I think I first became aware of the school game in middle school, though I was certainly playing it long before that. Do what the teacher expects of you. Don’t cause trouble. Complete the work that’s given to you. It doesn’t have to be your best work, but it has to be on time and “good enough” for the grade you want. Do your homework, or, at least, most of it, most of the time, in the classes where the teacher checks. Get grades good enough to keep your teachers and parents happy, and to get you into a good college. In college, get reasonably good grades that will lead to a respectable degree. Use the degree to get a good job. A good job is a job with regular weekday hours, where you don’t get dirty and the work is mentally challenging instead of physically challenging.
I played the game pretty well, so I was labeled “smart.” I got into a good school and got my degree. Then, I got a job, went to grad school, and got very good at the school game. Now I make pretty good money and work pretty good hours. I don’t have to shower when I get home from work, and I’m not physically sore when I get up in the morning. I’m living happily ever after.
But playing the school game has very little to do with learning anything. I have to admit that, throughout my education career, I really didn’t think very much about learning. I didn’t care if the subjects were particularly engaging or relevant. Tell me what I have to do. Give me a list of requirements to get the grade I want. That’s as far as my meta-cognition goes.
Along the way, I did learn a few things. I learned how to write in high school, partly due to teachers who saw something in my freshman and sophomore work that I, frankly, still do not see. I learned about logic, thanks to a teacher who threw a unit on the subject into an algebra class. I learned about frames of reference and points of view and primary sources from a brave but tenured teacher who refused to follow the textbook in his history class. I learned that there are multiple versions of truth, and how to analyze a person’s motivation when assessing the credibility of his account. Later, I learned to make connections between seemingly disparate subjects. I learned that environmental issues and social justice and cultural tradition can play important roles in educational technology and online communities and the future of education. While playing the school game, I managed to actually learn a few things along the way, even if it was by accident.
The school game is why open-ended experiences are so frustrating for students. A teacher in a MOOC can’t tell you what you have to do to be successful in the course. It’s YOUR journey. You have define your own success. Many project based learning activities allow students a wide latitude in demonstrating their learning. Often, they’re lost without specific guidelines. How many words do you want? How many slides? How many bullet points? Schools thrive on the familiarity of the game.
Public education is playing a different version of the school game right now. Common Core is standardizing what we’re teaching in American public schools, and PARCC and other consortia are designing assessments to measure whether students are learning those standards. This part is good. While I believe there should be some local decision-making in the curricular process, it’s wise to standardize the core curriculum, rather than having dozens of states or thousands of schools working in parallel to establish what are essentially the same guidelines. It’s also clear to me that we have to have common, valid assessments to measure what students have learned. Those assessments have to accurately determine whether a student has met the standards. We tend to go off the rails a bit here, because the tests don’t necessarily match the standards. But in theory, they should.
And in that theory, when the test measures the learning that we value, the most efficient way to teach the curriculum is to prepare students to excel on the test. Again, we’re assuming the test measures the learning we value, and that’s a big assumption. But if it does, teaching to the test is a good thing, because it actually teaches the learning goals we set out to achieve.
What happens when students don’t achieve? Well, lots of things happen. There are interventions, both formal and informal, that are attempted by the school. Parents and mentors and tutors are involved. Remediation and focused interventions are implemented. In some (not all) cases, it’s merely a matter of getting the student to take more interest in the school game.
And if the student still doesn’t achieve? Well, if that happens a lot, with many different students, something is wrong. If the failing students all have the same teacher, it may indicate a problem in the classroom. If they’re all in the same school, it may indicate a larger school-wide problem or a culture that does not promote or value high academic achievement.
In other words, the school, or the teacher, is not playing the school game. We’re quickly reaching the point where bad things are going to happen when the school stops playing the game. Teachers are going to be labeled “ineffective.” They’ll lose their jobs and be unemployable. Schools will receive more oversight, an accountability nightmare that makes improvement more difficult. Parents will be given more options to take their children — and the money that their children bring to the school district — to private entities. These private schools may or may not be playing the same game, but from what we’ve seen so far, the rules are very different.
How do we keep this from happening? We play the game. We embrace the game. We focus our schools on getting our students to perform as well on the tests as they possibly can. We’ll be the success stories. Our teachers will be outstanding. All of our children will be above average. We’ll be on time and under budget. We just have to stop focusing so much on things that aren’t being measured.
Sure. We can continue to argue for a better system. We can lobby for more inquiry, problem solving, digital literacy, collaboration, appreciation of global cultures, development of communication skills, and more practice with innovative thinking. We can argue that we need more control over what’s being taught in our schools. We can argue for the A in STEM to make it STEAM. We can talk about educating the whole child and building character and making patriotic American citizens Under God.
But right now, we need to play the game.
Photo credit: Mike_fleming on Flickr.