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Recently an EdWeek blog I hadn’t seen before (K-12 Parents and the Public) caught my eye with this: Florida Mom Balks at Son's Honor Roll Recognition.

Based on this story, it reports on a parent, Beth Tillack, who is very upset that her middle schooler ended up on the honor roll after she had taken away his iPod and computer time for having received a C and D.  Turns out those grades were averaged with the 4 A’s he had also received, qualifying him.

“I am furious and appalled," Tillack wrote to Superintendent Kurt S. Browning, according to the (original) article. "Talk about minimum standards! So now instead of losing privileges and trying harder, he ... thinks he has done enough. I am so shocked."

The school responded and is working on a new Honor Roll calculation to include only those with all A’s or A’s and B’s.  Both the story and the blog went on to talk about grades and student motivation and changes in how those are being approached.

In the paradigm of grades and honor rolls, Beth Tillack has a point that including Cs and Ds may not be the best way to calculate Honor Roll inclusion.

But my question is, why have grades and honor rolls at all?

Read on.

First, confession.  My buttons were getting pushed a bit here.  Through my experiences as a parent I shifted into a paradigm that views learning and young people very differently.  I am frustrated with these stories of a system that I see segregating young people by grade levels, standardizing curriculum and teaching to the tests, forcing young people to attend schools and classes with no input from them, controlling their every move in school, ranking them and putting them into competition with each other.

At the same time, I know that most parents simply want what they think is best for their young person, that they want them to grow up with an education, to be able to be successful at what they choose to do, to get a good job and have the means to support themselves well.  I want them to be able to be self-directed learners, to be able to choose and be successful at what they want to do and to be happy.   I think we share a lot of the same goals as parents.

What is frustrating is that I now recognize and disagree with most of the underlying assumptions about achieving those goals, both through the school system and in how we view the nature of learning and young people.

After all, Ms. Tillack went on to say "The overall thing is, if a child knows they can do the minimum and get by, what kind of message does that send about the other areas in their life?"

What kinds of assumptions are going on here?  What message are we sending ourselves about young people and learning? How about some of these:

Learning is separate from life.
It is hard and something we naturally don't want to do.
It must be taught by an expert to people who resist it.
People are naturally lazy.
Young people will always choose the easiest way out if not compelled against their will to do otherwise.

Holding those assumptions leads to a system for learning that is based on rewards and punishment, on control and competition, on external evaluation.  How do we know these assumptions are true?  

I think it likely that what you see is what you get…that in holding these unexamined assumptions and treating young people accordingly a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy gets going.  You often create (without thinking that you do) the very behavior you think is natural and undesirable.  For a lot of young people, forcing them to learn in a way that is not natural to them turns off their curiosity, motivation and passion.  Then you really have to force them (taking away “privileges”, etc.) and it looks like they are lazy.

I have seen a quite different world. One where the assumptions are that we are born natural learners, that we are driven and inherently compelled to learn or we wouldn't survive as a species, that young people naturally are curious about what it means to become an adult and how to do that, that when in an environment where they have the freedom to explore and to pursue their interests without external punishment and manipulation they flourish and work hard to master what they have set before themselves. In doing that they naturally want to know how they are doing and seek out ways to measure that.

There are websites, blogs and books written and being written about how we can nurture the potential within each young human being through unleashing and supporting their inner desire for learning and mastery.  Alfie Kohn, Peter Gray, John Holt, Wendy Priesnitz are just a few writers contributing to this area. The web is now full of resources for self-directed learning and research on homeschooling, unschooling, democratic free schools, etc.  

A C or a D in a class, far from indicating laziness, is a message from a student that should be taken seriously. If Beth Tillack's son found Civics uninteresting (the class in which he got a D and that he said was uninteresting to him), perhaps it really is uninteresting to him! And perhaps it needs to be interesting to him to deserve his time! The idea that students need to be forced to do things uninteresting to them because they will have to do that later in their lives is to me a sad view of the world and not how learning really works. Yes, you can get compliance through threats and force a student to get an A through doing work they don't want to do and as soon as it's over they will forget it. And what kind of world are you saying you're accepting for your children? One where they will have uninteresting work, overbearing bullying bosses that they will have to grin and bear for the rest of their lives?

What I didn’t understand, and I know most people don’t, is that when people work hard to master something because they really want to, that is when they learn the skills to stay with something through the difficult times and truly learn/create.  I think that’s worth rereading.  I know because even after I explain this, I still have people say, what about when they grow up and have to do something they don’t want to, like for a boss, or as a parent.  When forced to do things, we learn to comply (with varying degrees of related emotions).  When mastering something difficult because we want to, we learn skills, we internalize the experience of the successful outcome through the hard work we freely chose to do and we then know to apply that later, when we choose to, because we have learned ourselves, through our own experience that we can get through the hard stuff.

Both my now young adult kids left school, one in eighth grade and one after ninth grade, to learn at their own direction.  It takes about a year to deprogram, to begin to trust that you are truly responsible for your own learning (not forced to be “responsible” under threat of “consequence”), to get deeply bored and realize it is up to you to take the next steps out of that, not because you have to or else, but because it is in our nature to want to be engaged and involved when we are supported in doing that and feel confident that we can.

It wasn’t easy at first for any of us.  We all had to learn to trust.  But it worked.  We were there for them as they began to want to engage, there to talk, to help if asked, to love unconditionally.  It was scary there for a while.  But now they are both responsible, living on their own, with relationships and friends and employment and paying their bills and working on their dreams.  Not that it’s all roses with this economy and their creative desires, but they are hopeful, and skilled.

I get frustrated too by what I hear as the purpose of education: to make our citizens competitive in the global economy.  Of course we want our young people to be able to take care of themselves; there is very real fear as we have gone through the Great Recession and are in the midst of such a growing inequality gap.  But again, the assumptions that we have to literally force students to study what they are told and to be in institutions where the what, where, why and how are dictated without their input seems to me to be counterproductive to the stated goal.  (By the way, another goal is to produce creative, innovative thinkers and doers.  How the heck we think we can achieve that when students have no freedom to truly create, let alone innovate, is beyond me!)

To me, the bottom line goal for young people should be fulfilling their unique potential.  It is through learning who they really are, what their talents, aptitudes and gifts are, having true ownership of that process with the resources and support to develop and express them that young people will most be able to contribute to their world (a world, by the way, that will be very different than ours) which will naturally enhance it and themselves.  

So rather than grades and honor rolls, punishment and rewards, compulsory schooling, it’s time we tried trust, respect and unconditional love coupled with equitable resources and opportunities.  It’s all there in front of us.  Ms. Tillack’s son let us know.  We just have to pay attention.

Originally posted to reconnected on Sun Dec 08, 2013 at 05:00 AM PST.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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