Saturday, November 20, 2010

Students' Insights

I had the great opportunity to speak with some Fort Dodge students in Mr. Marshall Hoovler's classroom on Friday. They were engaged in a discussion which, until my arrival, was being wonderfully facilitated by Mr. Hoovler. He has a great way of asking probing questions and then the rare ability to shut up and let his students hash it out. He will expertly step back when the conversation lulls and stir things up again.
This post is not about his abilities to facilitate student discussions, nor even about discussions in general, but more importantly about that specific discussion. Their discussion was concerning Plato's allegory of the cave. Yes, this is commonly a work in high school literature. So, obviously, this is not really blog worthy and the conversation being about school is not surprising either, but the fact that the teachers where those chained in the cave was.
Typically I have seen students get into great conversations about their own learning and/or lack thereof. This was discussed, but as I was sitting there listening, the conversation took a sudden change. The students asked me to join their conversation and began talking about how teachers are also really in their own cave and refuse to free themselves or even believe those who have escaped when they come to tell them about the world out there. Students were questioning me about how a schedule change we are considering was going. They wanted to know what teachers were thinking and what I thought would happen. They asked questions about why I thought we needed a change and why if I saw those things, why were there teachers who were being so negative about a possible change.
I tried to explain that it is due to their feelings that the new schedules might not help these problems, but they weren't buying it. They turned the discussion to fear of change. They asked several good questions about how the current system was developed. I gave them a brief (five minutes) educational history about Carnegie Units, Chapter 12 of the Iowa Code, and Board Policy changes which led us to our current system. They asked how changes would be made if we decided there was a need to change. I explained the process that I intended to use to gather input from stakeholders but also shared that I was having some difficulty getting teachers to actually engage in the process. They went back to Plato's Cave. I was a moron and not really ready to use this opportunity to discuss more on their perception of teachers' cave, but rather turned the discussion to a discussion about their cave. Why they were more concerned more about grades than they are about learning. I told them that, in my opinion, the first step to truly change schools and break the bonds to tradition and thus free us from the cave is the elimination of grades. They asked all of the right questions, what would replace grades, how would we rank students, would colleges accept the new reporting scheme, how would we pick a graduation speaker, etc... The final question generated some pretty passionate discussion about how class ranking was a flawed system in and of itself. They commented about the fact that the types of classes a student takes can have a big impact on their overall GPA. I capitalized on this conversation to point out that this was also a problem with grades. I asked the students my favorite question, "What do grades really tell us?" which generally gets a range of responses. These responses almost always include comments about "kissing up". I wasn't disappointed with this group as they brought it up and opened the door further about the "fairness" of grading.
I asked the students why, with a system that everyone can see is so flawed, do they think we resist change so vehemently? They had their own answers, but pressed me for mine. I bluntly stated, "Fear and the economy we have developed around grades". I wrote Grades and Skills on the board. I asked them which have value. There were no immediate responses. Then some cited grades due to scholarships. I asked them how much they thought grades really played into most scholarships and how many of our students got those types of scholarships. I used my son as an example. He was the recipient of a very large academic scholarship from a university, but received very little of the scholarship money offered by the community in which he lived.
I cited several very large scholarship winners in our previous graduating class in Fort Dodge and asked if those big winners were the same students speaking at graduation. They quickly realized that grades are not the only factor, nor even the most important factor for many local scholarships. I asked them again as to how many students receive the type of scholarship my son had received and after some mumbling, I told them. Not very many. Other factors carry a great deal of weight with scholarship selection committees.
I also pointed out that scholarships were indeed financial, but asked students how those scholarships impacted a student beyond their expenditure. I asked them, "Do the students who get the big scholarships by avoiding courses really do as well as those who take the more rigorous courses and pay their own way?" I tried to stress that the focus on grades restrains us from placing our focus on what is really important and that is the learning these grades are supposed to represent. They were quick to acknowledge that the grades did not necessarily represent skills and that a student who "played the school game" well often got better grades than the students who were difficult, but actually knew or could do more.
Again, the questions were asked as to why teachers don't just change it if they know it is broken. Mr. Hoovler asked me what would it take for us to change and if all schools had to change at once. I told the class that in my opinion change no longer happens gradually, and explained the idea of innovative disruption. I was shocked with the speed in which the class accepted and even provided examples of how they have witnessed disruptive innovation in society.
The students brought the conversation right back to our staff, our school, and Plato's cave. Several comments were made about the fact that some of their teachers had been in the "cave" too long and conversation about changes in the way they were tested ensued. The comments were quick to discuss the fact that knowing stuff on tests was probably not a marketable skill since most of them could look it up. I shared with them that I agree with their view and cited the need to change what was being asked of students in their classes as being the focus of most of our professional development. I also took the opportunity to ask if the current schedule structure was the best structure for how they were currently being taught? How about the way in which I had just described being taught. Again some great questions were being asked.
This whole exchange was an incredible learning experience for me. I have often used students in decisions I have made as an administrator, but superficially at best.
I am not so sure we shouldn't be following the business model and spending more time asking customers what they want. I am not so sure that during out "early releases" we have with staff, that we shouldn't be keeping the students those afternoons as well and sharing the same things we are sharing with staff with them.
I know this for certain, I will be attempting to do just that with at least some of our students from now on. I am quite sure that the exchange we had in the class period described was not only refreshing to me, but very informative as well. I am also quite certain that we need to allow students to engage in this type of discussion far more often than we do.
Kuddos to Mr. Hoovler and his students for providing me with one of the best experiences I have had in school since moving to Fort Dodge.


