I am spending my week in beautiful Seattle, WA, studying math with a bunch of other teachers at NWMI. There are surely those for whom this is not an ideal summer experience, but for me, today was terrific. We’re studying the mathematics of origami, which is quite intriguing, but I’m also loving the company. I teach at a private school, too seldom around public school teachers, so I’m also trying to learn from their stories, complaints, plans, and ideas, and I’ve heard a lot to think about.
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Today, I worked on a number of little projects with three other teachers in a room of about a dozen. One of the worksheets was about origamic constructions. Can you make a perfect square using scrap paper with no edges by folding only? As we dove into trying, failing, thinking, and retrying, the teacher next to me said jokingly, “just how it always happens, right? Hand out the sheet and everybody gets to work quietly. Yeah right.” Obviously, school doesn’t always happen this way.
Every teacher knows the frustration of pulling students along through some exercise they don’t care about or just want to talk through, but our little session was going quite well. I thought it was obvious why, and it wasn’t about age or maturity.
We were engaged, because this is what we had chosen to come for. The expectations on us were little, no one was grading us, and our time was our own. “What you get is what you get,” explained the guy I signed in with to start the day. This experience was for us, and we had chosen to take it on, out of self-interest and a drive to learn and better ourselves.
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We spent the day working on the kind of questions that are immediately engaging, but that you’re almost certain to get wrong over and over. They beg persistence, trial and error, thought and rethinking, so by the lunch we had amassed a decent pile on our table. It contained all of our successes and failures lumped together. I’m not even sure we could find exactly what was what, or even tell the difference.
“Grade that!” someone said. I can’t know exactly what he meant from those two words, but I thought it was genius.
Here was the product of a productive day of learning and intellectual and professional growth – a pile of stuff you can’t even make sense of. It couldn’t possibly be graded or assessed by point values. The end product was not some physical thing that could be looked at and checked over. Even our successes weren’t worth grading, because the end product of an educational experience is in your brain.
The product of mathematical work is mathematical thinking. Trying to grade it is useless.
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If we put students in school cultures that drag them through what they must do, independent of who they are or want to be, then dull, disengaged classes will follow. Maybe not for all, but for most students, school will be a bore and a struggle.
If instead, we can create school cultures that allow students to choose the room they are in, like we did today, and engage with material that is personally exciting, compelling, challenging, and ungraded, then class may be engaging and productive every time.
Finally, the product of school is not certified applicants for colleges that produce certified job applicants. The product is in the brain of each child. It is entirely their own and will be forever. To grade that is insensitive and useless.