Is School a Competition?
By Dr. Matt Doyle, Executive Director of iCERP, and Jennifer Peirson, iCERP Action Council Lead
We are always struck by the elevated levels of hope and enthusiasm that students show as they step into their classrooms and courses at the beginning of a new school year. Each student brings their own set of aspirations about how the school year will go and the success they will have. The collective outlook is fresh and open to experience--similar to the feeling before the start of a new basketball, football, or soccer game. The atmosphere is so similar that you can even pick up on the sense of nervous excitement.
While the excitement is fantastic and inspirational, sadly, it fades as the school year goes on--similar to the emotional shift during a sporting contest. This observation brings us to an important question: Is school a competition? Should some students feel like winners and others like losers on the last day of the school year?
"Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."
Education Is Life
Education is a large part of every student's life. Add it up: 182 days is about half the year and seven hours are about half the waking hours of the day--and we all know that learning does not just shut off when the bell rings. However, when speaking directly with middle and high school students, they see a disconnect between learning in school and learning in life. There exists a 'relevance gap' for students. We submit that this gap is created in large part by the conditions in school that feel very much like a competition between and among students. To play out our sports metaphor, some groups of students score more points than others. These points are primarily based on test scores and grades.
Most students we talk with seem to intuitively know that good grades do not necessarily equate to success in life. Indeed, this feeling among many students has led to what we call the 'Just tell me what I need to do to get an A' syndrome. Many students have learned how to game the system of tests and grades. The problem is that this brings us right back to the 'winners and losers' mindset of competition.
"But there are advantages to being elected president. The day after I was elected, I had my high school grades classified Top Secret."
Education Is Continuous Improvement
If 'education is life,' we need to reset the conditions for learning to become more aligned with continuous improvement rather than high-stakes tests and arbitrary grades. All students can and want to improve; the shift is in how we measure their performance along this continuum of improvement. The measurement should be less about competing for a grade and more aligned to their progress toward becoming a well-rounded adult, complete with the habits of mind necessary to successfully navigate a complex world of work that places much higher value on persisting, thinking flexibly, and listening with understanding and empathy than on a grade point average or SAT score.
"Learning is not compulsory; it's voluntary. Improvement is not compulsory; it's voluntary. But to survive, we must learn."
-W. Edwards Deming
At the International Center for Educational Research and Practice (iCERP),* we are focused on shifting to a continuous improvement mindset. Jennifer Peirson, an iCERP Action Council member, is taking the lead, working directly with teachers and researchers from the University of California - San Diego to design a Performance Framework that places the focus on learning as a continuum rather than a competition.
Creating a Performance Framework
How might we actually make continuous improvement a reality for students? The first step is to build a learning continuum, because all students learn at different rates. (Keep in mind that if we judged Albert Einstein's genius by his third-grade reading score alone, things would be very different today.) The second step is to change how we help students progress along the continuum. The Performance Framework is a roadmap that students follow to navigate their own path toward graduation, success in higher education, and a meaningful career. Teachers become activators of learning rather than judges of achievement.
A performance framework includes a continuum of competencies, learning progressions, and assessments in academics, social-emotional learning, and self-regulation. The continuum supports a structural and system transformation that allows students to progress once they have mastered competencies, instead of promotion via seat time and grades. This system is designed to address the opportunity gaps by ensuring that all students experience high-quality learning and master standards before moving on to more challenging levels.
Creating a continuous improvement process is an ongoing invitation for all students to learn. All too often, the traditional grading practices serve as an invitation for struggling students to trade in learning for other, less productive pursuits. The central purpose of a performance framework is a change in assessment practices; a move away from assessing students (e.g., emphasis on testing for verification of learning, comparison, grading) to assessing with students (e.g., the formative assessment process). The formative assessment process, also called assessment for learning, is the process by which all students are empowered to deeply understand their results and are encouraged by their teacher to take action that leads to progress. Circling back to the sports analogy, just as a coach gives feedback to players to improve their performance, in a classroom where evaluation is used for growth rather than competition, we see less judging and more nudging with descriptive feedback that is proactive and personal.
The performance framework requires reshaping our pedagogical culture. In other words, to redefine culture is to redefine the way we do business; and our business is to ensure that all students follow a pathway to success.
"Rather than sorting students into winners and losers, assessment for learning can put all students on a winning streak."
* The International Center for Educational Research and Practice (iCERP) is a thought leadership collaborative representing a partnership between the University of California at San Diego, the San Diego Workforce Partnership and public education. iCERP is a global space promoting intersectionality of thought with a particular focus on the lifelong learner.