Think Again About Schooling

Reading Time: About 4 Minutes

Her voice rose as she spoke, cracking slightly on the last word. ” I’m juggling working from home, video conferences, wonky internet, planning meals, making sure we all get some exercise and being my kids’ teacher. I can’t do it!”

He struggled too, uneasy about his layoff. “I have no idea when I’ll get back to work. Even though I’ve plenty of jobs to do around our place, I can’t get motivated. And when I log on to the school’s learning platform, I can’t tell what’s happening and if the kids are where they should be. This is hard.”

Parents, guardians, caregivers and teachers worry about our children and what the future holds for them. This global pandemic has us all even more on edge. Now we wonder if the kids will be alright having had to stay inside for weeks. What does it mean that little ones are now using words like pandemic in their imaginative play as they warn each other to stay apart? How will they do in school if they’ve had to miss two or more months? Will my child fall behind? Will they be OK?

Parents* are also wondering about the worksheets, the exams and the comprehension questions. What happens if my child doesn’t finish them? Do they lead to learning? Am I a bad parent if I can’t sit beside my child and help them?

Over the years, educators, pundits, and politicos have written much about the purpose of schooling. Some people point out the quasi factory model of education that we still mostly follow in schools. You know, the desks in rows, punch in punch out mentality, strict adherence to bells and minutes of instruction. There are plenty of educators who have innovated within this structure, however, the sifting and sorting of students has continued. We assign grades at the end of each block of learning time, and those grades have become a proxy for success in life.

Listening to Gretchen Rubin‘s latest podcast, which included a parenting segment with Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, resonated strongly for me. In their conversation, Gretchen and Elizabeth ask what is important about school. You can listen to the full discussion, but in short, their answer is socializing and learning to learn: “The actual material is not so important.”

We are in a time in Ontario, when grades don’t matter. For once, if Alex doesn’t complete that Math worksheet with 24 multiplication questions, it won’t really make a difference. Samira won’t have to write a final exam where she answers 15 multiple choice questions about the structure and behaviour of matter. Blair won’t need to finish the comprehension questions on that passage from Homer.

I’ve believed for years that grades shouldn’t be necessary and that we do a disservice to children, teenagers and adults by insisting on this ranking of their learning. If we believe that the purpose of school is to learn, that it’s for “students to learn and grow to their full potential in a diverse world” as my district states in the mission statement, then the focus should always be on learning, not on the grade.

So what’s the answer for now? While the pandemic threatens all of us, there are also opportunities. I wonder how learning can look without some of our formalized structures. Parents should feel good about all they’re doing to love, take care of and learn with their kids. Talking about family and our place in the natural and artificial world, preparing meals together, doing some home projects, caring for pets, or going for walks in the neighbourhood mean valuable time with family and also time to learn how to learn. Educators are helping by posting provocations, interesting questions, or problem solving challenges instead of pages of questions and worksheets.

We don’t need to worry so much about our young people keeping up. We need to worry about how they socialize, imagine, play and think.

*When I use “parents”, I mean parents, guardians and caregivers.


10 Responses to “Think Again About Schooling”

  1. All I can say in response to this blog post is a big, resounding, “YES!!!!” I could not agree with you more. And as my teaching partner, Paula, and I just finished posting some suggestions for this week that focus more on provocations, project ideas, and questioning, I feel a whole lot better about not including worksheet ideas … even if they’ve never been my preferred method. Now I need to check out all of your links. Thanks Sue for another wonderful post that certainly highlights so many of my beliefs!


    1. Sheila Maracle Avatar
      Sheila Maracle

      Yes, I totally agree as well. I’ve been saying for years that the public education system needs a complete overhaul! It is still an old British model of an industrialized, colonized teaching system. If I’m not mistaken, haven’t a few BC schools done away with letter grades, where the students’ report cards are purely anecdotal? That’s a promising practice for moving toward seeing a child more holistically.
      Sue, I appreciate your words and vision. I know many educators and parents feel the same way.

      1. Thanks, Sheila. This post has struck a chord with people. I wonder how we might move towards less grade based and more growth and feedback locally as we wait/advocate for change at a system level?

    2. Aviva – I know that you always focus on what students need, including giving feedback. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. Terri Trimble Avatar
    Terri Trimble

    So refreshing to hear your voice and opinion as a Senior member of our Leadership Team.
    How do we get rid of grades? K has started with their Communication of Learning. We need the Provincial Report to change, descriptive formative feedback is helpful, grades not so much. Comments on report cards could be so much more useful if we could even further reduce of the tendency to use the curriculum documents verbatim and/or eduspeak.
    Great post and thanks for speaking out!

    1. Terri – thanks for taking the time to comment. There is a very good Ministry of Education companion document to Growing Success called “Reporting Student Learning” here: I think the best report comments use the Success Criteria that teachers co-create with students as part of assessment. They make great comments and next steps – concrete, clear, easy to understand and not just regurgitating wording of curriculum expectations.

  3. Margarita Stewart Avatar
    Margarita Stewart

    It’s nice to hear/read many opinions “which resembles” mine! I am very worried of the social emotional state of our children/students when we gather again within a school facility! Seeing these “new classroom designs” makes me worry. These snapshots are not welcoming, inviting or promoting collaboration or learning fun! (This could be a great next post?) Will we be able to still call our practices/classroom space supporting 21st learning century skills?
    Thank you for this post

    1. Thanks for commenting, Margarita. I’m not sure what you mean by “new classroom designs? There are certainly a lot of questions about when we return that will need to be considered.

  4. I definitely agree! I have, for a long time wondered about many things in the primary curriculum and whether they belong. Building with cardboard? Yes. Creating beautiful art? Yes! Developmentally appropriate math, reading, writing? Yes!! But I can tell by looking at what they are doing at home that the children want more time to be outdoors and active. They want to create and bake and relax. I think school can provide that…if we spend less time on mandated curriculum that forces everyone to be interested in the same things at the same time.

    At the same time I know lots of the curriculum topics help build important background knowledge. My students learn about water and we definitely need people to learn to take care of water early. Same with plants and animals and …

    So mostly I wonder if school was a more relaxed place where kids were moving a lot and going outside a lot and engaging in a lot of self-directed learning, then would we be able to spend more time in the primary years on supporting and naturally developing the social-emotional skills needed? Would they be more ready then to learn about plants and soil and Pythagorean’s Theorem?

    1. Lisa, so nice to hear from you! I think you’re on to something. We’ve forgotten that the overall expectations are the curriculum. The specific expectations are a signpost to learning, not necessarily to be taught in lockstep with a whole class approach. When you read the front matter of each curriculum document (arguably the most important part of the curriculum), we can see lots of ways to do exactly what you’re talking about. I think what happens is we return to our “default teaching mode” (see the work of Alan Luke) instead of thinking and creating learning spaces like the one you describe.

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