Is it About Teaching? Or is it About Learning?

One of the most interesting online debates I’ve come across lately is this one from the NAIS blog about the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) which is trying to “reimagine the high school transcript.” (If this is your first introduction to the folks, you may want to spend some time digging into their site and listening to the great podcast we did with organizer Scott Looney a couple of months ago.) While I think the idea of getting rid of grades is a much needed one, I also understand that the process is fraught with all sorts of disruptions, not just to the transcript but to narratives of education and schooling, our value as educators, the importance of higher ed, and much more.

The conversation between John Gulla and Rand Harrington is important and interesting, and the whole thing is worth the read. But I want to pick out (or maybe pick “on”) one particular response from Harrington as he attempts to discredit the efforts that Gulla and the Mastery group are making. Here’s the little snip that caught me:

In my opinion, the key questions are: How will MTC improve classroom teaching? Is the talk of MTC moving along the conversation about what great teaching is, or is it a distraction?

My ears have been perking up a lot these days when I read about teaching, so much so that I’ve started feeling the urge (need?) to disclaim any idea that I’m anti teacher or that adults aren’t or can’t be extremely important and valuable people in kids learning lives in school. But I’m becoming more and more convinced that our emphasis on teaching and “improving” it is misplaced.

Two quotes that I’ve referenced before and then I’ll try to flesh out what I mean exactly. First, Seymour Papert, who saidThe role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.” Second, from Carl Rogers, who wrote “I have come to feel that the only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning. It seems to me that anything that can be taught to another is relatively inconsequential and has little or no significant influence on behavior.”

That second quote is pretty radical, I know, while I totally agree with the first half, I’m not sure I completely agree with the second part of it. I do think there are things we can “teach” others, kids in particular. But I have to admit I think first of myself as a parent in that regard than as a classroom teacher. No question that as parents, we teach our kids all sorts of things, sometimes explicitly but more often tacitly. Our own children become who they become in large measure because of what parents “teach” them, intentionally or not.

But I’m not sure much of curriculum is “teachable” if we define our success in that work by whether or not our students actually care about the stuff we’re teaching or whether they can apply it in some useful way outside of the classroom. And it may be that only in that application in a self-designed context can we really say they’ve learned it at all.

It’s interesting, to me at least, that Harrington seems to be suggesting that the goal of getting rid of grades should be to improve teaching instead of improving learning. My sense is that he’s suggesting grades are not just an attempt to measure students but teachers as well. I mean, are we “great teachers” if all of our kids don’t get A’s? It’s as if getting rid of grades would leave us unable to measure our own worth, which is weird on many levels, not the least of which is that we are the ones who determine the grade in the first place.

If you believe Papert, “great teaching” has little to do with how well kids do on the test, or what ends up on the transcript. Because that’s not what learning is about. Instead, great teaching is about stepping back, helping students to identify what questions or topics interest them, giving them space to take those questions in whatever direction they find relevant, and guiding them in creating or making or inventing or constructing responses or solutions that deepen their understanding or contribute something to the world. As Gary Stager would say, “less us, more them.”

Stepping back may seem antithetical to “great teaching” which suggests more effort on our part, not less. But it’s on some level what the MTC is all about. I find it striking when Harrington says:

Not one of the problems with grades—inaccuracy, no meaning, inflation, measures the wrong thing—can be fixed by changing how we represent grades or even changing the category, from disciplinary to non-cognitive. Every critique I have heard can be traced back to the skill of the teacher. Poorly trained teachers with no expertise who make a mess out of grades will make an even bigger mess out of an alternative transcript where “content” has no value.

He misses the point. The biggest problem with grades are what they do to the soul of the learner. Grades are a mess from the start. “Great teaching” isn’t going to change that.

This Week’s Links to Keep You Thinking:

Albemarle Public Schools are doing PBL right.

36% of college students don’t have enough to eat.

Are we already living in virtual reality?

Four problems for news and democracy

One more take on the difference between “personal” and “personalized.”

The bare minimum that you should do to protect your family’s data

1 thought on “Is it About Teaching? Or is it About Learning?”

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