Helping students excel

I’ve found myself haunted by something Martha said to me not long ago.  It was one of those things that when I first heard it, I thought “Yes, that’s a nice idea.” But then the idea wouldn’t let go as its profundity grew in my perception.

What if faculty stopped thinking of their job as teaching,  and started thinking of their job as helping students excel?

What if faculty committed to doing this for every student, no matter each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses?  What would it mean to pledge this to even the weakest students?  Would it change the way we think about our students?  Would it change the amount of respect we have for them?  Would it change the way we act towards them?   Most importantly, how would our students respond?

It wouldn’t surprise me if students perceive school as a series of hurdles to be overcome, where the hurdles have no redeeming qualities (such as learning); rather, they are manifestations of teachers’ and administrators’ efforts to prevent them from succeeding, from getting a “good” grade, or from graduating.  After all, the grade is the thing.  To be honest, I think that’s how some faculty and administrators approach grading.  Not that they try to prevent students from succeeding, but we have to “maintain standards” after all.  Everyone can’t earn an A, or what would an A mean?

In my view, the primary responsibility of a teacher shouldn’t be grading, shouldn’t be filtering the good/worthy students out from the poor ones.  Our primary responsibility should be to help students learn from wherever they start to the most they can achieve.  Of course, this requires that we think of students as individuals.  It also requires that we respect each student as a serious learner, even while recognizing that not everyone is.  If we treat each student as serious, we will get more serious students.  If we don’t, we will reinforce the perception that school is a game.

When we grade, we tend to ‘take away’ points when students fail to demonstrate what we expect to see in a perfect paper.  How often do we recognize and credit what students have done right, instead of judging their work (and indeed them) on the basis of where they’ve fallen short?   This isn’t mere semantics.  School shouldn’t be perceived primarily as a winnowing out process, where the emphasis is on how many people failed to make the cut where the cut is defined as excellence.   Oh, and when you make the cut you can stop learning!

I think the mindset that defines success in terms of grades is self-defeating.  It’s wrong-headed.  It implies that excellence is limited to the select few who demonstrate the highest scores on tests, papers and other assessment instruments.  But excel has a broader meeting as a verb.  It means “to do or be better than some standard.”  Can’t the standard be where one starts?  When the parents of a child who’s stuck in school, finds a teacher who engages the child and ignites their learning, isn’t it appropriate to describe the child as excelling?

As Clay Shirky says in Here Comes Everybody,

The goal of getting better at something is different from the goal of being good at it; there is a pleasure in improving your abilities even if that doesn’t translate into absolute perfection.

Every student can’t be perfect, but every student can be better.  Shouldn’t that be our goal as teachers?

The students at my school have all excelled in the limited traditional sense of getting good grades in high school.  But many of them have not had to work very hard (some of them have never learned how to work), getting by instead on their intelligence.  A number have never found their studies engaging, and some have never taken their studies very seriously.

Higher education should be a radically different experience than 13th grade, focusing on discovery and learning rather than grades and certification.  How do we make higher education what it ought to be?  How do we ignite a passion for learning in our students?  Changing the perception of our job as teachers may be a first step.

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1 Response to Helping students excel

  1. Angela Pitts says:

    The entire architecture of grading in institutions of education tends to support competition rather than self-discovery and success. I agree wholeheartedly. A provocative, but worthy question. Thanks Steve and Martha!

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