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Making the Grade

Yesterday I stumbled across an article about college students getting miffed when they didn’t get an “A for Effort”: “Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes.” I find it a difficult attitude to understand; it breaks down as soon as it’s applied to the working world. A building doesn’t care whether an architect tried her hardest—the design either stands or falls. A gall bladder doesn’t care that a surgeon did his best—the cholecystectomy is either a success or a failure. So why are students reaching college with this unrealistic attitude that if they read the material and show up for class they deserve an A?

Here’s another article that made an unexpected connection in my mind: “Seven Skills Students Desperately Need.” Tony Wagner of Harvard University argues that by “teaching to the test,” schools are turning out students incapable of problem-solving and working in groups. Wagner says he constantly hears from employers today “We need people who can ask good questions, and we need people who can engage others in thoughtful conversations.” I’ll let you read the story yourself for the full explanation.

The connection between these two items, I think, is in treating students as if they were show horses, to be trained for a jumping competition. We run them through the paces over and over, to build reflex and muscle memory so that they can clear artificial hurdles. And we coo “good effort” to them whenever they fail, so the pain and disappointment won’t make them too skittish to try again.

The workaday world, however, is not a jumping competition. It’s a bridge to build, a virus to cure, a computer application to develop, a community to manage. None of these things is like a multiple-choice question on a test. All of them are multifaceted problems to be engaged, wrestled with, and solved in an ongoing fashion. In real life, knowledge comes from grappling with such problems. Even learning a new language—one of the most content-intensive tasks we might face—is best accomplished by immersion.

When our society was young and agricultural, public school was largely about reading the Bible, calculating board footage and acreage, and learning a newly American identity. When the need arose for factory workers, schools became more about being in your seat when the bell rang, standing in line at lunch, and putting in your time. As office work became the norm, an emphasis was added on placing the right sheet in the right pocket of the right folder, with the right date and signature. Maybe now that we’re shifting toward a problem-solving, information-rich reality, schools can return to their model from Ancient Greece and encourage students to think for themselves. If that happens, students won’t be expecting an easy grade just for trying; they’ll be too focused on something they’re actually hoping to accomplish.

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