. That better philosophy would be to adopt a phrase I once heard on one of the highest rated television shows in US history. The sitcom, “M.A.S.H.,” occupied a spot in prime time television from 1972 until 1983; lasting longer than the actual war it was portraying. The phrase I’m referring to was “I do one thing; I do it very well; and then I move on” and it was spoken by a Major Charles Winchester III – a somewhat pretentious albeit preeminent surgeon from Boston General, an equally distinguished Health Institute. The phrase, and the character who said it, speaks of achieving excellence; excellence in all manner of things regardless of the time required to achieve it. In education, the philosophy is called “mastery learning.” Mastery learning refers to a category of instructional methods which establishes a level of performance that all students must “master” before moving on to the next unit. It implies an almost complete understanding and control of the given topic. And believe it or not, it was once how everyone learned, and how we all prepared our children for their future roles in our society.
When we were hunter/gatherer, we learned our skills at the foot of an expert in that field. They would give lessons, set tasks and when they had determined that we had sufficient skills, they would give us more advanced skills to learn. Skip ahead millennia or two, and we still used essentially the same model but now, in the throws of the middle ages, it’s a formalized apprenticeship model. We still learn at the foot of an expert and it is still up to the Master to determine what duties and responsibilities we have, and when we have them. We have to earn those responsibilities and we do that by proving we have mastered all lesser responsibilities.
Using this model, in an academic setting, if a student does not achieve mastery of a skill or concept, they are given additional support in learning and reviewing the information, then evaluated again. This cycle continues until the individual learner accomplishes mastery of the subject, and only then may they move on to the next stage.
In mastery learning, there is a shift in responsibilities so that student’s failure is due more to the instruction and not necessarily because of a lack of ability on the part of the student. But also, because every student eventually does master that skill, there is no need to assign a mark, and no need to differentiate students, assign blame, or to utilize that famous bell curve. In this learning environment, the challenge becomes providing enough time and employing instructional strategies so that all students can eventually achieve the same level of learning, regardless of how long it takes.
You see, today, the education system has become formulaic, and the formula they have adopted can be expressed as A x T=OP (Activity X Time = Out Put). Teachers are given curriculum to get through in an allotted amount of time and the only variable is how much each individual student will achieve within that time period before they… “and then we move on.” This naturally gives us our much desired “bell curve” where some students get it, others don’t at all, but most sort of do. It’s pretty telling that since the industrial revolution, public education was designed to produce workers for factory assembly lines, and since the industrial revolution, our education system has also been modeled on the assembly lines with schools batch processing homogenous students, all treated the same and all taking the same thing. In the typical factory, the line never stops and workers have their given time to do their allotted task. Similarly, in our modern schools, the line never stops and students have a given time to do their allotted tasks. We get cookie-cutter workers, all interchangeable, and really, can anyone please explain to me exactly why we think we need to use that damn bell curve?
The return to this new “mastery” philosophy would rewrite that formula as OutPut / Activity = Time. And since time is the only variable, every student eventually achieves mastery, just each at their own rate.
You can easily see why the public education system at large would not buy into this model. First, it actually blames the system for the failure of the system. But who wants to blame themselves when that blame can so easily be shifted elsewhere? (Ummm… only every parent that I know. They are constantly blaming themselves for the failures of their children, even their grown children). Second, it was deemed much too impractical and time-consuming. Since every student would essentially be working at their own pace, the system (through the teachers) would lose the ability to cost-effectively deliver one lecture to a multitude of students, regardless if that lecture is an effective method of content delivery or not. The system claimed that they couldn’t possibly deal with a classroom of individual learners all at different levels and working at their own rate. I find it ironic that the high budgets of the public education system can not achieve what most private extra-curricular education systems already do.
Mastery learning is still how we learn such subjects as music, martial arts, and a myriad of other self-imposed subjects and/or skills. One simply does not get a driver’s license until one proves they have mastered the art of driving. In Karate, one does not progress to a yellow belt until one has mastered everything at the white belt level. Not a passing grade of 50% of it, not even our 75% of it… but all of it. The Sensei (a subject matter expert but also an unqualified teacher of sorts) also seems to have quite easily mastered the ability to control a large classroom full of students all at different levels, different ages, and all working at their own rate. And even in the post-academic working world, the concept of “mentorship” where an experienced “master” is teamed up with a protégé has been very successfully reintroduced.
I daresay most teachers if asked, would rather support the learning of students in a holistic and progressive manner vs. deliver material from a system that is broken and out-dated and nowhere near set up to prepare our young people for the world of the future.
Personally, I wish that all those people who continually say that something can’t be done would get out of the way of all those who are actively doing it.