Tuesday, December 27, 2011

If School Is Not Relevant

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Had a conversation with a friend a while back; we were talking about how to best evaluate what was working in schools.

After rambling through all the usual arguments about testing and achievement and technology and pd, he said to me, "You know, for all the effort we put into the kids while they are our students, we do really little to gauge how we did once they are out the door. We treat school as though it is the most important thing in the world; and then they get out only to find that most of what they spent all those years doing there wasn't relevant. The only ones who ever really come back to talk to us are the ones who got something relevant out of school -- whether with grades or football or even the class clowns who owned the place while they were here. The kids who got something out of school come back and tell us how great we were. So there we are only getting feedback from the kids for whom the whole thing -- or at least something important in it -- worked. But when's the last time you heard back from any of those kids at the bottom of the rung? The quiet kids? The ones whose names you never could remember right?"

Most of the forms of evaluation and assessment we use have to do with finding out how a kid is doing right now; but "right now" isn't necessarily the best indicator of where we are headed. Even worse, "right now" often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about how many kids in reality are graded and assessed in the minds of the teacher before they ever open their mouths; how they are assessed in advance based on the accumulation of all of those "right now" experiences and testing events devoid of the context of a child's life. Unfortunately, for a lot of kids, that becomes the de facto of their school experience.

That's not to knock teachers, it's just reality; as institutions, schools are really good at stereotyping kids and how that plays out at the classroom level in terms of attitudes accorded to students by faculty and peers alike -- well, that's an unfortunate but absolutely real part of the school(ed) experience.

And so we Scantron and five-paragraph essay our kids to death in the interest of getting them to achieve; but what is that elusive achievement? Is it a demonstrable improvement over time? (If so, why do we give grades based on summative assessments?) Is it an accumulation of honors? (If so, does that imply that most kids achieve nothing?) Is it an acceptance to the next level, the next school, the next diploma?

And what of when they leave our tutelage?

Imagine if schools were judged not by how well students achieved while they were in school, but in how well they achieved once they left. If schools saw their worth not in how many kids got accepted to college, but in how many kids went on to live meaningful and engaged lives and who would point back to their school years as the point of relevancy that was the foundation of it all.

If schools gauged themselves not by how many kids passed a test, but in how well it prepared those kids who did not pass the test to see themselves as worthy of respect and ready to take on the challenges of life. In fact, if schools worked to make entrepreneurs and role models of every kid who failed a standardized exam. If failure became a calling card for innovation.

If schools prided themselves on knowing the dreams of the quiet kids. If they prided themselves on helping those kids attain those dreams.

Dreams don't always fit into curricula.

Neither do successful failures.

We need schools that recognize failure as being as much a matter of how well one fits into a prescribed system than how well one understands, well, much of anything really.

And kids know we are blowing smoke when we give lip-service to how everyone should think outside-the-box and then we hand them a box and tell them that everything they've learned should fit back into it. And when they leave things outside-the-box we define them as failures.

We do this at our increased peril.

Because we are all failures of one sort or another. And though we like to focus on what we consider positive, it is more often the case that we live in a world comprised of systems of struggle and unanswerable questions. And we fail on a regular basis. And we need students who understand how to fail.

And we know this, yet we continue to punish students who fail -- as though our invented system of textbooks and number-two pencils were a better predictor of intellectual and creative capacity than life itself.

I wonder if I did a good enough job explaining that to my students. I wonder about the students who slipped through. I wonder about the ones who failed out.

I feel like they are the ones we should be talking to.

They are the ones who understand the impact of schooling. Enough of the smartest kids in the class always getting to answer the questions. I want to hear from the kids for whom school didn't work. I want to hear from the alumni who feel cheated by the system. I want our schools to be judged by how well we respected the humanity of the student who graduated with the lowest GPA and how we celebrated and engaged his or her capacity within society.

Because we are a society, we are connected one and all; and ultimately, if school is not relevant for that kid, school is not relevant for any kid.


