A new year brings a new semester and a new roster of students. I have laid out clear and exciting paths for learning, arranged carefully to help students enter new ways of knowing and gain new skills for thinking, acting, being. If past experience can be trusted, this new gathering of students will discover new ideas, acquire new abilities, and find confidence they didn’t know was possible.
It has occurred to me that learning is a bit like hypnosis: it only happens if you want it to. On the other hand, learning in most other ways contrasts with hypnosis. You must be wide awake, aware, and curious for effective learning to take hold.
Unfortunately, too many teachers act like hypnotists, especially at the postsecondary level. They understand their role as taking charge of student minds and inserting their agenda for student learning. A good number of teachers overdetermine what, how, and why students learn in their classes. In far too many classrooms learning amounts to little more than a reductive process of indoctrinating vulnerable minds.
Teaching at its best, though, involves an expansive process of co-learning. The teacher sets up opportunities for exploration, and together students and teachers discover new angles for comprehending and interpreting the world. As co-learners, teachers and students alike become something new in the course of a semester’s worth of learning.
The Impediment of Grades
The transformative worth of learning does not easily reduce to quantitative measures. With this inconvenient truth in mind, I have maintained for years that grades are an impediment to learning. Yes, the grade serves as a powerful motivating force for students to engage in course materials, and I have often used grades as both carrot and stick to urge students into learning opportunities. But if the grade becomes the only justification for student learning, then the possibilities of transformative engagement diminish.
Too often the promise of a grade blurs the purpose of learning. Students whose only reason for showing up and doing the work is to get a good grade are cheating themselves. My greatest moments as a teacher have been when students realize that the grade was the least of what they gained in class.
As we embark now on a new semester, my optimism runs high. The path is set, and I am anxious to discover the lessons that will be gained, the insights that we will realize, and the new understandings that will unfold in the coming months. Yes, all of my students will earn a grade, but in the long run that imprecise measure will have no lasting worth. What will remain are the people we become in the learning process. ♨