Almost every conversation about moving from traditional grading practices to sound grading practices (even standards-based grading) seems to end up with discussions and debates about when students get out into the real world. While I understand the intent of this sentiment and the concern it expresses, this real world conversation can devolve into an overly cynical perspective from which to examine the experiences of our students and seems only to serve as a justification for punitive practices along a very narrow set of circumstances.
Lamenting the younger generation is both timeless and tired. The following quote (attributed to Socrates) encapsulates this nicely:
“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”
Sound familiar? This could be a quote from any adult referring to almost any child or teenager in 2016. Another example is technology. Instead of being amazed at how quickly young people master technology (i.e. cell phones, tablets, apps, etc.) too many adults cling to the ole “…back in my day we didn’t need any of that stuff.” Just once I’d like to hear an adult say, “You know what, kids today are way ahead of where we were at that age.” I’ll wait. Our version of “real” is not their version of “real” and too often this conversation about when kids arrive in the real world illustrates more about how disconnected adults are from the realities of young people today.
School is not a dress rehearsal
What troubles me the most is that so many educators (including me early in my career) fail to recognize how real being young is. As I think about the experiences of our students, I’m still trying to figure out which one is make-believe. Nothing young people face today is a fantasy. Last time I checked, the stress at home is real, the bullying is real, the poverty is real, the tension within their friendships is real, learning to read is real, developing fundamental skills is real, their report cards are real, and not graduating from high school is all-too-real. Which part of our students’ experiences is a fantasy?
Over the last year I’ve asked hundreds of educators (in group settings) if they would go back to elementary school, middle school, or high school? What’s interesting is that almost no one raises a hand. Adults often tell children that being young is the best time of their lives and yet few adults would go back. Why wouldn’t adults jump at the chance to return? Maybe it’s we who live in a fantasy if we can’t recognize that being a student is very real and that the residual impact of their experiences will not be erased upon leaving high school.
They’re not adults
As noble as it is to have our students aspire to adult-like behavior, the truth is that they’re not adults; as mature as some of our students are, it is unreasonable to hold them to account the same way we would an actual adult. Our brains go through an extensive period of reorganization between the ages of 12 and 25 (Dobbs, 2011), which means our brains are not functioning as adult brains until our early to mid-twenties; that’s after we’ve graduated from college. What’s more, holding students accountable for adult-like behavior when students are not afforded adult-like freedoms seems unfair. When it comes to sound grading practices, the real world debate seems to primarily center around the zeros and penalties, but if we are going to have the real world conversation then we need to have all sides of the conversation. Just a few examples:
- As an adult, it is irrelevant that you used to not know how to do something, yet for students, a failed quiz from two weeks ago can sit in a gradebook and rot at an average even though the student has now mastered the skill; that’s not real world.
- Adults are rarely mean averaged, yet in many schools the mean average is exclusively how grades are determined; that’s not real world.
- College freshman attend classes somewhere around 15 hours hour per week. High school seniors attend classes somewhere around 25 hours per week; that’s not real world.
- Most college professors can’t (large lecture halls) or don’t take attendance. Most high schools track attendance for their seniors right up until graduation; that’s not real world.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for the last two bullet points to change. The point is we have to recognize the differences between K-12 and post-secondary experiences. School is not the students’ job when you consider that adults choose their professions while most students are forced against their will to take the subjects they’re enrolled in; no one asks middle school students, for example, if they’re interested in ELA. Again, I’m not suggesting that should change. What I am suggesting is that we be mindful of the dichotomy between being an adult and being a student.
The best preparation for tomorrow
The real world argument seems to be anchored on the idea that the best preparation for tomorrow is through the replication of tomorrow’s experiences. While familiarity may be somewhat helpful, this approach is flawed since many of tomorrow’s experiences simply cannot be replicated. Take parenting, for example. How could any adult ever feel prepared to be a parent when there is no way for adults to replicate the parenting experience? Having pets or carrying an egg around doesn’t count; babysitting is a very short-term experience. Yet, most parents concluded they were ready because of other circumstances. Whether it was financial security, relationship security, job security, maturity (or all of the above), so many adults felt ready for something they’ve never experienced before. It is a fallacy that we need to replicate tomorrow’s experiences to be prepared for tomorrow.
No one can predict the future so how can we say with any definitiveness what our students are going to experience after they graduate from high school. The best preparation for tomorrow is the development of the skills that allow students success in a multitude of experiences. Irresponsible students need to be taught responsibility; disrespectful students need to be taught to be more respectful, and so on. Punishing the absence of a skill won’t produce the skill, but teaching it will.
When students fall short the response should be rapid and intense, but should also be anchored on instruction, support, and inclusion. Student inaction should result in a consequence but that consequence need not be punitive if teaching is the goal. If a student doesn’t know how to write an argumentative paragraph or essay, we teach them. If a student can’t add or subtract fractions, we teach them. If a student predictably struggles to meet deadlines, we need to teach them; that is the best preparation for tomorrow. Their world is real. If we keep obsessing over their unknowable future, we will ignore what is most essential in their real world.
Dobbs, D. (2011). Beautiful Brains. National Geographic, 220(4), 36–59