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Reaching New Heights

In many ways my wife, Cathy, completes me. This was evident to me from the earliest days of our marriage when we hiked Angels Landing in Zion National Park on our honeymoon. More security chains have been added since our ascent 30 years ago and parts of the trail have been leveled off a bit to improve safety. Still, even today portions of the hike are unnerving.

In her youth and into college Cathy was a competitive diver so her aversion to heights is not nearly as acute as mine. Thus, about an hour into our early morning hike, I knew that I was the one who was going to need to be brave in order to stay up. While I can still recall in a most visceral way the feelings of terror and triumph associated with this hike, the thing I don’t recall is the walk from the car to the trailhead.

Why am I sharing this? Because I think much of the tasks of learning on which we currently focus equates to the walk to the trailhead. By this I mean items considered to fall in the lower categories of “remembering” and “understanding” when recalling Bloom’s Taxonomy.

While this level of learning may feel uneventful to students beyond grades six or seven, it is actually quite important work! For the purpose of this article, I am equating the hike up the mountain with higher-orders of learning (apply, analyze, evaluate, create). No successful journey up the mountain can begin without first getting to the foothills fully prepared with the right skills, equipment, and knowledge. In this way, the foundational work that occurs in early education is invaluable as is the scaffolding work good teachers do with students when tackling difficult concepts and topics to ensure understanding.

Traditionally, it is during the high school years when students’ cognitive maturity has developed enough to where they desire some level of the risk/challenge of the climb. Unfortunately, the structures inherent in high school education tether them close to the ground, and this all begins with the ordering society places on our schools, teachers, and our young people. Here we could rehash the numerous external pressures facing highschoolers that heap undo stress on high performers while disenfranchising many others. Instead, I want to focus on two byproducts of the pressure cooker environment, misaligned expectations regarding student engagement and grades.

Fact: in our current system, grades matter more than outcomes and learning. So long as this remains the case, most students (and parents) will possess a transactional view of education where grades are a commodity. This is not new. What is new (in relative terms) is the ease with which students can apply effective hacks which enable them to forgo some degree of learning while achieving the desired outcome - a high grade. Information in many forms is easy to come by, making shortcuts appealing for busy youngsters.

In this way, students view learning as a series of boxes to check, and the question that matters is, “What do I have to do to earn an A?” rather than, “How is this helping me grow?” The problem is that the teacher is designing curriculum and assignments with the latter question in mind. Thus, the expectations and motivations attached to an assignment’s completion are markedly different. In many ways, this has come to define the teacher-student relationship. To use a sports metaphor, it’s the difference between the teacher being viewed as a coach versus a referee. While a coach (teacher) attempts to establish a same-team relationship, the players (students) and fans (parents) simply want teacher-as-referee to “make the right call” on their behalf and they feel a sense of injustice when things don’t go their way. Thus, when it comes to assessing student progress, the preferred path to avoid conflict is to test for “remembering” and “understanding” as these can be more objectively quantified. Generally, the further up the learning mountain you ascend, the more subjective the assessments, and the greater the likelihood that students and parents are going to disagree with a teacher’s call. This often leads the teacher to assign some form of alternative assessment which may or may not test for the same level of learning challenge.

Alternative assessments are important, but what a teacher sees as an opportunity for improved learning, many students simply treat as a means of recouping lost points. COVID made this dynamic much worse as most teachers found themselves in the unenviable position of begging students to “just turn in something…anything.” Unfortunately, we’ve not made our way completely out of this imbalance. We have created an environment where showing up to jump through hoops is enough. It’s not and we are doing a disservice to our young people by acting like it is.

It could be argued that the relationship a teacher has with a struggling or non-compliant student might be more authentic than that of a high performer. Many struggling students haven’t bought into either narrative - that grades are the endgame or that learning matters. So when a teacher breaks through and a student shows movement, it could be a slight win on the side of learning. The danger here comes if, in an effort to reward the student, the teacher provides a grade that misrepresents what is warranted by the work product. In both cases, what you end up with are inflated grades.

How do we help students build/recapture and sustain learning momentum? This is one of the major challenges facing education today, AVLI included. In our collective efforts to support students and meet them where they are, we have inadvertently allowed ourselves to adopt inconsistent expectations. The key word here is inconsistent. When this happens, our objective of student learning becomes usurped by the alternative goal of grade attainment. To be sure, the care of our students is our driving concern. But as educational enterprises, our first order of care needs to be our students’ intellectual growth. And this will only be realized by challenging our students to climb the mountain.

Though it may seem counterintuitive, edtech and the looming changes AI will usher in have an important role in reordering learning objectives. As I referenced in my last post, much of the edtech industry’s focus is on making knowledge acquisition (remembering and understanding) easier. This is important because it can hasten the time it takes to get students to the trailhead where the climb can commence. This is the critical but often forgettable work students currently lament. By positioning this work as necessary within the context of the loftier course objectives, purpose is affixed to the tasks. This also signals to students that more is expected of them.

However, the influence of AI can do more if we allow it. My last post also suggests that a growth mindset requires us to continually entertain some degree of intellectual discomfort. While artificial intelligence makes the lower levels of learning more accessible, I believe it will also serve as a CONSTANT point of discomfort, pushing us to consider what is possible, what is ethical, and what is the uniquely human contribution to which each of us is being called in order to make a difference in the world. These, then, become some of the concerns good teachers call upon for the ascent - building the skills of critical thinking, transference, argumentation/dialogue, and, perhaps most importantly, discernment.

For some, getting to the top of the learning mountain will prove to be too difficult. In spite of their most arduous efforts, they simply can’t continue. While this may look like failure, our role as educators is to invite these students to look out from their current vantage point to recognize just how far they have come. At the same time, this shouldn’t stop us from expecting others to press on. After all, the view from the summit is often inspiring and we’d hate for those who can make the ascent to miss out simply because we allowed the journey to end early.


CONTRIBUTOR: Jeff Hausman, AVLI President

vol 6 issue 2


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