More realistically

Not having grades at all would be good for being radical, “making a statement” and all, but actually grades do serve one productive role in our education system. Grades are a very good system for allocating college scholarships to the students who work the hardest for them. This is a valuable function that helps provide economic opportunities to the most deserving students. (Grades are probably the part of college applications least affected by a students’ socioeconomic background) When I assign grades, though, I will strive to follow the advice Alfie Kohn gives in his book What Does It Mean to be Well-Educated?

“Finally, there is the question of what classroom teachers can do while grades continue to be required. The short answer is that they should do everything within their power to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible. Helping students forget about grades is the single best piece of advice for those who want to create a learning-oriented classroom.
“When I was teaching high school, I did a lot of things I now regret. But one policy that still seems sensible to me was saying to students on the first day of class that, while I was compelled to give them a grade at the end of the term, I could not in good conscience ever put a letter or number on anything they did during the term—and I would not do so. I would, however, write a comment—or, better, sit down and talk with them—as often as possible to give them feedback.”  – pg. 85

Teaching a math or physics class with the current emphasis on standardized tests, I think I will have to “put a letter or number” on some of the work students do. However, I wouldn’t have to count that letter or number toward the students’ final grade. (Maybe separate the class into a “standardized testing” part, and a “learning the actual subject” part, and just grade based on the “learning the subject”). I believe Alfie’s advice is excellent, for me, at least.

Rather than just looking at the work a student has done (aka whether or not they do what you tell them to do), this system gets teachers to consider students’ motivations in assigning grades (Students who genuinely cared about the subject would be deservedly rewarded). Admittedly, this non-objective grading system could become extremely unfair, so I’ll have to make sure I develop a trusting relationship with each student in order to assign them a fair grade. Luckily, developing trust with students is exactly what I think teaching should be about. 🙂

Just as a last thought, I doubt I would give grades below a B-. In other words, for a student that most teachers would give a C or D, I’ll probably bump them up to a B-. We need grades to differentiate the A students from everybody else, but other than that, I think any further ranking of students in high school is pretty useless, and probably does more harm than good. (Who cares whether or not a future office clerk can do geometry, or whether a future engineer reads Shakespeare?)


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First day of class

My first day of class, I’m just gonna flat out tell my students “I don’t think we’ll really need to use grades any this semester.  I trust enough in my ability to teach and in y’all’s desire to learn, that we’ll be fine without them.  This way, none of us will have to worry any about them, and we’ll be able to focus on getting to know eachother, learning as a group, supporting eachother and all. 

           “I’d like to point out that I don’t think this necessarily makes this an ‘easy’ class.  I want to challenge each of you, and hold high expectations for what y’all can accomplish.  ‘No grades’ does not mean ‘no feedback’.  I plan on asking questions, proposing problems, suggesting projects or activities throughout the semester, and will always try to be responsive to each of you at an individual level.”


I’m pretty sure I can pull this off successfully in a high school physics or math class.  If this could work in a high school physics class, it could work in any K-12 classroom, right?  Wouldn’t this create a better learning environment for everyone?

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Neil Postman – Philosophy of Education

I’ve just discovered the work of Neil Postman, and I love this guy. I find his writing to be clear and written with conviction. It seems to me he had a clear vision of what our society needed to have written about education, and he filled the need. Anyway, if anyone loves this writing as much as I do, leave a comment or let me know!

The book I’m quoting from, The End of Education was written in 1995.

Postman’s main hypothesis is that the most important function of schools is controlling what cultural narratives are taught to students, to the culture’s youth. I’ll let his writing explain:

Pg. 5 – “I use the word narrative as a synonym for god, with a small g. I know it is risky to do so, not only because the word god, having an aura of sacredness, is not to be used lightly, but also because it calls to mind a fixed figure or image. But it is the purpose of such figures or images to direct one’s mind to an idea and, more to my point, to a story—not any kind of story, but one that tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that constructs ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and, above all, gives a sense of continuity and purpose.”

