Wendy Wang

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How can we maintain passion for learning when emphasis placed on good grades detracts from our interest in gaining a deeper understanding?

There's such a profound emphasis placed on achieving good grades that students almost always only bother to learn the material in order to see the grades they want on a report card. There's a difference between learning something and then being tested, and learning something because you're being tested.

There's an even bigger difference between preparing students for tests and preparing them for life, and with the way things are going right now, I feel like we might be setting ourselves up for a world where a lot of us will grow up to be obsolete in the way we think and what we do.

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    Feb 3 2014: If you are a student, remember that your attitude toward learning is in your hands. If other students in your peer group are focused on grades rather than learning, that doesn't mean you have to be. Go ahead and be as different as you want to be.

    A focus on grades tends to be driven by the peer group and also often a concern of worried parents while, in my experience, teachers tend to try to get kids to focus on learning rather than grades.
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      Feb 3 2014: Fritzie,

      This is a good point -- thank you for reminding me of it. I'm tempted sometimes to want to "blame the system" and the external influence of people and pressures around me. You're absolutely right when you say that it ultimately is up to the student to choose their outlook on learning.
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    Feb 3 2014: I am so glad I found this question! This is something I have been pondering myself! My question relates more to whether or not holding teachers accountable for Standardized State testing result is an accurate gauge of their effectiveness as a teacher? It stems from a conversation I had w/a teacher in an urban school under threat of closure due to low state tests.He said,"The schools that did well before mandates still do well.Ones that were low before,in some cases,are scoring even lower.Here,oversimplified,is what I see.First,we're not allowed to use state tests to grade students.Since the test has no personal impact on their grade the only students who care how they score are the ones that have parents holding them accountable.The state tests are abstract and mean nothing to them.Their is no concrete relevancy for them. Do well? So! Do poorly?So!
    To add even more mess to this we now have a majority of districts across the nation pushing 'no-zero' & 'no-fail' policies. Why get a good grade when all I want to do is pass anyway?
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      Feb 3 2014: Hi Laura,

      Thank you for your input - the way you run your classroom sounds great, and I admire you for taking that extra step to (and please correct me if I'm wrong) encourage students to apply what they've learned beyond a scantron or a test paper. :)

      I think the point you brought up on apathy is interesting. I don't know about the AP tests or the tests that you're talking about, but I know that I've seen instances where when a grade "doesn't count" or "is optional," most students would much rather not do it. It's so easy and so tempting to choose to only care about the things that "count," and when I say count, it doesn't necessarily mean it helps them learn; it only counts in the sense that it might show up as an attractive letter grade on a report card.

      One teacher started teaching at my school in 2011, I think. In his first year, according to one of the semester evaluations from his students, many of them wanted him to "lecture more." For them, lectures are just a more efficient way to consume more information in less time. I know some of his students, and from what I've heard about his classes, despite the fact that it challenges the students beyond what they might be used to, they all agree that they really *GOT* the information and understood its implications and connections. This year, he helped me to start a TED-based activity/club at our school.

      I have a lot of respect for teachers like those, and it sounds like you're one of them, too. So, Kudos to you! :)
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      Feb 3 2014: You're doing a nice job. In my opinion, that's a very important target. Congratulations.
  • Jan 22 2014: The fact you are asking this question proves that there is still hope. I think the key to maintaining interest in understanding material versus rote memorization for tests lies in realizing that the latter mentality will not suffice "in the field". As technology advances and researches progresses more and more rapidly, the world demands workers trained in critical thinking who have retained a hunger for knowledge.
    Luckily, many educators are searching for methods of altering the current education system to accommodate this need, especially in the field of Physics. Many high school courses seem to have proven to students that Physics is nothing more that plugging values into formulas and solving for the unknown. Unfortunately for these students, colleges are aware of the changing world described above. My AP Physics teacher always asks visiting college students how many multiple choice questions they'd seen on their Introductory college Physics courses. Multiple choice questions are often calculation questions that don't test students' understanding of material; rather, they provide professors with information about each student's guessing abilities. Free response questions, which ask students to explain their reasoning, provide professors with feedback about which concepts the students do or do not understand, a much more valuable skill for future careers. The answer alumni always give my Physics teacher is of course "none". For more information, search "Confessions of a Converted Lecturer" on YouTube. Eric Mazur is a professor at Harvard who has conducted a fair amount of research on providing students with a robust understanding of material, instead of simply giving them a textbook full of information to memorize by the end of the semester. Also, the TEAL initiative at MIT is a great example of the application of methods thought to help students learn.
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    Jan 22 2014: i would say that life-preparation is the part of family, friends and community. school is only a part of that.

