“Yo, Cohen, can I get my packet?”
“Just give me a project, Cohen.”
These three quotes are just a few examples of requests made by students over the past year and a half of my teaching career. Unfortunately, my experience thus far has trained me to hate these phrases more often than not. To me, they place the focus of school entirely on the work instead of the learning.
The context in which they were stated is very nuanced so it is important to pay attention to which student is making the request. For the consistently motivated student who was sick or out for a few days, I can generally point him/her in the right direction and they can catch up by communicating with their classmates and an occasional meeting with me. The less motivated student will have a very tough time understanding what is going on and will repeatedly ask me for some way of “making up” the work s/he missed without having to learn the material.
With that problem in mind I have been mulling over a very important pedagogical question: “When and how does learning take place for different students?” For some, all they need is a problem set and they become familiar with the concept and move on. For others, they need guided instruction with an interactive activity and manipulatives. It is my belief that the conversations held between these activities, problem sets, or otherwise are the crux of learning. Providing a discussion to summarize the concepts investigated, practiced, or solved will help create the neuron connections necessary for a student to learn.
That being said, when a student approaches me and asks for a packet, virtual notebook, worksheet, etc I have become somewhat jaded and assume they simply want the “credit” for completing the work, without having learned anything. Somewhere in their educational history, many students learn how to “play school” well enough without actually gaining knowledge and the practice I am describing just continues that game.
I am by no means saying that at certain times late assignments or “make up” work should not be accepted. Oftentimes students just get overwhelmed by their lives and need a bit more time. I just think we need to ensure that assignments are meaningful even if not completed by the official deadline. It is a difficult proposition but with enough thought I believe we can create a system where any “work” that is completed can still be useful for gaining knowledge and understanding on any subject.
One method being used by some schools in Philadelphia (small shout out to my friend Erin at Science Leadership Academy) and across the globe is reducing the emphasis on the official grade and re-emphasizing the individual skills or objective a student has mastered. For example, instead of providing a concrete grade on a test where students must create tables of value and graph points I could break those skills down and provide a few different methods for my student to show that s/he has mastered that skill. Then I would provide them with feedback on individual skills (plots points correctly, can make lines of best fit, etc.) in the form of a table, demonstrating that they have mastered the skill or not. If they have not, they must display their understanding sometime else in order to gain credit for a particular unit of study.
I recognize that there are many logistical questions for a system like this in Philadelphia. How will colleges look at grades if there are these tables? How will our online grading system match up with the skill sets mastered? I don’t have the answers to all these questions. What I do know is that we don’t want a system to perpetuate that allows students to “work” towards a diploma instead of “learning” towards one.