Grades or Skills: Which is the Highest Achievement in Education?
written by Mauro Bordignon, Head of Academics and Pedagogical Innovation at H-FARM International School
Every year, around the beginning of July, there is a profusion of posts and articles on social media about high averages in the Diploma Programme, about academic achievements of excellence, about ‘our school has a xxx-point average and our students will move to the best universities in the world’.
So every time I ask myself: is academic excellence the highest achievement a school can aim for? Can we really still, in 2022, rank schools on the basis of students’ academic achievement? And most importantly: is that achievement a goal of the students or a goal of the school? The school that has had for years an average of 38 points paradoxically cannot afford the luxury of enrolling bright, curious, potentially great interpreters of the future but whose average is 35 since academic excellence is not their primary goal.
So here I am always puzzling over a question (a different one…): is this really the deeper meaning of Education promoted by the IB in its statements and in its Learner Profile? And is this the deeper sense of Education that we must pursue? Or must we surrender to the existence of deeper senses that are kept well hidden -because they are now meaningless yet still pivotal to the educational choices of schools and universities (such as the evaluation of the student on the basis of pure academic excellence)- behind a vision of Education as lofty as that promoted by the International Baccalaureate through its pathways?
If the deepest meaning of Education is learning, i.e. is the student in their growth process (which includes learning, of course), I do not understand why there are ‘competitions for averages’, and why there are obsessive demands for averages from parents. Do we not say that personalisation must be the present, or at least the (near) future of education? And what then is the relationship between marks average (where paradoxically all ‘personalised’ subjects fall according to their own path) and personalisation of the educational path?
Let us try to answer my questions.
I do not believe that the IB has created a school programme aimed solely at certifying students’ knowledge with a quality label. While on the one hand “The programme aims to develop students who have excellent breadth and depth of knowledge”, thus indicating the importance of knowledge, in the same sentence the IB website goes on to add: “students who flourish physically, intellectually, emotionally and ethically”.
However, I would like to push the argument further by highlighting two points:
(a) the role of the Learner Profile in the school:
“The International Baccalaureate® (IB) learner profile describes a broad range of human capacities and responsibilities that go beyond academic success. They imply a commitment to help all members of the school community learn to respect themselves, others and the world around them.
Each of the IB’s programmes is committed to the development of students according to the IB learner profile”.
In the Learner Profile, therefore, ‘Knowledgeable’ is one of the ten student attributes, and not even the most important one, if we consider how much ‘CORE’ is also promoted.
Therefore, if the school must work to promote all ten aspects of the Learner Profile, why does only the academic aspect emerge thanks to/because of the exams? And why is only the academic aspect demanded by universities?
b) And why, again, does the IB ‘waste time’ doing research examining other aspects, when in the end the CORE and the Learner Profile have so little importance in the final result?
“Results indicated that IB students had significantly higher levels of critical thinking than their non-IB peers — an advantage that held even after matched samples of IB and non-IB students were used for comparison”. How are these aspects -which are considered much more important than just academic knowledge- really expressed by the final number representing the student? How much do schools work to develop human skills and how much are they forced to focus only on knowledge and results because of this chase after grades?
To conclude this first point, I want to believe that the IB’s vision is profoundly different from how it is conveyed each year when the DP results come out, and perhaps also from how it is expressed through the assessment, which is too focused on academic aspects as opposed to a CORE to which the IB itself recognises fundamental importance in the educational growth of students. This vision is continually represented by the PYP and MYP pathways, which were born out of ‘old-fashioned’ logic, where the pure academic number was the only element that distinguished the student.
While the IB has built wonderful pathways in the PYP and MYP, where truly the development of the person is (or can be, because sometimes schools begin to be selective as early as primary school….) at the centre of the educational project, on the other hand it continues to represent the value of the Diploma through a number that not only decides the admission to universities and the students’ academic future, but also two years of the student’s ‘hellish’ life, destined to run after deadlines, assessments, numbers and scores that represent them less than partially compared to how they have grown in the first thirteen years of the IB pathway.
I deeply and strongly believe that Education is something else, much more than this. Education is building educational paths directed at developing the person through their aspirations, passions and potential. Certainly the development of the person at school also passes through growing as “knowledgeable”, but as I said above, this is one of several attributes that must be the focus of the school, and not the only attribute: “the world no longer rewards us just for what we know — Google knows everything — but for what we can do with what we know”, said Andreas Schleicher opening the OECD Global Education Industry Summit II in 2016.
Schools must find time to make their students’ passions grow, because passion guides us, as adults, in our work and life choices every single day. Those who have the opportunity to choose the job they want, do not put limits on their time, because they are doing what they like; they develop better relationships in their work, because they are in an environment where they nurture their passion together with other passionate people; they live a full, satisfying and rich working life.
