When I was 17, I was so fed up with school that I tried to convince my parents to let me do homeschooling. Or, at the very least, to switch schools. But the logistic complications involved with both options led them to dismiss them. And I started ditching classes.
At the time, most of my classes (especially math and science) were performance-driven. We were drilled with weekly AP practice tests. Once, when I asked my math teacher about a problem I was interested in, he told me that I shouldn’t “worry about it”. It wouldn’t be on the test. So I began to see math as a pointless numbers game. I just wanted to get math “over with” so that I could spend all remaining time with books that engaged my thoughts and frustrations. Meaningless tests stood in stark contrast to stories that grappled with complexity, raising questions that made the world come alive.
Carol Dweck (especially her book on developmental psychology: “Self-Theories”) helped me better understand the frustrations of my 17-year old self. After reading, I began to think about ways to redesign classes to make them entirely learning-driven. What if a grade was given not for how much you succeed in things you’re good at, but for how deeply you engaged with things you struggle with? I imagine this:
1. On the first day of class, students fill out a survey about their strengths and weaknesses, about the skills they feel most confident about and those they struggle with.
2. The teacher then assigns projects and pairs students with two very different strengths.
3. But instead of rewarding students for how well they use their strengths in collaboration, they’re graded entirely for how much they use the skill they struggle with (i.e their project partner’s strength).
For example, I imagine two students: one with a talent for design and another who’s a good programmer. Their task is to come up with an elegant, working prototype. What if each is graded on how much they succeeded in learning and using their peer’s strong suit? Not only would this encourage peer-learning but it would change a performance-driven classroom culture. Could this be a way of rewarding a student’s willingness to take on unfamiliar ground? To really stretch themselves and see risk-taking as a positive thing?