Pg. 13 – “There was a time when American culture knew what schools were for because it offered fully functioning, multiple narratives for its people to embrace. There was, for example, the great story of democracy, which the American artist Ben Shahn once proclaimed ‘the most appealing idea that the world has yet known.’ Alexis de Tocqueville called it ‘the principle of civic participation.’ Gunmar Myrdal encapsulated the idea in the phrase ‘The American Creed,’ which he judged to be the most explicitly articulated system of general ideals of any country in the West. The first chapter of the story opens with ‘In the beginning, there was a revolution.’ As the story unfolds, there arise sacred words such as ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people.’ Because he helped to write the story, Thomas Jefferson, the Moses of the great democracy-god, knew what schools were for—to ensure that citizens would know when and how to protect their liberty. This is a man who produced an essay that could have cost him his life, and that included the words: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ It would not have come easily to the mind of such a man, as it does to political leaders today, that the young should be taught to read exclusively for the purpose of increasing their economic productivity. Jefferson had a more profound god to serve.

“As did Emma Lazarus, whose poem celebrates another once-powerful American narrative. ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ she wrote. Where else, save the great narrative of Jesus, can one find a story that so ennobles the huddled masses? Here, America is portrayed as the great melting pot. Such a story answers many profound questions, including, What are schools for? Schools are to fashion Americans out of the wretched refuse of teeming shores. Schools are to provide the lost and lonely with a common attachment to America’s history and future, to America’s sacred symbols, to its promise of freedom. The schools are, in a word, the affirmative answer to the question, Can a coherent, stable, unified culture be created out of people of diverse traditions, languages, and religions?

pg. 27 – “The truth is that school cannot exist without some reason for its being, and in fact there are several gods our students are presently asked to serve.

“As it happens, the first narrative consists of such an uninspiring set of assumptions that it is hardly noticed as a narrative at all. But we may count it as one, largely because so many believe it to be the preeminent reason for schooling. It may properly go by the name of the god of Economic Utility. As its name suggests, it is a passionless god, cold and severe. But it makes a promise, and not a trivial one. Addressing the young, it offers and covenant of sorts with them: If you will pay attention in school, and do your homework, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done. Its driving idea is that the purpose of schooling is to prepare children for competent entry into the economic life of a community. It follows from this that any school activity not designed to further this end is seen as a frill or an ornament—which is to say, a waste of valuable time.

Haha, I love the way he says that “school offering a covenant to the youth.” I’m sure that’s exactly how I felt through high school and the beginning of college: “I have to do as I’m expected to get a ‘well-paying job.'” Not that getting a well-paying job is bad; the problem was that this attitude automatically overrode any consideration for whether I would enjoy or be passionate about my career.

What I’ve quoted so far from the book is just the tip of the iceberg. Read on for Postman’s explanation of the full extent of the danger of our culture’s current narrative gods. In a future post, maybe I’ll cover Postman’s proposed “alternate narratives” we should strive to teach, or his other book that I love, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, written 26 years earlier in 1969.

Pg. 32 – “Yet it must be admitted that the President and all his men were cheered, and cheered by educators, for placing the god of Economic Utility before all others. One may well wonder, then, why this god has so much strength, why the preparation for making a living, which is well served by any decent education, should be assigned a metaphysical position of such high station. I believe the reason is that the god of Economic Utility is coupled with another god, one with a smiling face and one that provides an answer to the question, If I get a good job, then what?

“I refer here to the god of Consumership, whose basic moral axiom is expressed in the slogan “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins”—that is to say, goodness inheres in those who buy things; evil in those who do not. The similarity between this god and the god of Economic Utility is obvious, but with this difference: The latter postulates that you are what you do for a living; the former that you are what you accumulate.

“Devotion to the god of Consumership serves easily as the metaphysical basis of schooling because it is urged on the young early in their lives, long before they get to school—in fact, as soon as they are exposed to the powerful teachings of the advertising industry. In America, for example, the preeminent advertising medium is television, and television viewing usually begins at age eighteen months, getting serious by age three. This is the age at which children begin to ask for products they see advertised on television and sing the jingles accompanying them. Between the ages of three and eighteen, the average American youngster will see about 500,000 television commercials, which means that the television commercial is the single most substantial source of values to which the young are exposed. On the face of it, the proposition that life is made worthwhile by buying things would not seem to be an especially engrossing message, but two things make it otherwise. The first is that the god of Consumership is intimately connected with still another great narrative, the god of Technology. The second is that the television messages sent about Consumership and technology come largely in the form of religious parables. This second point is not discussed as much as it ought to be, and I pause here to speak of it to emphasize the fact that the god of Consumership has a theology that cannot be taken lightly.