    i agree that testing is out of date - most education systems are held back by the assessment methods used.

    one secret is not to put much stock in the grade systems - i know that the argument is that others care, including potential future employers so you have to but i did the school thing and the university thing and somehow, after years of to-ing and fro-ing in the school system (i'm a qualified teacher) have ended up playing music (solo and in a band) that i had no prep for other than loving to listen to music.

    i'm neither rich nor famous but i love my job to bits
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      Jan 22 2014: Hi Scott,

      You bring up a good point that school alone, whether we consider it effective or not, only makes for a part of life-preparation. School can teach the basic skills in most things, but it can't teach us the social aspect that makes life really worth living.

      I think that to have a true passion for anything, we have to start from the bottom, at the fundamental "base" - curiosity. Every person's interest is different, each to his or her own. Asking the students the right question can serve to fire that curiosity. Give them an open-ended question, or a topic, see the interest spark. Inquiry-based, in that sense. Finding what each person is innately passionate about. I think that requires for educators to get to know their students on a deeper, more personal level.

      It starts with a question, it goes on with problem-solving and collaboration and not being afraid to get their hands dirty. After drawing them in, students have to be engaged in order to maintain that momentum. Interaction with others who are just as passionate as they are does that, and this could mean students, this could mean that special teacher that just about radiates with passion for the topic at hand. Not the teachers that don't answer the questions of students just because "it's not going to be on the test, so don't worry about it."
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        Feb 3 2014: you're right about curiosity. don't need school for that.

        i like the idea behind inquiry learning, but like everything the school system deals, it has become a staid process that people mistake for 'learning' (as i define it) when it's more accurately defined as a straight-forward method for research.

        logic and rational thinking have their place, as does the latest fad-tag 'creativity' but not at all times and not for everyone - this is where school systems fall short. they have to be, by their very nature, generic.

        what's required is thinking. unfortunately, true thinkers most often sit at odds with society and its current systems of thought and decorum.

        and individual thinkers can't be all catered for en masse.

