Learning From Our Students

Upon finishing the reading that was required for the ECS 300 class, I was filled with so many points and questions and inspirations that I had to take a moment, eat a piece of the chicken tenders my sister left behind when she drove back to Yorkton, and then drink a glass of milk, because those chicken tenders were way spicier than anticipated. After that glorious break, I made myself sit down and compose a grouping of topics I wished to discuss relating to the article that pretty much made me think way more than I was comfortable with. Which isn’t fair – it’s Sunday and I should be allowed to disregard thinking in favour of playing video games and wearing pajamas.

But, I digress. Let’s get this show on the road.

  1. Learning From Students

Being as I am a second year, 19 year old [almost 20!] University student, I have limited experience with learning from my students. I have only just left high school, and though I have been teaching drama for almost six years now, acting classes in small town Yorkton are not very conducive to developing a curriculum and teaching based on the interests of the students. All of the students I taught were there because they enjoyed acting, so teaching about acting pretty much made their days and that was that. Job well done, Sarah. So I won’t use any examples or discuss my time spent “inspiring the future societies to bigger and better acting dreams”. Instead, I’ll talk about my experiences tutoring last semester wherein I actually did quite a lot of learning from my student, however limited it actually was in the grand scheme of things, seeing as it was only last semester.

When I was told to volunteer my time last semester, I had no idea that I would be putting in so much time and care into something I was not really looking forward to. The class I graduated with was kind of weird in the way that we didn’t have many “delinquents”. We were all just exceedingly lazy. So, me putting in extra work? That’s borderline impossible, some would say. And yet here I was, making worksheets at home, emailing and meeting with previous teachers, and doing math over the Christmas break. Working! During a break! The reason for the extra work was because I was trying to tutor a student in PreCalc 30, which I’d never taken. He had also never taken any of the prerequisite courses, so he was starting back in Grade 9 algebra, and I had to take a lot of my direction from him.

I see the experience as an example of learning from students, because, as the reading discusses, teachers have to look at the abilities and interests of the learners as well as what the curriculum is trying to enforce. We spent an entire ¬†week just learning the basics of factoring, and now we’re moving on to SOH CAH TOA before we can even move forward in his assignments.

It has been an interesting journey for me because I have been forced to take the lead of the learner and go where his skills and abilities lead me. We are fortunate to have the ability to loosely follow the curriculum instead of only doing examples from the book and completing his assignments, and I find that he is enjoying the process much more and learning more than he was previously. At first, when we were just going through the curriculum, he was only learning how to answer questions on assignments, and he had little to no grasp on the bigger picture. Now, we are not quite at the level of aptitude required for the course, but he is doing much better, and is enjoying the process infinitely more. He is not being forced to do work he does not understand, and he is improving at a more natural rate. I know that this process is not perfect, and cannot be implemented as effectively with a larger group, but perhaps something can be said for taking a step back, and learning from where the students are, in relation to where the curriculum wants them to be.

2. Grade Point Average

Something that I have always struggled with is the concept of grades, and of getting good grades. When I was in High School, they gave out the award for the highest average to one student in every grade, and I won it for all four years. I was obsessed with my marks and with keeping my grades up to my standards. I remember complaining that I only had a 99% in Calculus because my teacher refused to give me 100%, and being so glad when I could finally drop Phys Ed, because that dreadful 75% was reeking havoc on my GPA. To put it simply, like the example used in the article, my GPA took over most of my life.

It’s not all a bad thing. I mean, I did pretty much have no life going through High School, but part of that was the fault of my extra curricular drama I did at the local studio, where I would go to classes and teach every day after school from 4 – 10 and on Saturdays anywhere from 4 – 13 hours. So, if I wasn’t doing homework, I was memorizing lines, or planning lessons. And I actually really enjoyed it. Because I was so determined and put in a lot of effort, I was able to have a very simple Grade Twelve year, and, after all my AP classes were over, I only had one class for the last two months of school.

I’m not going to sit here and type and pretend that I hate that I did decent in school, or that I kept myself busy, because I didn’t. I actually really enjoyed all the work I did, and I wouldn’t have tried so hard if I didn’t want to do it for myself. But I will say that the obsessive way I handled my GPA has had definitive impact on my life as it is now.

I have severe test anxiety. I’m the weird kind of person who coughs when they get nervous, so I’m pretty much coughing non-stop for days before I have a test because, oh the horror, I could get a 60% on the test, and what would that do to my GPA?

