It takes more than just telling students that my goal is to see how they think and not to simply have something to throw a grade on. They are so used to thinking that class and work is all about the grade, and not about the learning, that they truly doubt it when I tell them I just want to watch how they work with the material. For many, they have learned the Game of School really well, and they know how to play by its rules. They are masters of rote learning and simply want to be told where to find the answer, to write it in the blank and get their A. For them, being told that there is no Right Way to do an assignment can be terrifying. The rules have suddenly disappeared, and with them, their strategies for doing the work. For the others, the ones who are constantly being beaten down by the grades they receive, they completely expect eventually to be ambushed by a grade. They have lost their interest in learning, because school has taught them that they are no good at it. Their fear and distrust shuts down any fluidity that they might have with their thinking. For both kinds of students, it is a process to teach them how to enjoy the learning process and to move away from it being about simply about the teacher.
This is my most recent example: I had my students make a mind-map showing the connections between 20 vocabulary words that we had been studying. I wanted them to put the words into categories, whatever groupings that they found. We did it first as a class, using the school as an example. We brainstormed a list of words to describe the school and then they identified groups of 2-4 words and explained why they had created that group. I had them make two different attempts at building groups, so that they could see that there were many ways to build categories out of a list of words. We connected each pair of words with a line to explain why they were close to each other. They loved the process of inventing and reinventing ways to discuss what they had identified as significant about our school.
I then turned them to the vocabulary of the unit and had them do the same activity: create one way to group the words, create another way to group them; examine the two ways and develop a final mind-map with words and connecting lines.
They could barely start their work because of the barrage of questions that focused mainly on “Is this going to be graded?,” How do you want this to look?” It was so hard for them to accept that watching them work and seeing how they put their thoughts on paper was what I was after. School has them so trained to not value their own work for the learning that is happening there, but to only look for how to get the grade. It is the grade that will show if the work has value, and by association, if they have worth.
Exploration, testing new ideas, trying to figure out the puzzle is scary work. To be in the process of learning takes all of us out of our comfort zones. In many ways, working for the grade is much easier than being in a classroom where the goal is active engagement and learning. I need to keep working on ways to make my classroom a safe place to try and an even safer place to fail. I need to affirm the experimentation that may lead to a dead end. I also want to work on developing ways of giving feedback that feel valid to them, that truly recognizes and affirms their work.