Thursday, January 14, 2021

Getting Straight A's


Over the New Year's break, I spent a few days reorganizing our laundry room/storage closet. Among the items in there were boxes of keepsakes, which is why it was a multiple-day project: I found myself considering each item, remembering, and telling myself and my family the stories they evoked. Among the memorabilia I found my very first report card from Meadowfield Elementary School. It was a document that Miss McCutcheon had filled in by hand. I'd received straight A's. 

I'd been proud of that accomplishment, although considering it from the vantage point of some four decades later, the feeling is much more complicated. For instance, as an eight-year-old I'd capably done the calculation, figuring that what Miss McCutcheon was telling me with these high marks was that I was the smartest kid in the class. I knew enough to not voice this aloud, but I thought it. Also, in looking back, I know that those grades also indicate that I must have been a "teacher's pet," which is to say an obedient goody-two-shoes.

I don't recall comparing report cards with any of my classmates. For all I know, Miss McCutcheon gave everyone straight A's. Still, when I considered the landscape, I could more or less suss out the kids who weren't so "smart." They were in reading group "D" (I was in "A") or they struggled when called upon to answer the teacher's questions. It was clearly a kind of competition, a race, and that report card let me know that I was in the lead. It was an attitude toward school that carried right through my university education: my classmates might be my friends, but so long as they were ranking us, they were also my competitors. The only time I really encountered teamwork over competition in school was on sports teams, acting in plays, or singing in the choir. Academics was every person for themself.

The real world set me straight. The smartest kids didn't wind up with the most marbles and if I didn't learn to work with these other people, I was going to get no where. The real world was about gathering around, looking at the other people, and asking the question, "Now what are we going to do?" And the process was mostly one of collaboration, or as Eleanor Duckworth puts it, "the collective creation of knowledge." Being the smartest was immaterial in the real world where our successes or failures were shared responsibilities. No one cared about my straight A's. They cared about my contribution, my teamwork, and whether or not the others wanted to hang out with me day in and day out. After all those years of competing with the people around me, I was thrust into a world in which my rise and fall was incumbent upon and dependent upon my "classmates."

This isn't to say that there isn't competition of all kinds in the world outside of school, but the whole being-graded-on-a-curve, don't-peek-at-your-neighbor's-test-answers, here's-your-gold-star model falls by the wayside as the ability to work well with others, to collaborate, takes precedence. The infuriating part about this is that "the collective creation of knowledge" is how children tend to naturally organize their own learning until we teach them otherwise. When we don't rank and judge them as individuals, when we allow them to solve problems together, when we turn them loose on the playground, most children, most of the time, engage the world with others, not against them, which is much more in keeping with the real world I found beyond my own schooling.

We insist that our schools exist to prepare children for life. Why do we make them so unlike life?

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