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.