The valedictorian is not the smartest kid in school, she’s just the one who’s the best at playing the game of school.

I had the chance to work with a crowd of teachers together with Allison Zmuda earlier this week and I was fascinated by her opening address to the group. She talked about the importance of quality assessments at all grade levels and spent some time discussing what those assessments should look like.

Allison started with three ideas that our present school system teach kids; all of which create problems for good learning and good assessment.

The first is the idea that what comes easily or quickly is a sign of intelligence and that which comes slowly or painfully indicates a lack of intelligence. In other words;

Easy equals smart and hard equals stupid

Kids who can quickly do math problems or read aloud without stumbling or answer the questions at the end of the chapter within minutes are seen as being smart. If the task assigned takes too long, the person attempting to finish the task is seen as the opposite of smart.

She went on to describe the imbalance that often exists between effort and success. We too often award success without any effort.

The problem?

When we ask kids to locate, prioritize and analyze primary sources, for example, they struggle. When we ask that they
communicate their findings at high levels, they throw up their hands. Kids learn that “just enough” will get them by.
Allison calls these kinds of kids “low level bureaucrats.”

They clock in at 8:00, sign their purchase orders and clock out at 5:00.

I love that description. We all know kids like this, many of them who go on to become our valedictorians and salutatorians.

The second thing we teach kids that hurts learning and assessment is the idea that school and real life are not connected. Much of what we do in schools has no relevance to the world kids live in outside of our schools.

And the last idea is that we train our kids to believe that all learning is orderly and neat and structured and linear. We teach our kids to go from step one to step ten without deviation. But we do this knowing that’s not always the way that our brains learn best.

All of these conspire together to create an environment (especially as kids reach middle and high school) where true learning never really happens.

The solution?

I think that part of our job is to create “academic restlessness.” A good video game creates what developers call “flow,” that place where the game is not too hard so that players quit the game in frustration but just hard enough to create a challenge. We need that sense of flow in our classrooms.

Allison offered some other ideas:

  • Be transparent about high expectations
  • Remind students of skills and strategies that they have used successfully in the past
  • Provide time for learning of new skills and strategies
  • Be clear that being wrong is not the enemy / not learning from being wrong is
  • Create thought-provoking problems
  • Support kids but don’t bail them out. You gotta think like a coach; you can’t play the game for them but you can call a timeout once in a while.

I know this is a bit of a heavy topic in the middle of June but I think it’s a incredibly important one. We need to purposefully plan for making life harder for our kids, not easier. We need to let kids fail. Not in the sense of failing grades but in the sense of allowing students to struggle with content in ways that make them uncomfortable.

And we ourselves need to be willing to take the hard road when it comes to doing our jobs.