And a lot of the effort is for nothing. I was the co-valedictorian for my school, yeah, but like the article says, AP tests and grade honours don’t really mean as much now as they used to. I don’t really think my grades in High School are impressive anymore, and I don’t really view my valedictorian[ship?] as an accomplishment as much as I used to. It’s something to put on a resume, I guess, but I sometimes doubt that I really deserved it, because, as some people believe, teachers are marking too easy nowadays, so it’s not like I could really fail. And it hasn’t really done much in my University career. Marks are not insanely strong incentives for hire. Employers look for experience. If you had an 80% average in University, you aren’t going to get hired over the 70% student who ran a summer camp and has volunteered as a tutor for six years. Because most of education is theoretical, and not implemented. I know, in theory, how to change a tire, but I have never done it myself, so would I rather change a tire myself, as an University educated individual, or would I ask my Dad to do it, who never went to University? The answer is my Dad, in case you were confused. It’s always my Dad, I’d probably set the car on fire if I attempted anything.

3. Pass/Fail

This all brings me to my final point from the article. That’s a lie. I have like, six more points I outlined, but I’m getting tired of writing, and it’s dubious at best if any of this really makes any sense, so I should probably quit while I’m ahead.

Eagle eyed readers will also notice that I referenced this being a Sunday, and I have indeed finished my post on a Monday. It takes me a long time to get my thoughts to resemble something actually legible. That may not be the correct word, but we’re going with it.

I was against the pass/fail system when I was going to school, mostly because I always felt intensely gratified to receive a good grade on something I put so much effort into. And while I I am not completely sold on the idea of pass/fail, I do find myself coming around to the idea a lot more than I was previously.

I like the idea of eliminating the need for competition and division in students, and it does also eliminate a lot of the stress that comes with grading and testing. When I was in school, every marked test was met with choruses of “what did you get?” “did you beat _____?” I like the idea of eliminating the need for competition, and it will lessen the gap between students who are “book smart” and those who struggle with memorization and the like.

But I also struggle with the idea of eliminating competition entirely. When I was in Grade Nine and Ten, my math grades were around 95%. I was doing decently in my math courses, but not as good as I could be, because I knew that 95% was all I needed. But then, in Grade Eleven, one of my close friends transferred into our AP class, and she had a 99% in all her math classes. The push from her to compete to get good grades is what made it so that I had a 99% in Calculus and so on. And it was never mean spirited competition either. We were very good friends, and we got such similar grades that it wasn’t a problem. At the end of the year, we were co-valedictorians together and we did probably the worst speech that was ever given. And I don’t think that competition is bad. We live in a world of competition. When we all graduate, we’ll all be competing for jobs. Our society is simply predisposed to comparing ourselves to others. Now, whether or not that is a good or bad thing is a deep dark rabbit hole I’d rather not ever delve into, because I can list as many numerous examples of positives as of negatives, but the fact of the matter is that I believe teaching your children that “everybody wins” and that competition doesn’t exist is a very hopeful, beautiful view of the world that is simply not true. I don’t think that one should call those who fail “losers” and inspire resent, but instead should teach how to take constructive criticism, and look at a “failure” as an opportunity to learn instead.

When I play games with children, I never just let them win. I don’t think that does them any good. But that’s just me.

Circling back around for my final point here, I want to talk again about the pass/fail, and my last point on why I still struggle with accepting it.

As I stated earlier, my graduating class was inherently lazy. We were so lazy, that most of our extra curr teams had less than ten people because no one cared. The only reason effort was put in was because it was expected of us. Like, the only reason people sold magazines for the campaign was because we could get a hypnotist visit out of it. If my class were to be given a low bar to meet, we would just meet that bar and go no further. Because there is no incentive for doing any better than that. So if a course is pass/fail, naturally, we would only learn enough material to pass and nothing more. I still don’t know if that is entirely a good way to teach. And now I’m stressing myself out, because there is no perfect way to teach and what if everyone just decides to sit on the floor and not move for an entire day, I mean, what are you supposed to do with that?

Well I think I am sufficiently rambled out. I apologize for any confusion you may experience. Feel free to dispute, refute, whatever you’d like, any of my opinions. They are, after all, just opinions, and chances are, some of them read quite differently than I intend and I actually believe something a little different, it’s just simply lost in translation. I love learning, and I love education, that is why I have decided to choose this profession, and I love that I have the ability to constantly change and adapt, which is why a lot of my opinions are so different and varying. I have a problem where I like to see both sides of every opinion and then I have trouble remembering which side I stand on. Except about hippos. My opinions on hippopotamuses are pretty solid. They’re awesome herbivores. And way tougher than me.

Sarah Kirschman