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The problem with grading – a teacher's perspective

June 29, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

This story is from Braden, a humanities teacher. Braden’s is just one of the many stories we are receiving in response to the animations. Please read more or share your stories here.  

As a humanities teacher in the 21st century one of the biggest challenges I face is student grading. I am attempting to follow the recommendations of researchers in the areas of assessment, such as Ann Davies,  but am still finding it difficult to rationalize the concept of grades in general.

It seems to me inappropriate to attach grades to student work in the humanities based on whether certain criteria have been met. It would seem that the very attempt to generate a binding set of criteria, even through co-construction of such criteria with students, puts the teacher back into the role of judge, jury, and advocate.

Formal education is placing much emphasis on having the students involved in their own evaluation but would this time be better spent “playing” without the threat or reward of a grade? My thinking is that English, as well as many other humanities subjects should simply be pass or fail.

Failing under this system would be less a function of grades or how criteria were or were not met but rather whether the student came to class and tried their best. This sounds shallow to some educators but I question whether all of the effort that goes into grading and giving constructive feedback results in learners who really wish to learn on their own. More research needs to go into motivational factors behind learning across subject areas.

Cognitive apprenticeship

June 27, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

Cognitive scientists, working alongside neurobiologists and anthropologists, have become much interested in the processes that make apprenticeship such a successful model of learning.

They advocate a Constructivist approach to learning, with its progressive deepening of earlier understandings, and the joining together of what had earlier been separate, disconnected ideas. It is through experience mixed with reflection that humans weave their own experiences and knowledge of the world into unique patterns. Constructivists see the role of the teacher as ‘guide on the side’ rather than the conventional ‘sage on the stage’.

Cognitive apprenticeship takes constructivism a stage further by showing how our brains, over vast periods of time, have become conditioned to learn through the following process:

The ‘teacher’ or parent, craftsman or artist captures the imagination of a young learner who becomes sufficiently intrigued to want to know how to do it for itself.

The ‘teacher’ shows the novice learner how to identify the sub tasks that have first to be completed, each with its own particu­lar form of expertise.

The ‘teacher’ provides sufficient temporary support as learners go beyond what they had earlier thought were the limits of their skills.

The ‘teacher’ has to be as proficient at removing the scaffolding when it is more appropriate to the individual to struggle to stand on his or her feet, as they had been when putting the scaffolding in place.

Through the whole of the apprentice / master relationship the novice learner shares ideas with other learners as they try to describe what they are doing and reflect on the outcome.

Within a cognitive apprenticeship both the task, and the process of achieving it, are made highly visible from the beginning. The student understands where they are going and why.

Learners have access to expertise in action. They watch each other, get to understand the incremental stages and establish benchmarks against which to measure their progress. These are the processes that are at the heart of apprenticeship. They have evolved over thousands of generations as parents sought the most effective way of helping their children to understand the world.

The definition of success was when the apprentice was as good as his or her master, and maybe even better.

10 steps towards a better education: #4 Strengthen Community

June 25, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In the fourth of our 10 steps on developing better education for our children, we look at the role of the community in supporting the development of adolescents.

These 10 steps first appeared as a part of our briefing paper for British parliamentarians, which is why they talk about ‘parliament’. They could equally apply to many governments around the world . . .

#4 Strengthen Community
As children grow older and more independent the influence of family and teachers decreases, while the influence of the peer group and community increases.

Parliamentarians need to appreciate the evolutionary significance of adolescence and move to provide opportunities for young people to extend their learning in a hands-on manner either as formal apprentices or perfecting their skills by working alongside members of the community.

Tragically, an increasingly individualistic culture is robbing communities of that which once gave it its vitality and made their pavements, town squares and backyards the spontaneous locations for inter-generational discourse.

Members of strong communities are sustained by the work they do together, which was why the Board Schools of the late 19th century were so successful, and why similar arrangements could be as successful in the future.

It is social capital, not institutional arrangements, that binds people together in their daily lives.

10 steps towards a better education

#1 Understand Learning
#2 Reassert Intelligence
#3 Affirm the Family

Reforming Scottish education

June 22, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

On 8th June 2012 Born to Learn’s John Abbott made the following presentation to Reform Scotland’s Commission on School Reform in Edinburgh.

Reform Scotland is a public policy institute or ‘think tank’ which was established as a separate Scottish charity, completely independent of any political party or any other organisation and funded by donations from individuals, charitable trusts and corporate organisations.

Its objective is to set out policies in Scotland that deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility.

The Commission on School Reform was set up by the think tanks Reform Scotland and the Centre for Scottish Public Policy to consider whether the school system in Scotland is meeting the present and future needs of young people and to make specific recommendations as to how things might be improved or areas that require further enquiry.

Presentation on education reform made to Reform Scotland

View more PowerPoint from iwasborntolearn

When a student is in 'flow'

June 20, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In his book Overschooled but Undereductaed, John Abbott talks about the concept of Flow  –  the state in which ‘the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand’ (that’s the Wikipedia definition).

It is this state that student Leigh Richter describes in her paper Review: Flow: The psychology of optimal experience by Mikhaily Csikszentmihalyi. Leigh looks at Flow and reflects on her schooling, contrasting the boredom of schooling with those moments and projects when she was in flow.