“Of course, not every commercial has religious content. Just as in church the pastor will sometimes call the congregation’s attention to nonecclesiastical matters, so there are television commercials that are entirely secular. Someone has something to sell; you are told what it is, where it can be obtained, and what it costs. Though these ads may be shrill and offensive, no doctrine is advanced and no theology invoked. But the majority of important television commercials take the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, these commercials put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way tot redemption, and a vision of Heaven. This will be obvious to those who have taken to heart the Parable of the Person with Rotten Breath, the Parable of the Stupid Investor, the Parable of the Lost Traveler’s Checks, the Parable of the Man Who Runs Through Airports, or most of the hundreds of others that are part of our youth’s religious education. In these parables, the root cause of evil is technological innocence, a failure to know the particulars of the beneficent accomplishments of industrial progress. This is the primary source of unhappiness, humiliation, and discord in life.”

“Here it is necessary to say that no reasonable argument can be made against educating the young to be consumers or to think about the kinds of employment that might interest them. But when these are elevated to the status of a metaphysical imperative, we are being told that we have reached the end of our wits—even worse, the limit of our wisdom.”

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The goal of education

Consider this quesiton: Is it more important for a six-year-old to be able to read and write, or to be curious and engaged in the world around him?

I would hope that most people, elementary school teachers especially, would prefer the second option. However, our education system has so overemphasized the importance of economic skills, we sacrifice children’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm for learning just so we can get every single six-year-old to read at “grade level.” (something the majority would eagerly learn to do anyway, without the daily homework checks and constant pressure/prodding to get them to read a book.)

I’m currently a junior at Wake Forest University, preparing to become a physics and/or math teacher at a public high school. Although I love learning and teaching both of these subjects, my real passion is to change the way that teachers approach education in this country. What type of goals do we want to teach students to set? Do we want them to set their own goals for their life and work? Or do we want them to accept the goals of others, of their bosses, their society.

Each teacher should address these questions and do their best to teach in a way that reflects their sincere beliefs about education’s importance. As for me, well, here’s an example of how I would want to introduce myself to a class:

“Hey, alright, I’m the new physics teacher. It’d probably make sense for me to begin by talking about what physics is, why we study it and all. And I will get to that, but not yet. I know, as a former student myself, that most days a lot of y’all won’t really want to be in here; that you’ll be watching the clock, waiting for the 45 minutes to be up, I know how that is. Well, I want to go deeper than that; I want this class to be about more than all that.

“So first, I want to talk about why we’re here; what’s the purpose of education. How many of you spend a lot of time thinking about what career you want to do? That’s the kind of question I want you all to be thinking about; not come to a decision about anytime soon, you got plenty of time before needing to do that! But I want you all to feel free to explore different subjects, and hopefully find some areas that really interest you, or that you just love doing. I want you all to know that I’m here primarily for you all, to help explore these questions. I believe it’s important for me, as a teacher, to be interested in what you, as the students, are interested in.

“I’m not gonna stand up here and preach about how important it is for each of you to learn physics. The fact is it’s not very important for a lot of good jobs that are out there. What I will say though is that there is a reason people have been studying the same core subjects, math, science, literature, history, and language, for thousands of years, and the reason is not that you need to know about these things to get a job. The reason is that these subjects contain powerful ways of understanding and thinking about the world and the culture we live in. Really learn math and science, and you’ll learn more than just how stuff works; you’ll learn a precise and logical way of thinking. You’ll learn to analyze situations and to apply logical solutions. Learn about literature, and you’ll learn how to express your thoughts in ways that are meaningful to other people, in ways that are really able to affect them and get them to think about what you’re saying.

“A lot of times these powerful approaches get lost behind an overemphasis on grades, or on the economic applications of a subject. I want to keep the physics’ and also other subjects’ potential to transform your thinking at the front of this class’s agenda.”

Anway, if you’re interested in looking further into this line of thinking, I got a lot of my ideas from Alfie Kohn’s website: Specifically I would recommend the article “From Degrading to De-Grading” about 1/3 of the way down the page, as a good article to start on.

I just started this blog when I realized I wanted a separate site for my thoughts on education. So, there’ll be plenty more posts on the way soon!

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