Sometimes things in life seem to collide so magically that we are wont to call them coincidence. In reality, it’s probably more like while we are working hard to understand something in one area of our life, we see the connections in others. Our lens is always coloured by the soundtrack we have playing in the back of our minds.
And so it has been for me with reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset and working on Parkland School Division’s new report card: “The great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent, and they are fascinated with the process of learning.”
When I read this line, I almost caught my breath. This was it. This was the vision that had been driving me as I had collaborated with a passionate and gifted group of people to develop a new report card.
Report card. Typically these two words can elicit responses that range from tears, to shudders, to nausea. And that’s not the students – it’s the teachers. I’m not joking. Not even a little bit. The amount of work that goes into trying to write a comment that translates dense curriculum language and learning outcomes, that are often devoid of meaning, into something that is personal and meaningful to students and parents, is a twisted exercise in self-torture. Someone should do a study on teachers around the time after report cards come out. I’m sure we exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
What I am so excited about with this report card is that we are focused on the things that really matter. We’re directly assessing problem solving, investigation, communication in all its various forms (not just reading and writing), collaboration, making connections, habits of mind, making reasoned judgments…all that juicy, 21st century learning, transformative stuff. We’re going to stop spinning on the particle model, the parts of speech, and the historical dates of the industrial revolution, and start focusing more on why they need to know these things. That’s not to say that kids don’t need to know stuff. There are some things that students need to have at their fingertips to be able to exercise these higher order thinking skills. I would prefer if I ever have the misfortune to be on the operating table, that my neurosurgeon not have to Google what his next steps are going to be so he can problem solve his way out of the situation. Do they even have internet access in the OR? Are you allowed to bring your iPhone in there? This doesn’t mean that he won’t have to get creative sometimes, because that’s not real life, or that he won’t need to consult with his peers around the table, because that’s not real life either. We’re going to assess knowledge content, but keep in mind that knowledge is useless without knowing what to do with it.
Speaking of grades, or “descriptors” if you will – these are not about sliding students into a particular box or standard. We should not, MUST NOT believe that students either got it or they don’t. This is a fixed mindset, and this can negatively impact a child as early as pre-school. If children perceive that learning is about what you can innately do on your own, then we’ve lost them. If they believe it’s about hard work, struggle, and perseverance, and that you usually need to get support in some way, shape or form – anyone can play, it’s just a matter of making the choice. Think of the last time you tackled something really difficult, something that was really important, without the support of another person, or access to resources. We MUST believe that all students can learn, that we meet them where they are at, and we find a way to bring them along. We teach them how to get along. The descriptors differentiate based on the kind of support a student needs to achieve. It’s not a question of whether or not the student has achieved the goal. That is assumed. It’s a question of how we got them there. So that’s the first half of the quote: “great teachers believe in the growth of the intellect and talent.”
Here’s the second part – the part about being fascinated with the process of learning: the thing that I have come to find most uniquely engaging and exciting is listening to kids tell me about what was going on in their heads. I didn’t always know what to do with it, and I was often stymied to understand what they were trying to tell me, but I loved trying to solve the puzzle. By focusing on the processes, we are asking our teachers to do exactly that. Observe with eyes wide open. Don’t listen for specific answers. Hear everything they have to say. Even if it’s completely, 100%, horribly wrong, there is tremendous value in what they are sharing with you. Treat it like gold.
In the spirit of the growth mindset, I know that we have not arrived with this report card. I know that there will be things that will cause us to fall flat on our faces. But I’m not afraid of it. I look forward to it it, in fact. How else can we possibly learn?