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.
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.
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.
Gym class is good for you. Vegetables are good for you (and me). It's prudent to know how to avoid credit card fraud. Everyone should know about climate change. We live in a diverse world so we need to learn about cultural diversity. But 1) random disconnected bits of knowledge do not make a person live a meaningful life and 2) when we force students to do something, even when it is good for them, they often try to avoid it or use the minimal energy possible.
Professor Marjorie Faulstich Orellana of UCLA suggested that there is a “‘Love’ Revolution” underway in education as reaction against the punitive and judgment-drenched testing, measuring, accountability tide. One of the mysterious, frustrating things about teaching in college is that we rarely admit that we do it out of love.
Strategies are the main learning outcome of all those years of school. Anyone who flunks strategy basically flunks school.
School Is War, Prison, Factory, Machine, Business, Game, Life….And Other Metaphors: recommending Permaculture
If metaphors organize our thinking and if there is no genuinely neutral way of speaking about anything, then it is worth looking into the dominant metaphors used.
School is a domain that has been referred to in ways that help and in ways that harm. I would like to propose an old-made-new-again metaphor, The Garden, that might help, but this time with a century of ecological knowledge included. I suggest education as permaculture.
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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