Since Groundhog Day became our new normal, many of us struggle to remember a time without Zoom calls and their cringeworthy backgrounds.
Before the arrival of COVID-19, I was teaching English literature, in-person, at a local high school here in Tulsa. Nowadays, as I rack my brain to remember the nostalgic era of proximate learning, I find myself reflecting on my experience with a different type of Groundhog Day, one that frequently resounded with: “Is this assignment for a grade?”
For the record, I don’t blame my students for asking this familiar question. In fact, their response makes sense, especially in light of the ways in which our educational system prizes a high grade point average.
Ostensibly, grades are intended to be a measurement of student learning and a litmus test for college admissions to identify successful candidates.
In light of these trends, I’ve become concerned about the ways in which learning has become a means to an end:
1) earn a good grade, to
2) gain acceptance into a good university, to eventually
3) get a good job.
Within this thought pattern, daily classwork and assignments take on an entirely different role, one that restricts learning and pressures students to do what it takes for the grade. Through this lens, schools become GPA-generators rather than safe places to develop questions, make mistakes and explore new ideas along the way.
By and large, a 4.0 grade-point average seems to correlate with upright character and/or social responsibility.
Whether this association develops implicitly or explicitly, I’m not sure. But I have observed that students, from an early age, quickly detect the value we place on earning good grades.
The effect? Some students, for whom schoolwork comes naturally, take pride in their grades and might rest on their laurels. For others, report cards might carry a negative connotation.
What we must recognize, however, is the majority of students, to some degree or another, are impacted by a grade-centric environment that incentivizes compliance rather than open-ended conversations.
Even though GPAs have historically ruled the way we approach education, it doesn’t have to stay this way. This pandemic offers a silver lining within the realm of education — amidst all the disruptions to our everyday life, it has caused us to re-evaluate everything: how we think, work, play, connect, and maybe, if we’re lucky, how we learn.
Throughout the past weeks of remote learning, my new version of Groundhog Day mirrors the experience of many others: staying indoors, working remotely and happily greeting neighbors at a distance.
Between Zoom calls and emails with my students, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to hear a new, unexpected phrase: “I miss school, Mr. Pride.”
Upon hearing these unfamiliar words, I, unsuccessfully, attempt to mask my ear-to-ear grin and play it cool. And after recovering from said jubilation, I begin to wonder: In our approach to education, what steps can we take to prize learning for its own sake rather than simply earning a grade?
To scratch the surface in answering this question, we must first examine the extent to which our rhetoric might reflect, either implicitly or explicitly, an obsession with grades.
Whether it’s in the classroom or at the dinner table, all of us — educators or not — are prone to view school as a place from which we can extract a grade. When we want to express interest or check on students, for example, we tend to ask: “How are your grades?”
What if, instead, we took small steps toward a new conversation, one that revolves around the level of effort rather than a grade given?
Undoubtedly, these unprecedented times mark a critical juncture in the realm of education.
In this state of suspension, there’s no better time to shift our mindset from utility to discovery, from GPA-maintenance to child-like curiosity, from hunting for the “right” answers to raising thoughtful questions.
Yes, it will take deliberate effort, but in this space, we have stumbled upon an opportunity to finally contest entrenched, antiquated ways of thinking about education.
Our children are ready.
Taylor Pride teaches English at Will Rogers High School. He has been a public school teacher for three years.