She says: ‘It would be easier for me to count the times in school I was not bored than it would for me to count when I was. It seemed to me that as long as I did what I was told, things would go smoothly. And they did. But I was so bored from simply subjecting myself to someone else’s will, that it was a great effort to summon up the energy to create something myself when the time came.’

Contrast her boredom with those moments when she was in flow: ‘Without realising it, I had created something extraordinary compared with what I usually would have done, all because I had expanded my normal way of doing things. I had been in  state of flow by taking something I had to do, and doing it with everything I had.’

Leigh’s paper is both thought-provoking and challenging and well worth a read.

10 steps towards a better education: #3 Affirm the Family

June 18, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In the third of our 10 steps on developing better education for our children, we look at the role of families in supporting individuals and communities.

These 10 steps first appeared as a part of our briefing paper for British parliamentarians, which is why they talk about ‘parliament’. They could equally apply to many governments around the world . . .

#3 Affirm the Family

Parliament has to assert that the bringing up of children is the most important task facing the nation. How we are treated as babies and toddlers determines the way in which what we are born with turns us into what we are.

It is the combined influence of home, community and school, which creates men and women capable of doing new things well, not simply repeating what earlier generations have already done.

To retrieve such a dynamic government must appreciate that functional families, well-bedded within supportive communities, are the bedrock of a civilised society. Maintaining family life may be hard but to allow such a cauldron for the formation of interpersonal skills to disappear would be disastrous… and no amount of government funds for expert consultants could replace this.

10 steps towards a better education

#1 Understand Learning

#2 Reassert Intelligence


Time to think about learning and humanity

June 15, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In his paper, written for Born to Learn and entitled, School and Curriculum or Learning and Humanity?, Matt Christie presents a different lens through which to view education.

This view is based on the nourishment of children in a world rooted in respect and love.

He says: “The very measure of success in school is: did the student learn the curriculum? Of course when you teach the curriculum you either “win or lose”; however, when you nourish the child and their connection to the community you create a world rooted in respect and love. Perhaps in this sort of world we may finally recognize social and environmental justice.”

Matt goes on to talk about the impact of bureaucracy and institutions on how we live and operate, especially at school. The outcome for both student and teacher is not good, he says.

Ultimately, it is learning that heals and it is learning that will provide the nourishment us humans need for the greater good of society.

“If we truly honor life above everything else then we immediately are invested in deep concern and care for each other; we want to see each other flourish. We end the discourses generated by our economy and begin the conversations of nourishment. When we embrace life we commit to the betterment of everyone. We invest in the true meaning of learning as an act of societal healing.”


Matt Christie is an activist for learning. He is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Victoria. He started the Underground Curriculum  (a collective that explores alternatives to school) four years ago.  

He has spent more than eight years exploring a variety of models of educational alternatives both formally and informally and has established many small scale education initiatives including the Victoria Youth Paddling Club, the Youth Underground, and Sustainable Cooking Classes.

Matt has developed his teaching practices while working as a teacher at Oak and Orca Bioregional School, a special needs Aide at Sundance Elementary School, an assistant teacher at Windsor House in North Vancouver, and a participant in the Purple Thistle Youth Collective.

'Boredom consumes the classroom'

June 14, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

This story is from Connor, a 14-year-old student. His is just one of the many stories we are receiving in response to the animations. Please read more or share your stories here.  

I’m a 14 year old student just out of my freshman year and I could not agree more with this website’s message. Despite the fact that most of the time I am an A student, boredom consumes class time.

In fact, I’ve recently been getting lower grades and procrastinating terribly. I attribute this to the boredom: I’m not interested in the subject and as such have no motivation to learn. I know for a fact that I could do much more than what I’m given and could get straight As if I applied myself, but why should I if I don’t want to, or don’t think it’s going to help me in my future career?

10 steps towards a better education: #2 Reassert Intelligence

June 11, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

In the second of our 10 steps on developing better education for our children, we look at why we need to reassert intelligence – in all its many forms.

These 10 steps first appeared as a part of our briefing paper for British parliamentarians, which is why they talk about ‘parliament’. They could equally apply to many governments around the world . . .

#2 Reassert Intelligence

Parliament must understand that intelligence comes in many forms. In a post- industrial society, where intellectual capital and applied common sense are more important than raw resources, Parliament must ensure the full development of the various kinds of intelligence of its people.

Under too much pressure specifically to improve examination results schools tend to develop superficial “quick wits” rather than the more robust, long-term “hard wits” which breed flexibility and adaptability.

Policy makers must appreciate that the greatest incentive to learn is personal, it is intrinsic, something that so grabs the individual’s attention that they stick at it with the personal dedication that sees any failure to resolve an issue as a personal challenge to find another way of re-framing the problem.

10 steps towards a better education
#1 Understand Learning

Meeting the needs of meandering minds

June 8, 2012 in Born to Learn, Uncategorized

We put children through systems and processes and yet the way they learn is far from linear. John Abbott shares his thinking on the ‘meandering minds’ of children and what this way of learning means for the way we currently educate them.