During our weekly SSR (Sustained Silent Reading) period on Tuesday, I read the chapter in Greta Nagel's book The Tao of Teaching with the above title. Then I re-read it. Then I re-re-read it. Then I re-re-re-read it. And then I sat and thought about it. Here's the part that gave me pause: "In schools where the wealthy are in power, one often finds contests. Sometimes the contests are part of the explicit school culture: academic decathlons, spelling bees, top scores, best grades. Sometimes the contests are implicit: who wears the best clothes or has been to the best places, or who can give the best parties. In the Tao students who are compared with themselves and not with one another can be saved the dissension of competition. "Allow students to enter into the process of measuring their own growth. Honor other values over wealth to help free your children and yourself to pursue a calm life together."
OK, just a few thoughts. I teach in an independent school and have taught in them my whole career. And in most independent schools, the wealthy are in power. I'm not against spelling bees and academic awards, but I have definitely seen the mania for top grades suck the life out of learning. When I taught in Ontario, where students received number grades, there was often intense competition over grades to the hundredth of a percentage point. First, are we as teachers really confident that we can measure a student's learning to that degree of accuracy? And secondly, why is learning a sport, with winners and losers? Nagel goes on to use "Joe", a high school teacher, as an illustration of this principle of the Tao in action. He has his students self-assess on all their major projects. He also assesses them, but does not initially tell them what he "gave them." In the rare instances when there is disagreement, he negotiates the grade with them. I can hear the shrieks of dismay and disapproval from my fellow teachers. And truthfully, there's a part of me that also shrieks. But there's a larger part of me that believes that most students would respond positively to this approach and would start to OWN their own learning and growth. As opposed to the way it is now, when teachers "give" them a grade. Even the language is telling. I believe that most students will live up (or down) to our expectations. I've seen it happen so many times -- teachers expect students to do poorly, be slackers, thoughtless, etc. And that's what the students are, leading to the inevitable "kids today" complaints. But how much of that is a self-created reality?