I was tidying up the other day, trying to get rid of stuff that was just sitting around. Amongst my things was a box with a few of my school resources, these included my teacher’s college textbooks, one of them being; Clarity In The Classroom by Michael Absolum. This is seen as the best book on assessment in New Zealand. Having left behind the classroom and knowing that my views on education have changed so much over the past few years, I wondered if anything helpful could still be salvaged from these pages. But it is wise to not dismiss those I disagree with too quickly, sometimes you have more in common than you think. And so I began to flick through the book, also fascinated with the notes I had put in the margin all those years ago.
I found much that I agreed with and a variety of things that I didn’t. The book criticises the common teacher and student game of ‘what do I need to do in order to get a good grade?’ The book goes on to state, “In these circumstances neither teacher nor student are directly focused on learning, but neither admits this. The student recognises that the learning is in fact about learning what needs to be learnt in order to ‘pass’. The student wants to comply or pass. Any real learning is a lucky by-product of doing whatever is necessary to pass the school game.”
Yet what really struck me was this; I had been assigned this book by my lecturers at a time where we were living the very thing the book criticises! Most of us in the class were bored by whatever our lecturers decided to talk about and really were just hanging on to get that piece of paper so that we could finally get out there and be in the classroom teaching. Having talked to a number of people currently going through teacher training this is still a common mindset.
The tragedy is of course that once we were in the classroom, inevitably our own teaching would turn into a closer representation of what we experienced, rather than what we might have read. We as humans will generally keep the status quo of what was done to us. To change requires enormous effort and introspection. And while I do believe that change is possible at the individual level, a system does not have a mind, nor a conscience. A system cannot be introspective and change.
A further complication to these matters is that certain views are so entrenched in our current way of thinking that to question them seems absurd. Yet these are the views that uphold the whole system in the first place. On the same page as the quote above we read, “This is not to say that grading students is always a bad thing because assessment for qualification is essential for society.”
Is it? Are qualifications essential for society?
I know it is radical to question this, but the supposed essentiality of qualifications is why we continue to act the way we do, even when our words and research says otherwise. The work of researchers, such as Bryan Caplan, go a long way to dismantling the myth of the need of our ever-increasing thirst for more qualifications.
“Actions speak louder than words.” A phrase we have heard often and which bears out as accurate in our everyday experience. We can tell our children all the nice sentiments in the world but until we really question our own actions deeply at the individual level, the actions of society will not change. Humans care little for our words until there is a consistency between our convictions and our actions. We say that there is more to learning than jumping through prescribed hoops? Good, now let’s see that lived out.
But where to start? Is it wise for people to start tackling the system and try to bring it in line with reality? I don’t think there would be many people who feel able and willing to do that, nor do I find it necessary. We can all start by living out a closer consistency between our convictions and our actions. Particularly when it comes to our children, we can ask the question, “How is my life and the relationships I have demonstrating that I value relationships above jumping through prescribed hoops?” The actions that result from asking that question of ourselves will send a far more powerful message than any words ever will.