Are schools too much like Trump?

A few years ago, the company Uber was the poster-boy for all business and entrepreneurs. The company had seemingly invented a powerful business from thin air using existing resources it didn’t even own. On the negative end of the poster-boy scale is Donald Trump. He is seen as the poster-boy for the worst kind of leadership. The primary reason he is criticised as a leader is for solely being transactional. Seemingly with no moral compass to guide him he only understands rewards and punishments as a reason for getting things done.

I was reading this blog post by Mike Anderson on transactional problems in the classroom. He explains that like Donald Trump, too many teachers and their schools fall into the trap of shallowing the moral reasoning for doing things using continuous “if-then” statements. Common statements like:

  • ‘If you use your phone, you will get a detention.”
  • ‘If you finish this work then you can have 10 minutes Playtime.”

Mike states:

Although we all want students to grow in their capacity to do the right things for the right reasons, these if-then statements feed them a steady diet of low-level moral reasoning for everything they do.

A transactional environment

As I read through Mike’s blog post, I made the assumption that by the end of the post he would be talking about the issuing of grades. After all, it is the transactional grading of work that forms the heart of all schooling – If you do this and this then you will get an A+ and if you only do this then you will be punished with an F.” In my experience I can see that the grading environment is what most shallows any moral reasoning or intrinsic desire to do anything truly meaningful.

By coincidence, I am doing an online course by Modern Learners that also brought up recently the discussion around assessment and the use of grades and comments. The question was posed:

Which of these is most influential on learning?

  1. Grades only
  2. Grades and comments
  3. Comments only

Number three, “comments only”, was highlighted as the answer to this question. The statement was made that grades and even levels to some extent objectified learners reducing them to simply their rank amongst peers. The conversation went on to discuss the loss of intrinsic desire to do great stuff. I thought I’d run a poll on Twitter and teachers voted for number three. What’s stopping us from simply stopping grading?

Should we throw out Grades?

A few days later the same online course did add some more depth and detail to these thoughts by sharing this post on the research behind these conclusions verses grades and comments. It’s concluded that throwing out grades completely wasn’t necessarily the way forward but did highlight what very important perspective on the use of grades as feedback on progress rather than final judgements about who individuals are.

“grades can provide valuable feedback by describing in shorthand, abbreviated fashion how well students performed” – Thomas Guskey

The post by Guskey does include the importance of the accompanying comments with any grade for it to be of any use.

Our Diehard Habits and Priorities

I do agree with some of the ideas above but I still have concerns that most teachers and parents believe grades can motivate students to do more. Here they fail to realise that the desire that some have for the status of a high ranking against their peers, is completely seperate to any idea they want to learn more or produce great work for its own sake. Developing schools into institutions of learning is very difficult after 100 years of schools aligning themselves to society’s competitive, capitalist environment where grades are used to pigeonhole students into ‘types’, where grades define who people are and decide who deserves rewards or punishments.

Grades help grow inequity

If I look back at every day of my teaching career, there has been clear evidence that for a student to desire the implied status of a high grade, normally requires in her a sense that she is of a high status in the first place, and has this to maintain. In a capitalist society, children from poor backgrounds are very aware that people hold a low opinion of their status and when being compared against their peers, don’t feel they have anything to lose by missing out on high-status grades. Until schools become focused on learning and stop ranking students for entry to the subsequent school, the less fortunate children will often not associate themselves with any need for the top rank and the inequity cycle will continue, while learning continues to suffer too.

Final thought

If most children would rather not go to lessons today, is it because it’s just another day with Trump?