I am faced with a quandary in education: how can I make make my class about learning and NOT about grades? As a student, I have always found grades to be detrimental to learning because I always ended up playing the game of "how many points is this worth" in an effort to avoid the consequences of getting bad grades. Keep in mind that, while I always valued learning far more than grades, I also tended to earn good grades in school. I knew how to play the game well, but even for a student like me grades were never about reward, they were only about avoiding punishment. Think of all the kids out there who weren't born with the privileges or support that I had while growing up, kids who never learned to play the game well -- think of what grades and school means for those kids.
Contrast the demotivating nature of grades with the motivating nature of learning. Any kid who has ever enjoyed building something out of LEGOs, or any kid who has ever had fun playing with finger paint, or any kid who has ever asked "why is the sky blue?" knows that learning can be a joyful and awe-inspiring experience. I believe that every human being has the inherent desire and need to learn and grow. Imagine what school could mean for all kids if we believed in and focused on those inherent human qualities.
The conclusion I keep coming back to is that mastery-based learning is a better approach to education, where students learn because they want to understand and practice because they want to master. The difficulty with this is that the rest of the school system still uses carrot-and-stick motivation and it's hard to know how to hold kids accountable for their learning without the stick. This semester in my credential program at CSU San Marcos has provided me an opportunity to fine-tune my thinking on this issue.
One of my credential courses is a mastery-based class. When I attended the first class of the semester, I was pleased to hear from the two co-teachers that they were trying a different approach. I was pleased to hear that they wanted the class to be about learning and not about earning grades. Even better, they were going to be flexible with deadlines (something that I greatly appreciated as a self-directed learner and overwhelmed student-teacher). As the semester progressed, however, I found myself putting off the work for that class in order to make time for my other classes. I started to realize that, as much as I would have liked to focus on learning in my mastery-based class, I had all these other commitments that were less flexible and more imminent -- commitments for which I needed to play the game in order to get the grade before I could focus on my own learning. It seems that I was letting the urgent get in the way of the important.
As I've been reflecting on my experiences in my credential program this whole year, I've come to the realization that there are so many other pressures on students besides the requirements of a single class. If I were to use a mastery-based approach with my own students, I would have to be cognizant of the fact that they have other classes that still play the grade game. In my own schooling, I've experienced the stress of trying to jump through myriad hoops in order to graduate, while at the same time wondering when I will have time for genuine learning. I think it all comes down to Maslow's Hierarchy: students have a need for security, a need to know that they have a future. When that security is threatened, their self-actualizing learning experiences are drastically limited and the students focus on meeting the basic need of simply getting through school with as little pain as possible.
This year, I have been every kind of "bad student" I have ever known. After some personal tragedies at the end of my undergraduate career, I came into this program with zero motivation to play the game of school any longer. I have been wrestling with crises of faith and existence while crawling my way to the finish line for the last eleven months. I have experienced feelings of anger, frustration, fear, shame, pain, and apathy in relation to my performance in school. In spite of all this, I still have a calling to be a teacher and a desire to learn and grow. At some point this year, I made up my mind that if I was going to drop out of the program, it would be because they kicked me out and not because I gave up or stopped trying.
Take a student like me and put him in a mastery-based class and what do you get? You get a student who spends the semester trying to put out fires in his other classes -- the ones where grades count -- and puts off the one class where he has freedom from the game (at least in theory; at the end of the day, someone still has to turn in a grade). Even so, you get a student who understands that school could be about so much more -- that it could be about learning for learning's own sake. This particular class of mine has a theme, but as the co-teachers told us, the class is about so much more than the theme -- the class is about teaching. As a result of this class and other experiences in education, here is my vision for the way that I will teach next year:
The purpose of this vision is to teach kids how to be better thinkers and learners. By having them constantly return to the question of "how can I demonstrate my learning?" I will hopefully teach them to be self-directed and independent learners who are prepared for life after the game of school has ended. I am certain I will have to tweak these ideas many times before I find a way to help my students that works really well for them, but I think it will be worth the trial and error. I think that this kind of learning environment has so much more potential to help kids grow than the traditional, non-mastery-based approach.
As for my credential class, I still need to finish all the work that I've been putting off until now. I still have to jump through a few more hoops in order to earn my credential, but for a class that is really about teaching I think I have gained a lot more from this mastery-based experience than just a grade. Amidst the discouragement and struggles I've faced this year, having a class be about learning and not about grades has made all the difference to me.
Now watch me go make a difference for someone else.