Thursday, May 9, 2013

"Does Any of this Still Count?"

We have reached that point in the school year where my 8th graders have one overriding question on their minds.  As their thoughts turn to the senior trip, graduation, and the various ways in which they can show that they are all grown up, they often wonder, "Hey, Rabbi - Does any of this still count?"  On a basic level, they are asking why they should still have to sit in classes where there might not even be a final exam, and even for those classes (such as mine) where there is such an exam, they are wondering why they should bother studying.  After all, they have all gotten into high school, and their June grades will have no impact on their immediate future plans.

On one level, this is understandable.  While we stress to our students that things such as manner and respect and davening (prayer) do not recognize senioritis and should always be in play, it is harder to make that case for specific subject material.  No one is going to miss out on medical school because they daydreamed through the last month of 8th grade science and no one is going to fail to become a Rosh Yeshiva because they were doodling during a month of Gemara back when they were 14 years old.*

*Although one can argue that the people who become Roshei Yeshiva are probably the ones who were already serious at age 14.

But on another level, it reflects a natural outgrowth of our educational system.  So much of what we do in school is incentive based, and those incentives are generally grades.  Students are well trained from an early age to know that what really matters is the number or letter that appears at the top of that quiz or test or project.  They learn to ask things such as "will this be on the test?" and - even worse to my ears - "do we need to know this?"*  At the end of the day, our assessment-focused system, no matter what type of assessments we use, conditions our students to judge something's value by its connection to a grade.

*My answer to that question is well-known to my students.  "You need to know everything."  Kind of removes the uncertainty while stressing that everything that we do is for a reason.

As adults, we know of course that not all of life is like this.  While much of what we do is incentive-driven (in this case, the incentive is a paycheck), we also learn that there are many things in life that we do because we enjoy them or find value in them.  One can construct an argument that says that that is also incentive-driven, but if it is, it is in a way that is so different from the grade-based or salary-based incentive system as to be unrecognizable as being the same thing.  Our goal as educators is to find a way to convey to our students a love of learning - learning in general and our disciplines in particular - to the extent that they are driven to learn even when the tangible incentives fall away.

This was not intended as a Project-Based Learning post, but I believe that PBL can help in solving this conundrum.  When students' experience in class is about listening to a lecture, filling out homework sheets, and cramming for a test, it is often the grade and the grade along which propels them forward on a daily basis.  However, when given more control over their own learning, students gradually develop their own internal motivation towards their learning.  This is not to say that they will necessarily love a discipline just because that class was a PBL environment; but they are more likely to at least have a positive attitude towards the learning experience in general when they felt a sense of ownership over it, and not a sense that they were charged with merely regurgitating information back to the person who dispensed that information in the first place.  The more that we can make the learning experience belong to the students, the more that they will be willing to do it even after it "no longer counts".

1 comment:

Simcha Schaum said...

I think PBL can also help shift student focus away from grades in a practical way as well. PBL units often culminate in a presentation to an "authentic" audience and this allows the students to experience an "end result" of their learning that is much more meaningful than writing down answers on a test. They are still responsible for learning well, but "le-maaseh," their accountability is to make sure they give a good and meaningful presentation of which they can be proud. (In the questionnaire my class took after its most recent project, only one of the groups cited grades as a motivating factor; almost everyone wrote that they wanted to give a good presentation to the audience, who came from outside of school.)