Friday, January 19, 2007

'What' versus 'How Well'


I have been reading The Schools our Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn. I am only a few chapters in but I am finding it fascinating. I am currently teaching in New Zealand but originate from Western Australia. I was recently in WA to visit family and was amazed as I read the newspapers each day that there were cries for higher standards and 'Back to Basics' in WA. Politicians and reporters alike were pulling apart the 'experiments' that were taking place in classrooms and crying out for the '3 Rs' to be brought back.

Nothing upsets me more than when that old 'Back to Basics' gets bandied around. I want these politicians and reporters to tell their surgeons that they want them to go back to basics. Don't worry about that new fangled machinery, a bit of whiskey and a saw never hurt anyone.

Oops, ranting, I'll get back on track now. Anyway, Alfie Kohn in his book talks about the difference between children who learn 'what' versus 'how well'. He says that there is too much emphasis placed on the grades that students will achieve for their work. He states that students who concentrate on their grade (the 'how well') never delve deep into the subject, they focus on tasks to achieve the grade. Where as students who concentrate on 'what' they are learning, achieve a much deeper understanding of a subject. He states that grades are negative motivators, that the subject itself should be motivating enough. How does this all sit with the government continuously testing years 3, 7 and 9 students in WA (I'm sure it's the same elsewhere), publishing league tables in the newspaper, and in one case having entrance exams for a public high school to ensure only the brightest students gain entry. Are we teaching these students how to think? How to learn? Or how to pass tests and regurgitate facts. Just when I think we are getting somewhere I encounter these newspaper reports in WA or read about blogging being blocked in American schools and feel like education is being sent 'back to the basics' with innovative teachers kicking and screaming.

The whole concept of grades being a negative motivator makes sense to me! It is one of those 'aha' moments that you wonder why you didn't know it all before, it just makes sense and here's why. I did a research paper on Podcasting in 2006 to complete my Post Graduate Diploma in Education. I am motivated by grades (or so I thought). When I got a B+ I was depressed for days ( I couldn't tell you what the paper was about though). However I aimed for an A in this research paper and I got an A. This year, 2007, I have been awarded an E-Fellowship by the NZ Ministry of Education to study something of my choice in ICT. The first thing I thought of was 'Great! Now I can really study podcasting and look at all the things I wanted to look at'. The first research project was to achieve a grade, the second, where there is no grade involved, means that I can just delve into the subject and learn all I want.

Aha!

Now if it took me this long to figure out that telling students they need to aim for a good grade in what ever subject I am teaching is not really the motivator I thought it would be...

Let's keep fighting, our students deserve it. Say NO to 'back to basics'. Let's be innovative, creative, subversive. Come on, let's be REBELS! I'm saying no to grades, I'm saying yes to wondering and problem solving and questioning.

1 comment:

Derek said...

I totally agree with your sentiments here Jane. Unfortunately the "back-to-basics" approach an age-old bandwagon that seems to attract politicians and policy makers with monotonous regularity. I've lost track of the times I've heard it promoted here in NZ in the time I've been in education.

The book you're reading sounds great - I love the title for the way it brings the focus directly to the learner experience. I frequently find myself reflecting on what needs to happen within education from my perspective as a parent, and so often I find myself thinking "my kids deserve better than this". This shifts the focus from "what they need to be taught" or "what they need to know" to "what is the nature of the experience they should be having?", "what is the quality of relationships they should expect?" and "what are the opportunities they should be having that will equip them to live fulfilled and contributing lives in society as adults?"

When we begin pondering these sorts of questions we begin a qualitatively different journey in our thinking of how to reform schools.

BTW - I love your blog and podcasts - keep up the good work!