Yesterday, I “subbed” for Clark’s class. Clark is a friend and colleague of mine, and he gave me license to do as I liked with his class. We both teach students 8th Grade English, so this was not too much of a stretch for him to trust me. Disinclined to re-facilitate a lesson I had done 4 times that day already, I decided to do a slight substitution of topic. Instead of focusing on discussion skills (how to be courteous, how to stay on topic, how to build off of another’s comment) with respect to the epic we had been reading, I decided to show the students the trailer of the film I had just seen and to gauge their reactions through discussion. Truthfully, I wanted to know what the students thought.

So I showed the 2 minute trailer for Race to Nowhere.

And then I asked them the question: Does our school focus on grades or on learning?

What follow are some direct quotes and my paraphrasing from the impassioned discussion that these students carried out. Truly, I was blown away. The students said:

“Teachers focus on learning, but parents focus on grades, so we focus on grades to make our parents happy.”

“We know it is more about learning”

“My parents would kill me if I got less than a B.”

If I got D’s, C’s, or F’s consistently but eventually knew that I would be able to work up to an A, I think that I would lose focus or lose perseverance. I would focus on my grades more than my learning.

Some teachers say, “You need to get your grade up” rather than “you need to learn.”

Teachers want you to understand more than they want you to get a good grade. “If you have a bad grade, they want you to learn from it,”

I wish there was another way to grade besides tests… maybe by participation.

“Our exams here are only 20% of our grade, but some schools’ exams are worth all of the grade.”

Teachers focus on learning, but parents and other students focus on grades. There is this competition involved.

Our teachers focus on learning, but other people are worried about college so our grades overrule learning.

“Grades are skewed.”

“In spanish class, I don’t want to participate. I just want to take the test. I don’t want to say anything because I don’t know if I’m going to get it right.”

“If you focus on the learning, the grades will come.”

“I think our school used to be focused around grades, but now it is focused around learning. It’s all about a growth mindset now.”

What an incredible view into the thoughts of students! I was blown away, mostly because of how wrong my pre-conceived notions were about the way my students approached grades and learning.

Based on their responses, my one take-away is that students and teachers want to focus on learning, but the outside world of standardized tests, PSAT’s, and College Entry Applications is stymying their shift in thinking. I wonder how this conversation would have gone if I had posed the question to 10th or 12th graders?

How can we cause a cultural revolution to help our students stay focused around learning? Right now, my students are excited to come to school, to class, and though I may be flattering myself, I think they are  excited to learn in my class. But I wonder what the focus on grades over learning will do to their enthusiasm as they get older?

Can we substitute a growth mindset with the current mindset driving our college counselors and our parents?

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2 Responses to Substitution

  1. clarkbeast says:

    Now all I hear from them is “When will we get Ms Dobbs back?”

  2. John says:

    Wow, Peyten—I just discovered your blog and it’s awesome. I’m particularly intrigued by this post, since your kids comments are very different from the ones I heard from my 9th graders on the same subject (check out the slideshow in the middle of the post).
    I think there is totally a growth mindset approach to the college process—and it actually yeilds better results than the fixed approach, no matter how you measure it—student happiness, student growth or even # of ivy league acceptances. I wrote a bit about it in response to a pretty depressing editorial in the HS newspaper here. I think colleges are desperate to enroll resilient, engaged students who have a deep love of learning, rather than the over-stressed, fragile, externally motivated students that bring very little to the classroom and need extensive counseling support to cope with minor setbacks.

    Anyway, it’s a fascinating conversation, and one I’m deeply interested in.

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