Watching Johnny Depp on Letterman the other night got my passions all stirred up again. No, not those ones! (Well maybe a little, I do love me some Johnny Depp). Let me explain.
We just finished up another school year here- last Friday morning the students in my Teacher Advisory Group came to pick up their year end report cards. Can I tell you how much I hate handing out report cards? I hate that after spending most of every day for the last 10 months in this school these students walk away with a nondescript piece of paper with assorted numbers on it that holds way too much power over how they see themselves. Where is their portfolio of work? Their demonstration of growth over time? The project that they poured their heart and soul into? Is it realistic or wise that their whole learning experience for the last ten months be reduced to one piece of paper with some percentages on it? Is that the best we can do?
You probably won't be surprised to hear that I give each student my standard preamble as we look over the report together. I tell them that this report is not the whole picture, that a big part of what is being measured is not their intelligence or skill, but rather how well they fit into the system and that they will know better than anyone where they sold themselves short and could have done better and where the system sold them short and it could have done better, and how failing is an essential part of learning and so on and so on. And no matter my little mini-rant, I watch as their faces still light up or fall depending on what is written on that piece of paper. By the time these kids get to high school they have been well steeped in the grading paradigm, and they imbue it with far too much meaning. That paper tells them that the only thing that matters is product and the only product that matters is the number on that paper. I feel sad because I know that this will stay with many of them for a long, long time. I see it in my coaching practice where most of my clients still struggle with the perfect product paradigm. I still grapple with it.
So back to Johnny Depp. As he related that he never watches his movies to an incredulous Letterman, I started dreaming and scheming about how I could get Depp to come seduce the BC Minister of Education, Margaret MacDiarmid. (Now you've got to understand how much I truly desire a transformation of education when I'm dreaming of Johnny Depp seducing someone other than me.) I figured that once he had her under his Svengali like spell he could do a mind meld on her transmitting the idea that our school systems are f*#&@d because we don't place any value on process. He could use himself as an example, saying things like he did on Letterman or in this BBC article:
"I prefer to walk away with the experience as opposed to walking away with the product," he explained. "You know, once my job is done on the film, it's really none of my business." He added: "I like to portray a character, inhabit a character and build character, but I don't want to watch the end result necessarily, because it becomes about money then and I'd rather not think about that."
Substitute grades for money and you'll see that this is exactly what we do to students - we deny them the experience of becoming immersed in the process without worrying about the product. No surprise that Depp dropped out of school at 16 and has this to say about the experience:
He says, "I did feel like an outsider. I felt completely and utterly confused by everything that was going on around me. It was the one thing that the teachers didn't want you to do in school, you know, question things. But I always wanted to know why. It really p**sed them off because it's a f**king valid question. It's the only question."
In their recent call discussing what blocks us (which I highly recommend if you haven't already listened to it - it's awesome and it's free), Patti Digh and David Robins share a story from the book The War of Art about a pottery instructor who did an experiment with two different classes. One class was told that they would be graded on the perfect pot. At the end of the course only one pot needed to be submitted and they would be graded on how close it is to perfect. The other class was told they would be graded on the weight of clay used. At the end of the course, the more clay the student used, the higher the grade. You can guess the result - the first group did not have one finished piece among them at the end of the term, whereas the second group threw a large number of wonderful, beautiful pots.
I have always tried alternative assessment strategies in my Psych 11 and 12 classes, and this story and Johnny Depp have me thinking again about how to refine my assessment further. I have an idea that one of my assessments will be based on the number of questions asked - the more questions the higher the grade. Questioning functions as both a process for deepening learning and as an indicator of being engaged with the material (and it could also be my homage to the teenaged Johnny).
And if I haven't lost you to a Johnny Depp reverie, feel free to share where in your life you need to let go of product paralyzation and just start throwing some pots. This blog post is one of my pots.