        but, although i have little faith in education systems, i have plenty of faith in the people within that system - i have experienced the dedication and care that educators have and give - and that's where the solution lies so it's not as bad as it may appear.
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    Feb 15 2014: What if we start on over-hauling the education system, especially K-12?
  • Feb 6 2014: As a former school teacher, and lifelong student of Howard Gardener's multiple intelligences theory, and advocate of changing school systems and philosophies, we continue to pay "lip service" to the ideas of change in schools, but society is so insecure about how and why we label who is smart and who is not. We are afraid to pull ourselves away by the standardized pencil and paper tests that only tell us how kids will perform in school in specific subject areas, and tell us nothing about who will be "successful" and who is an intellectual" and who will contribute to making society a better place, where there is ample opportunity to pursue ones passion, to contribute to a more accepting and integrated life where communities will thrive emotionally, physically and intellectually. How is testing in school any kind of indicator that someone will participate successfully in the above mentioned once they leave college? What are the markers we want to identify? Are we only equating success with a certain amount of money? Students need intrapersonal skills to be successful, they need values and morals to make communities successful and desirable places to live and want to raise families that will create safe spaces and environments for all kinds of kids to grow up. Music, theatre, dance are expressions of intelligences that can be integrated and taken seriously that help make our world a better place and help make our schools where are children be become more inquisitive and help self-expression and foster independent opinions. Music, theatre and dance will help create a happier environment that will promote and provoke intellectual curiosity and acceptance. More problems can be solved with more options! That is part of intelligence. There are endless journeys in which a person can obtain their goal and schools need to stop being factories for the poor.
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    Jan 25 2014: Wendy,
    You have asked a monumental question. I've watched my children and grandchildren go through our educational system from beginning to.... well, graduate programs. I spent 7 years as an instructor and administrator of an adult education program. From my limited experiences, my answer is.... you can't.
    I can't blame students, they are playing the game according to the rules. I can't blame teachers... well, a few don't care, but most know and bite their tongues as it is their jobs. I have noticed that young teachers are leaving their positions in very high numbers.
    This focus on grades is the product of a public education corporation system that is inspired (aka funded) by Federal offices who are reacting to the plunge of American Eduction in world standings.
    Nowhere in our system are the needs and desires of individual students considered. If a young student is bright and shows an interest in... science, he is encouraged to pursue his education and gets the good grades or given as needed to go on to higher education. Some of these students will even pressure teachers to raise their grades undeservedly to maintain the 4.0 illusion.
    Too many of these students take out student loans, take soft college subjects and graduate with almost meaningless degrees.
    Want proof?
    High unemployment numbers for Undergraduates and nearly a trillion dollars out there in student loans... On the other side, should a student not be interested in "going to college and getting good grades on standard testing"... a student who loves working with his hands and wants to be a.... carpenter.
    Well, he is not going to do well on the standard tests according to his education corporation so at best he will be shuffled off to a " nondescript trade school". At worse, he will be ignored and maybe graduate from high school or more likely he will drop out, resentful of his treatment by his school and turns his desire to be a carpenter to ... scoring what he can to survive.
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    Jan 25 2014: Wendy, is there really a contradiction? I would think the student passionate about learning would work harder and make better grades?
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      Jan 25 2014: Hey Greg,

      A passion for learning does lead to better grades and higher motivation to do well. But schools tend to place a whole lot more emphasis on getting those high marks than they do on attaining a passion for the topic at hand. After some time, it's very hard not to be influenced by this emphasis, and then we want to focus more on grades and less on loving what we learn and learning what we love. I know. I'm one of those students. But I consciously try and make an effort whenever I catch myself cramming or procrastinating or when I'm only aiming to make a superficial scratch on the surface of a bigger picture.
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        Jan 25 2014: what school are you going to that emphasizes grades, and how do they emphasize them to you? I went to Stanford, and nobody ever emphasized grades to me and I felt no pressure to get good grades. Oh, I'm assuming you're going to college, or are you in high school? I never felt any pressure in high school to get good grades, either.
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          Jan 26 2014: I attend high school, one that places a lot of emphasis on STEM. The environment is incredibly competitive, and some students get bitter when others do better than them. I have never seen so much point-scavenging. Always looking for that extra point in some technicality or "unfair" grading on a test or an assignment, just so we can make the cut and change the grade from an A- to an A. If your GPA drops below a 3.0, you are kicked out.
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        Jan 26 2014: well, that sounds kind of unpleasant? But have you talked to your classmates about this, Wendy, in other words it is possible that competition is in the eye of the beholder, and maybe not everyone feels this heat of competition as much as you do?

        But let's say you wanted to learn just for the sake of learning, not being so concerned about grades? What subject would you delve into, or what aspect of what subject?
  • Jan 22 2014: hi Wendy,good question you asking here.Thank you for the offering.Maybe we can't get the answer directly,but never ignore the question,keep the question when we learn,enjoying the process of the questioning.
  • Jan 21 2014: An important question which now also dominates academia at universities. Here is an interesting comment made by a colleague of mine: "in order to remain a successful and valued lecturer you must be applying for research grants at all times". What this means is that a researcher no longer has any time to spend on truly difficult problems which require a long time to investigate and to develop, e.g general relativity took Einstein 10 years to develop. A further aspect of this is that in order to get a grant in order to have research money for conferences, postdocs, PhDs etc you must submit ones which have some sort of direct application to society or industry. This means fundamental research no longer has any place in the world. Consider that our current civilisation develops only technology on well established science not science itself, not at a fundamental level. Consider that there has been no truly original development in physics since about the 1930's.