  1. WOW, wherer to begin. This post could be three seperate posts.
    1.Who is in the educational cave and the ramifications.
    2. Grades, scholarships, and learning and how they do or do not interact.
    3. Student (customer) input in educational decisions and discussions.
    For this comment I would like to delve into educational leadership.
    It is very difficult to be an educational leader in these times. I can list several facts to support this statement...
    Time,economy, politics, blah,blah, blah...
    I have heard the quote that a great leader is not identified by the ability to lead(Abraham Lincoln) but the time (situation) that the leader is charged to lead in. (Civil War).
    So how do educational leaders who have escaped from the cave renter the cave and lead others (administrators, superitendents, staff, public, parents, and students) out of the shadows and darkness. I am fine with whining (if it comes with chocolate) and complaining (it is part of the process) as long as the discussion brings forth ideas that go towards solutions.
    In-service days that include student discussions.. Great Idea!!!! Now expand...
    In-service days that are not days at all but evenings to include parent/staff communications on educational change (parents are costomers also). Lets make an educational night tradition similar to our Wednesday night family night. Give teachers comp time (associations will demand it) but also give the option for teachers to use the comp time on teacher quality projects such as visiting other schools, creating on-line courses, and many others. Now take it a step further...
    Make time for staff to have these discussions with not only students but with each other and administrators and superintendents. Don't use pre-organized discussion points and power points. Pick a subject and let the cave discussion begin. A great company not only wants customer input but needs the employee expertiece to maximize the process which results in profit.
    The one thing that I always try to remember (yes Einstein was key on this point) what is relevent only is relevent from where you stand. With that thought and with Plato in mind escaping the cave and seeing the sun is only mind altering if you escaped on a sunny day.

  2. 2. Grades and scholarships and how they do or do not interact.
    My oldest daughter was third in her class. That being said she worked hard to get and stay there. Did this earned class rank get her a scholarship, no, at least not the one she recieved. She recieved a four year all tuition plus fees scholarship to Iowa State. So how did her grades get her the scholarship? Well working hard to get a 4.0 enabled her to work hard at getting organized to fill out as many scholarships as she could find. Her advanced English courses helped her to write killer essays needed to submit for scholarship applications. Mock Trial and speech classes helped her in interviews for scholarships. High grades in math helped her plan how much money she needed for college and to live on so that she could devote her college time to studies and graduate a semester early. So yes grades do equal scholarships , perhaps not the actual letter in isolation but in the large picture of learning. Now would I recomend an easier class to a student so that the grade point would be higher. No I do not recommend. Students usually have the entire grade point thing figured out. I do have discussions with them about what classes are more beneficial to them in thier college and future goals. Why should a student struggle through an advanced class when it is not in an area that they even plan on going into. Yes I know kids change their minds and plans but learning should be relevent to the students goals at the time they are taking the class. An art class can be as necessary as the 4th year of spanish. I once took a class from a teacher in college,who was fired as a High School teacher . She should of been but as a college professor she was very interesting. She wanted you in her class to learn and did not care about grades. She literally threw our final essays in the air and those that landed to the left got a B andto the right a C. It drove every crazy who cared about grades. I learned more in her class then in any of the others combined. Can you imagine doing that in high school? But maybe it needs to be done.

  3. @ Tina, I would argue that it was not her pursuit of grades that you are stressing here but actually the focus is on skills and learning. There are activities you have listed here which are not graded that probably provide her continued success beyond the grades she earned. I would argue that most of what you have listed here have nothing to do with the grades she earned in any of the classes.

  4. If the grade earned was reflective of the learning that took place I would say that 'yes' grades are important to scholarship acquisition. Your arguement seems to be that an A is not always an A. What is an A worth is an arguement on its' own.