People kept asking me what I would do to improve things. And I said that if I could make one change, I would get rid of grades.
Cathy N. Davidson has been writing about her experiments in education for years (for example here and here and here). She brings to her new book deep understanding of the context, history, successes, and shortcomings of the dominant forms of higher education--college--and highlights several dozen approaches that are more successful. These are more appropriate, she argues, than the conventional forms, which have not changed in more than a hundred years. Conventional colleges have outlived their initial purposes, which were to train managers in a newly industrializing and urbanizing society, when books were scarce and simply ingesting information was challenging enough. They selected only top students and churned them through a disciplinary mill, certified by authorities.
That’s not what we need now.
Davidson provides inspiring and hopeful examples of better forms of education, going far beyond what are now ubiquitous “STEM” or “STEAM” or “digital humanities” or “interdisciplinary” innovations (and rejecting MOOCs entirely). The vision is radical.
Jacques Dubochet won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry this week. He is apparently a charming, amusing man, and I'm sure he's quite good at Chemistry.
But one thing caught my eye:
On his CV, which is featured on Quartz, he gives an entry for his conception by his "optimistic parents."
And he also writes:
First official dyslexic in the canton of Vaud – this permitted being bad at everything … and to understand those with difficulties.
So. He was "bad at everything."
Somehow in his family, in his school, with his own grit and determination--or possibly as a result of his sense that he had nothing to lose, that risks were fine, because he was ALREADY bad--he became a creative chemist. And he lived long enough to see his creativity come into fruition, and be recognized.
I applaud him.
But I ache for all those students, the dyslexics and the "bad students," who are less fortunate, and are sent spiraling down to the depths, rather than liberated, by their own difference from others.
Being different has its perils, usually. And occasionally its rewards.
(H/T Mark Goodale at Lausanne for alerting me to this.)
A group of elite private high schools has proposed posting a transcript of "mastery" instead of grades. Sounds great! But I fear that if there is a list of “competencies” and “skills” that elite students achieve, there will be summer boot camps and counselors advising them on how to raise their “competencies” so that their non-transcript will still stand out.
It will still be a game, but a non-numeric game.
Living and Learning with Risk: Against Rubrics and Grades. How "Ungrading" Allowed My Students to Try Some New Things
I gave my students freedom to write (present) what they learned however they wanted. They were terrified; how could they get an A without a rubric??--and then they reveled in it. We took risks together, and learned together.
Here is a 3-minute movie I made, with the incredible assistance of undergraduates Taylor Still and Anne Visser, posted on YouTube, intended to introduce a series of other short films and podcasts.
*NOTE: Views are my own and are not the official positions of the University of Notre Dame.
Parents of college students: When you see your kids at Thanksgiving, don’t ask them how they are doing (in terms of grades). Ask them what they’ve learned. Ask what they have enjoyed. Ask what is magical, transformative, even useful.
And students: Don’t play for praise. Don’t learn for me.
Sink in, really be there, and forget about your teachers. Forget about me.
Play, learn, climb the log for yourself.
Susan D. Blum
Who doesn't think there is something wrong with education? Anthropology has a lot to offer when we think about how to raise up our young--in often unexpected ways! Join me as my thinking about higher education unfolds.
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