What thoughts, faces, or personalities come to mind when you hear “Old-School”? For me, it’s the science teacher who woke slumbering students with the crack of a yardstick; The quintessential ex-military gym teacher who wore both his socks and shorts really high, carried a clipboard, and routinely got up in the grill of the class clown; The instructor who threatened to punch a classmate in the mouth for his wise-guy comments (the kid was funny, but probably would have deserved it..). Over the course of my career as a teacher, and especially when I was a rookie, I recall wounding plenty of student feelings and losing my cool on more than one occasion. Basically, I know I’ve done the very things I once considered “old school” in my former teachers. It makes me wonder what my students will remember about me!
Certainly, “old-school” will never be attached to this educator…or will it?
As much as we’d like to think education these days is different, I believe there are many old-school-isms still being practiced in modern schools. We may not be as stern as in the old days, but inadvertently, we continue to employ old-school methods simply by reverting either to what is easiest for us or to what was done to us. In other words, we tend to fall back on our ease or our experience. A few quick examples:
- Standing on the line at recess
- Tests and exams
- Assigning homework
- Extra credit
- Silence and straight lines in the hallways
Let me point out that I am not suggesting we eradicate everything that is “old-school” or that every established procedure is inherently wicked because it’s old. What I am suggesting is that we give more original thought to the effects of what we do every day. That we refuse to yield to what I call the “11th Commandment of Teaching”: Do Unto Others As Was Done Unto You!
One rather obvious point needs to be made here: Times and methods can and should change. The playbook of teaching needs to be purged from time to time, and ineffective cling-ons should be dismantled and stowed. Education (and kids) today are just plain different. Embrace it or resent it, but it can’t be ignored. The real question is how much does this fact actually affect our style of teaching on a daily basis?
I really believe most educators would agree with these two basic truisms:
- Great educators are driven by what is best for learners not what is best for themselves. Educators are busy people, but the great ones choose to focus on how to improve learning, even at the expense of their own time and efficiency.
- Great educators desire to give learners the best learning experiences, not just their experiences. Educators bring their own set of memories and experiences to their work, but the great ones are willing to question whether those are still the best vehicles for learning right now.
Let’s get dreamy and idealistic for a just second and recall why we stay in the business of education in the first place (Christian education and it’s philosophy aside for just a moment). While it may not be the primary reason, I think most people I know would say something to the effect of “inspiring children to be life-long learners”, or something similar. I’ll call this “Coddling Curiosity” for the time being. It’s the desire to interest kids in all that God allows us to know; To nurture their natural curiosity; To enrich their lives with thinking outside of themselves. This is a lofty, inspiring goal, but can I suggest a second “noble” goal of great teaching? Providing great feedback. Now, I realize that doesn’t sound very exciting, but this area is perhaps the most important yet most overlooked aspect of great teaching. Bear with me.
Chances are that if you’re looking to improve your teaching, you’ll head straight for content or delivery.
In other words, we all tend to look for new things to teach or more exciting ways to teach them. This is absolutely fine, and with today’s technology and curriculum variety, we certainly have a myriad of resources to draw from. However, the real value a teacher brings to the classroom is providing what books, technology, and video lectures cannot: Authentic, human feedback. Students just plain need to know how they are doing. Are they measuring up? Are they getting it? Have they learned what the teacher taught? It is rather unfortunate that this area in which we are so valuable gets so little attention when we seek to improve our teaching.
To bring this to a head, my point is that if there is any place in which we are guilty of reverting to what’s easy, experienced, or “old school”, it’s probably going to be one to which we give little critical thought. It’s going to be in the area of assessment and feedback.
Assessment is simply our best attempt to measure what has been learned.
That sounds simple, and it is, but we actually mess this up quite frequently. Our aim ought to be to measure purely what has been learned. However, unless we are aware of how some of our common assessment methods actually “wound” our learners, we increase the potential to do them some harm. With this in mind, I’ve developed several strategies over the past few years to measure learning more purely. In doing so, I realized that several of the techniques I was attempting to avoid were old-school ideas I was simply reverting to in my ease or experience. So here is my short list of seven “old-school-isms” I decided needed to go:
I stopped grading everything.
The emphasis here is important. I do not mean I no longer graded any assignments but that I chose to relieve the pressure of grading all of them. We diminish the enjoyment of learning by conditioning children to expect a number be attached to everything. Use variety to reinforce learning but do not feel obligated to give a grade for it. Use lots of differentiation, but don’t water down what’s been learned by giving grades for what’s been done. I cut out participation grades, completion grades, and most homework grades and found that both learning and fun increased dramatically. To boot, grades were less inflated and became a more pure measurement of what had actually been learned.
I stopped handing out extras.