In our school we have students who at 14 or 15 years old have developed their own small ‘startup’, who try to work in the world of blockchain and bitcoin, who develop projects that the IB rewards globally, yet their average is not 38!
They know how to work in teams designed by competences, designing board games or software or innovative products that we are asked to produce on an industrial scale, but their average is not 40!
One class of 14-year-olds produced soaps that have been required by a hotel chain, another developed software to encrypt their messages within the main communication channels. A third organised and ran, for a year, a radio programme on the Campus radio, interviewing people from all over the world to let them talk about their life experiences: these students’ average is not 42, and would not get into the “most prestigious schools”!
However, they have all dedicated their time at school and home to develop the projects they are passionate about, and have devoted a lot of non-school time to completing them.
Above all, they try to understand what they are passionate about, how much time they are willing to invest in them, and how hard but beautiful and enjoyable it is to dedicate and invest this time.
A school must find the time, and then use that time, to ensure the growth of Human Skills, because school age is the best to begin a lifelong process of personal growth.
“When children tune in to what matters to them most, to what engages them, they connect with the interests that motivate them. Such “intrinsic motivation,” which comes from inside, tells us what we truly care about — for a child, what they really want to learn and why.”. Without this deep internal connection, the student finds themselves pursuing (and having to achieve on the basis of discipline and hierarchical structures) goals that are the school’s and the teachers’, i.e. what they assume the student should know. What is missing is the awareness and taking charge of one’s own learning, the profound connection that may instead exist between the school’s educational objectives and the “intrinsic motivation” to learn. What value does the persistence of this intrinsic motivation assume, within a growth path supported by the school?
Knowing oneself, and learning to relate to other people starting from oneself, how valuable is it in the educational path of a 14-year-old girl?
Education thus passes through a long path of personal growth that starts from the awareness of who one is in the world in which one lives (my family, my class) and in the relationships in which one acts (my family, my teachers and my classmates) and then grows over time: awareness of my talents and potential, of my passions and the sacrifice I am willing to make to see them grow; awareness of the paths I can take and that I want to take through the study of the subjects I have chosen and the university paths I aim to achieve.
But!, again: not always, and not necessarily, does the choice of subjects, paths and goals have to pass through academic excellence to be a valuable choice!
A student who dedicates time to organising cultural events, to cultivating a passion for a sport or a musical instrument, to devoting time to their own cultural and spiritual growth, is worth, and a lot, regardless of a 38 that is then assigned to the academic pathway that represents, or may represent, a minimal or non-exclusive part of one’s life.
Academic excellence, therefore, in our school is a student’s choice that the school must support, just like other growth paths that may be chosen (and this is very, very difficult for schools!). Yay for those who get 42, or 40: these students have put a lot of energy and time into achieving this, and academic excellence should be recognised, fully, by the school. Let’s take their picture, and post it on our communication channels. They deserve, fully and completely, the applause of the school, the teachers and the entire school community!
Just as they deserve it, those who made the soap, or the board game, those who work in blockchain or created the best Personal Project in the world.
I often stop to chat with parents who, after hearing our approach and recognising its educational value, ask me: “ yes…, but what average do you have at DP?!?”
That may be so, and we can accept that a parent is caught by this suggestion: school ranking is something they hear about!
What we cannot accept, however, is to bow to this suggestion, because it is, once again, not in line with the founding values not only of our school, but of the highest meanings of Education.
If we want to value the person, our only goal must be the grade that this child can and will achieve based on their passions, their choices, and their awareness and determination to achieve it. Nothing else has value!
If they achieve a 24 by devoting a lot of time to learning how to organise their time -a fundamental skill for a Diploma Programme- that 24 will have an extremely high value, because it means that they have learnt time management, which enabled them to pass their exams!
Once again, the school’s aim cannot be a (high) number that defines an academic performance. The school must enable all students to achieve their best academic performance within a context of life and growth that is much broader, and which is not represented -because it cannot currently be represented- by a number. Those who have the potential, the awareness, the will and the determination to get a 40, must get that grade: they put so much time, energy and sacrifice into it that they deserve it and must be celebrated by the school for their success.
Those who find ways to develop and nurture their potential, their passions from school time through paths other than academics, must come to the end of their educational journey and in turn be celebrated for what they have done and the passions they have cultivated and followed.
At the moment, they cannot be recognised by a number at the conclusion of their schooling, but I am sure that in time, educational systems will find a way to be able to celebrate with the same sacredness and rigour those students who excel in academics and those students who develop or follow other paths, equally valuable in terms of their education and life development.
Lawyer and musician. I became the Head of the schools I attended when I was younger (I had the same luck at Thelonious Monk School of Jazz and at Pio X Academy). I have also written several text books for Pearson and Mondadori about teaching economics in secondary schools. I was the only teacher to which students — poor devils! — couldn’t say, “ The book says something different”. I am the Head of Academics and Pedagogical Innovation di H-FARM International School.