  1. Here's the problem as I see it: most of what we teach in high school is not relevant to many people. Shakespeare is not relevant, bunch-o-facts history is not relevant, and calculus is CERTAINLY not relevant. We need to completely rethink what should be taught to all students (for example, replacing Calculus with a consumer math class that really matters to everyone) and let the students branch out into their own interests much sooner. Until we do that, no amount of teacher charisma or school-wide respect being shown to all students will be enough.

  2. @msufan

    I tend to think it's not necessarily the content, but how we teach and apply the content. For example, I really don't understand why we don't teach Shakespeare in video-production class. I don't get why we don't teach engineering or astrophysics with calculus integrated rather than as pure mathematics -- or at least give options. The cynic in me suggests it's got something to do with the textbook industry.


  3. The problem is that we have broken up everything into discrete chunks and that is not how the real world works. My web design students are surprised to learn that there is actually a reason to learn things like factoring (for 360 column design) or equivalent ratios (changing a 20MP photo into a 72 dpi photo for online viewing). My desktop publishing kids are stunned to learn that X,Y positions on a grid are useful for something. We take math and turn it into something that looks like it has no uses in their life. We should teach ALL but the most basic math inside curriculum that actually shows some kind of relevance.

  4. @Robert

    Great point. It helps if they are making something. Would love to see more collab between Art and Math, Poetry and Programming. When you are making something you care about, the relevance is obvious.


  5. what a great post.

    listening for the dreams of quiet kids.
    listening for quality of life.

    thanks guys.

  6. Similar blogspot post just the other day at www.teacherspetpeeves1.blogspot.com

  7. Great post! I just wrote about this very thing on my blog at The Lesson Locker". Students are good at lots of different things. I’ve learned more about some students in a few minutes spent looking at their sketch book or talking about their role in the school musical than I have from months in biology class. If we don’t offer them opportunities to explore and nurture their passions what kind of world will we be building? If we don’t assure them that their interests and talents are important how can they ever realize their potential?

  8. All of these what ifs are why I home school for now. Not saying I always will, or that there aren't pros and cons to any kind of education, but this "i have a dream" about education is why many decide to take learning back into their own hands. Because it is about life, innovation, confidence, creativity, etc etc just as much as knowing stuff.

  9. As an early childhood educator, I agree. I would like to caution the importance and merit of using both diagnostic and summative assessment. Assessing "in the moment" can be lead to unreliable results. In addition, educators and professionals working with children should be aware of their frame of mind before and during the assessment/testing period. A myriad of factors such as emotional state, room temperature, lights, lack of sleep etc.. can influence the "testing" outcome. When I assess my kids, I do a pre interview first where I ask them how they can be comfortable during the assessment, and ask how I can help them get to that "just right place". I take keen notes on my students body language during the session. Educators and professional who work with children must make sure to assess the process not just the product.

  10. This is great! Sometimes we place so MUCH into what happens in the early grades, who is reading and who is not that we forget that we all learn at different rates and some of this is not a firm indicator of success later in life. Yes, I know that was probably a run on sentence :-). But, the later success is really what ultimately matters.

  11. Thank you for this thoughtful and inspiring post.

  12. When I read your post I thought about the quote from David Letterman that is inscribed at the Ball State campus - To all 'C' students before me and after me."

  13. What if schools had no boundaries and kids truly could experience the student driven concept? What if kids were placed in leadership and learner roles throughout a single day at school? And what if they were placed in a position to make decisions for the greater good of the group in real life applications? What if those kids who truly enjoyed reading poetry had the forum to do so with others of similar interest and those who engage with writing the poetry fed the process of writing and reading; where children feed off each other in a symbiotic relationship of learning?

    I share your epiphanies, Mrs. Blake-Plock, because I too lived them. I taught in the public classroom with the boundaries. I taught the kids who failed and succeeded, but neither at the brain food being force fed by me as their teacher. Rather at the hand of their very own parents. Society...American Society....relies too much on the system--public education, which was established during the Industrial Age. Really, who is to blame for the pedagogical perspective by which it continues to exist today...as an industry. Change is necessary and with such a mass part of societal dependence, change is hard pressed. But change creeping in and as we develop as a society to actually rely upon each other rather than a single entity, we will be making strides in the RIGHT direction.
    Sabrina Albrecht
    Mom, Educator at Home


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.