Moving from “Why” to “Will This Be on the Test?” – Keeping the Curiosity Alive

As CSD gets deeper and deeper into our five year accreditation renewal process, we have been spending significant time, both as an admin team and also as a school, reflecting on best practices in education, more specifically on how our current CSD practices impact the students we serve.  This type of deep reflection affords us the opportunity to revisit our school’s mission and vision and determine our strengths as well as our areas for growth.  It also begs us to answer the question, “Why are we doing what we are doing?”  This morning during a CSD Lottery Open House, we alluded to something Dr. Boyer once said in one of his very eloquent public speeches.  He was referring to the importance of intrinsic motivation and commented that sadly in our schools, students often shift from asking “Why?” to asking “Will this be on the test?” somewhere around the fourth grade.  The first time I heard this it stopped me in my tracks, partly because it made me so sad and partly because I knew from my own personal experiences as an educator that it was true.  So my response to Dr. Boyer’s observation is the most obvious one – “Why?”

Research clearly shows us some of the damaging effects of grading on learning which is precisely why CSD delays the use of traditional letter grades until students are emotionally and developmentally ready to use them with their intended effect.  But even then, we have to constantly keep ourselves (and our students) grounded in the possible negative effects.

According to decades of research and as outlined in an essay by Alfie Kohn entitled, The Case Against Grades, he points out the following:

  • Grades tend to diminish interest in whatever students are learning. To Dr. Boyer’s point, grades sometimes cause kids (and adults) to shift their focus from the why’s and how’s of the content to the end outcome or judgment otherwise stated as… Will this be on the test?
  • Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Because the focus becomes solely about the outcome or the grade, students don’t want to gamble.  They want the A!  So when we impose this restriction upon them, we more or less are encouraging students to take the “safe” path.  We certainly aren’t encouraging them to think outside of the box or take a risk because that isn’t a “sure thing” and could result in failure.  Yikes!  And we all know what failure looks like when it comes to traditional letter grades.  Wait for it – F!
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of student thinking. Back to Dr. Boyer’s point, grades often back students into a “one answer is right” corner, thereby limiting innovative thinking and eliminating creative possibilities from the menu.

Having said that, when students reach a certain level of maturity, we feel it is acceptable to introduce traditional grading systems, especially when the college application process is a reality of life.  As with all things, we believe the key is balance.  Our primary task is to establish a strong love for learning before robbing kids of the “whys” by imposing the “will it be on the test” mentality.  For the most part at CSD, our plan has paid off.

So…as a parent, you may be wondering what your part is in this developing this mindset within your child(ren)?  Make no bones about it, intrinsic motivation can be tricky!  While it is often much easier to get compliance with extrinsic motivators, keep in mind that compliance is not the goal.  Creating lifelong learners is the goal.  So in order to do that, parents can employ a few simple strategies at home:

  • When talking to your child about school, try to remain focused on the process more than on the outcome. Be careful how you talk to your child about school. Rather than asking asking “How did you do?”, replace it with “What did you learn?” instead.  That keeps the focus on the learning, not solely on the performance.
  • As we all know, mistakes are our best teachers. Therefore, our teachers intentionally design their classes, units, assessments, and assignments with that in mind.  Help ingrain in your child’s mind that we should embrace mistakes as our friends that eventually pave the way to mastery.  No one is expected to know everything or do everything perfectly the first time!  It takes practice and messing up (numerous times) before really mastering an objective.
  • Encourage your child to take risks and to explore their out-of-the-box, innovative thinking. Sometimes when we are too focused on pleasing other people (such as parents, teachers, college admissions, etc…), we inadvertently operate with blinders on.  We tend to take the safe route because we do not want to disappoint others.  But as we also know, some of the world’s best discoveries and inventions of our time have come about because of people throwing caution to wind and having the courage to try something new.  So while we never want to discount the importance of hard work and preparation, we also don’t want to lock our kids into a rigid, narrow, or “safe” way of always thinking.

So in closing, we want to thank you for partnering with us in the education of these wonderful young people.  The world of tomorrow needs thinkers, problem-solvers, communicators, and innovators, and with your help at home, we are confident that’s what we are creating. And the best part is knowing that when it is all said and done, we hopefully won’t have to dangle the infamous, illusive carrot over their heads to get results.  Because of the education we’re giving them today, they will be equipped not only with the knowledge, mindset, and grit needed to be successful, but also with the strength of heart and spirit to go out into the world and make it a better place for all.

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