Teaching Opinion

Let the Learning Lead, Not the Label

By Starr Sackstein — September 19, 2017 2 min read
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Learning stops once we label it, which is one of the inherent problems with traditional grading. If we want students to see themselves as life-long learners, who value progress in their own learning experiences, we need to promote an environment that fosters a formative feedback cycle in lieu of summative grades.

In the news recently, there have been many comments about the validity of grading practices and buy-in from all of the stakeholders. Grading, like many educational practices, is one of those things that carries on “the way we’ve always done it” because people feel more comfortable when there are discrete labels.

Unfortunately, learning is a deeply nuanced experience, different for every person and therefore imposing labels or grades on learning prematurely can dramatically influence the trajectory of future growth. Although it may be a little uncomfortable to abandon systems that have been in place forever, it is essential if we want students to prioritize learning over compliance.

Grades are often an outgrowth of teacher, school, or community expectations meant to communicate learning and rank students. Too often, however, grades do little more than track compliance, rewarding those who do what they are told and punishing those who refuse to. Some of the best and brightest learners I have ever worked with weren’t the traditional student. They question curiously and are eager to find their own truths. They don’t just do assignments because I told them to or because it was required, they did them because they felt it was valuable and challenged their thinking.

These students are often not coming after class to beg for points, but rather stay for lunch to have discussions about topics covered in class and the reading they chose to do on their own.

How do we label that learning?

We don’t! We relish in the moments where we see authentic learning happening. We encourage students to be reflective and self-aware. We create environments that ask them to collaborate, not compete with their peers in order to come up with better solutions.

As the world changes, so too must our practices. We need to decide as a group what skills are essential and then we need to work together to foster them in all of our learning spaces, not our separate silos.

Understanding that testing is still a big part of our culture (which I don’t agree with either, but that’s a story for another day), some may argue that we are doing students an injustice by moving away from what the system prizes. If the system is broken, however, we do no one any good to perpetuate its misgivings.

Leaders need to help teachers and families and students understand that we are developing a collaborative working environment that focuses on project based learning, offering opportunities to master problem solving and critical thinking exercises, followed by on-going, meaningful, actionable feedback in order to promote lifelong learning.

Until we take a hard look at our values in education, we will continue to bicker over things that don’t matter as much. It’s time to be bold and make big changes to the larger system, so that all kids can benefit from what education has to offer.

What big changes would you want to tackle first and why? Let’s make change happen.

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