From the time students are very young, we begin giving them external motivators for things they are already inclined to enjoy: Gold stars for good coloring, candy for writing numbers and letters, extra praise for spelling words correctly. We send them a message: “Stop doing the things you like just because you like them!” I don’t mean to cut out all the fun, but I simply want to make this point: External motivators crowd out natural drive. Fast forward to middle school and high school where the motivators become bonus questions and extra credit assignments. What could be more insulting to a learner than to set the bar high and then give him or her a trampoline to reach it? The result is a diluted grading system and false feedback on what has actually been learned.
I stopped testing what I wasn’t teaching.
If assessment is measuring what has been learned in my class as purely as possible, then this would necessarily exclude things that weren’t learned in my class, right? An easy example is not grading spelling on a science test. Is spelling important? Of course. But did I teach spelling or did I teach science? Here’s a harder example: “Fast thinking” on an Algebra test. Is this “fast thinking” class, or is this Algebra class? So, when I give a massive number of questions on my test and defy anyone to finish it within the hour, am I reverting to what was done to me, or what is best for my learners? Am I trying to separate the men from the boys, or am I measuring what my students actually learned? Grading “creativity” on class projects ended. Assessing “effort” on a group activity stopped. If I didn’t teach it, I didn’t test it.
I stopped grading pre-existing conditions.
Our students have many abilities that separate them before they ever walk into our classrooms. How unfair it would be to assign grades based on things about them over which I have no control or little influence. Some kids are taller than others. Some students just memorize better than others. One thinks very quickly while another is a plodder. Creativity and attention to detail come naturally to some and are off the radar of others. Let those God-given abilities stand alone, and let each individual derive enjoyment from what he or she is good at. But let’s keep it at that.
I stopped trying to cover up my bad teaching.
Let’s face it: Bad grades make teachers look bad. So, our natural tendency is to do something to get grades up, and the sooner the better! I determined to invest more effort in improving my bad teaching instead of wasting class time artificially boosting bad grades. I stopped giving “open-book” tests. Why would a teacher give those? So they can’t be blamed when students do poorly! But think about what is really being measured…the ability to find answers quickly! I also cut out going over tests in class after they had been graded. Sure, I let the students see their grade, but we didn’t waste time re-hashing all their mistakes as they glossed over and lost interest. I never wanted to waste time on water under the bridge when we could be learning new things. Adjust. Teach better. Move on. An old-school teacher might say, “But they need to know this for the final exam!” My response: “You’re still giving final exams…?”
I stopped confusing behavior with learning.
First of all, let’s agree that if assessment is going to be a pure measure of what was learned, then it cannot be mixed with other things. To put it another way, grades should reflect what was learned, not what was done. This is as true for student behavior as it is for class variety. None of us would give a child an “F” for throwing a paper airplane or an “A” for bringing us an apple. However, we do grade behavior in more subtle ways: We give higher grades for “working hard”; We give completion grades for assignments we don’t have time to grade; We take off points for late work. Good, bad, or neutral, these are all behaviors, not learning. I quit giving students “zeros” for not turning in assignments. Why? Because a zero indicates that no learning has taken place, and this is simply not true. I determined I would let the discipline system handle laziness and I would measure learning. Keep assessment pure.
I stopped making memory a heavyweight.
The reality of our world is that education for information is obsolete. This doesn’t mean kids shouldn’t memorize anything anymore, but it does mean we need to seriously question memorization in a Google world. Our system of education developed during a time of information scarcity, when libraries & books were rare and facts were the markings of the well-educated. Information is at our student’s fingertips, and we can’t ignore that. Giving heavier weight to memorization is also to neglect what is possible on the other end of the thinking spectrum. Here’s an example: Calculators. To insist on middle school or high school students doing arithmetic by hand is to waste their minds. How much more math could they learn if we could “speed up” the arithmetic processes along the way? This flies in the face of old-school thinking, but we must continue to ask “What is really best for the student?” Here’s another tip: Allow “terms” tests (or other memory portions) to be taken multiple times during a unit, but limit that portion to 25% of the final test grade. This accomplishes the goal of getting kids to learn important facts but also keeps the memory portion in its place. The chapter test can then focus on higher-order questions that measure learning better. More work for the teacher? Yes. Better learning for the students? Absolutely.
Is your teaching something like mine: Driven by ease or experience? Let’s begin to realize how many “old-school-isms” there are in our teaching that need to be re-thought–Common practices in feedback and assessment that actually do more to hurt learning than help it. Refuse to merely do what was done unto you, question the always-done-it-this-way practices of our craft, consider that some methods just need to go, and decide to do your part to Knock Them Off!
This article is based on one of my workshop sessions by the same title.