Grades Don’t Tell The Whole Learning Story

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By: Ali Kaufman Founder & Schoolhouse Director at Space of Mind Special to the Delray newspaper

As summer approaches, students, parents and educators kick the school machine into overdrive. The looming final deadline and the promise of summer tap into an intrinsic motivation that some students, especially the procrastinators, come to rely on. It’s the siren call for missing assignments and a last chance effort for extra credit, extra help and extra time.

Of course, there are many students whose work is always on time, whose effort is consistent and for whom success is not a risky proposition. They are coasting into summer and look forward to their final report cards. For many others, those final grades may not tell the whole story, and the fairy tale ending turns instead into summer school.

Grades today have become a barometer for more than just learning; they have become the barometer also for trying. However, there are so many factors that can render effort ineffective. Mismatches between a student, their learning environment and curriculum could leave a student who doesn’t feel inspired unlikely to care enough about the work they are required to do. Sometimes students learn differently than educators know how or have the resources to teach. This can leave an interested student unable to connect to the work they actually do want to complete. A student more attentive to social and emotional pressures may be too unfocused to receive and retain information. These are all obstacles to learning that a final report card doesn’t report.

Grades can be deceiving. They just don’t tell the whole story. As learning is a process (and an adventure), it’s hard to boil down the effort and the obstacles into one concrete measurement. Yet, the system forces us to. It’s easier for us to digest letter grades than paragraphs, and it’s faster for computers than teachers to calculate quantifiable numbers rather than qualitative observations. With no room for comments from teachers, there’s often no communication of this observation-based descriptive information. Parents are left without important information to both understand and help their child, and students are left to move on with less confidence and more missing information.

Accepting grade fate can be hard for students, and it’s also especially hard for parents. Competitive parenting is almost its own sports league now, and parents are wearing their children’s badges of honor with a new fervor than the last generations of parents. Perhaps this is also because parents are being held accountable for their children’s successes and failures by schools. As a business case, the three main actors – students, parents and teachers – are having a communication breakdown based on measurement tools that don’t read between the lines.

Quantifying emotions is so much harder than assignments. It requires time to listen to and support a student while they process a teachable moment. A good educator finds those teachable moments in between the lines on the syllabus – in the conversations, the observations, the challenging moments and the celebrations. In the connection that child has to one’s self and the material they are mastering. Often times, it’s also about factoring in the roadblocks to learning, too – variables like attention, organization and anxiety, which don’t easily fit a numbered scale.

So when final report cards come into your inbox, let it be a guide to measuring growth and not an indictment on effort. Let it be a guide to asking more and better questions of teachers and your student. Ask your student to create their own report card and have them answer the question that really matters: Did you try your best? What are you proudest of? What did you learn? What challenged you? And most of all, What inspired you?