by Colleen A. Ruggieri
While recently contemplating why so many learners choose to use outside instructional supports (Internet articles, SparkNotes, etc.), to complete their school assignments, I decided to ask a few middle school, high school, and college students about their attitudes toward their homework and classroom assignments for all subject areas. Their responses were eye opening, problematic, and alarming. During our discussions, there were surprising commonalities in the responses between grade levels, all of which should be contemplated.
It is possible to get good grades without ever reading an assigned text. This seems exaggerated and impossible, but students at all grade levels convinced me that it could be true. One high school student shared her philosophy: “If you listen to your teacher, take notes, and read SparkNotes for a novel…or an online article for a government assignment, you can get an ‘A’ and pass the state tests. I don’t have time to actually read all of the books, but I still want to do well. I know it’s kind of cheating, but it works.” An important assessment issue associated with this approach is that there is no deeper learning occurring as students progress through school. Grades are providing false positives, as learners have not developed authentic skills for reading, analyzing, and synthesizing ideas.
Traditional, worksheet driven instruction no longer inspires learners. My personal experience with this student response came in my own household. My son, an active learner, was not completing his assignments. It was only after some serious investigation that my husband and I learned that he was folding up his worksheets and creating origami animals out of them. Of course, we were disappointed that he resorted to civil disobedience. However, we had to chuckle at his ingenious approach to avoiding the work. In the end, we had to sit him down and emphasize the importance of completing his work, even if was less than inspirational. We often wonder when kids lose their zest for learning. Worksheets can be authentic instructional tools, when used in moderation, but today’s students are different from those moving through classrooms twenty years ago. Students are living fast-paced, multitasking lives; successful teachers will find ways to engage their students through active learning.
Learners want to succeed; most define success by passing the tests and getting good grades. It would be untruthful to tell any aspiring student that grades and test scores do not matter. In order to test my assertion, I took this concern into my college classroom, and assigned Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. It is important to emphasize that I challenged my students to read the text—independently and without any notes beyond the text’s annotations—for themselves. To provide a comfort zone, I told them that I would not give them daily quizzes. Instead, I prepared response prompts, and I asked them to record their thoughts and analysis to each section, to the best of their ability. Many students shared that this was one of their first experiences of actually reading an assigned work. Some found the experience “overwhelming” and “daunting.” These were college seniors who had two weeks to read the two-hundred-and-twenty-four page text, and their mindset seems to be symptomatic of an educational system gone awry. However, by removing the layer of potentially punitive test scores during the reading process, most of my students actually tried to read the text and appreciate Walden on a level that went well beyond literal summarization.
Real Learning: What Can We Do? While processing all that I heard from students, I picked up a copy of Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. I appreciated the candid call for change in teaching practices: “Innovation is the lifeblood of progress. It is nursed and nurtured in the arms of failure; in collaboration; in creativity; in curiosity; in passion; in tenacity and grit and optimism” (Beers and Probst 107). The authors note that educators begin their planning with the best of intentions. However, things change as instructors become too heavily focused on test scores. For example, computers—though potentially innovative tools—have led to the use of electronic worksheets. Ultimately, while we have written new standards for students, procedural practices must also change. With this in mind, here are a few suggestions:
Remember that test data is just one stroke on a student’s academic portrait. Test results are used for rating and ranking, and this reality creates stress for districts and teachers. However, it is important for parents, educators, and community members to realize that one digit does not a success or failure make. A deeper look at the data—and where it shows a need for improvement—should serve as a guide to greatness, rather than a punitive measure for denigrating a district’s efforts. Likewise, students should look at their own data in the same way. Teachers and parents should sit down with learners and discuss what type of snapshot the scores are providing about a student’s progress.
Rather than feeling the need to “cover the material,” educators must be supported in their efforts to drill down and design lessons for deeper learning. Spending more time on a challenging text—and giving students the time to read, think, and process what is in that document—will change the nature of instruction. Stress is a killer, and too many teachers and their classes feel like a hamster on a wheel; the quest to finish one task and begin another is exhausting and counterproductive. By allowing students to spend more time to read a challenging work, they won’t feel so defeated that they immediately look for its online summary. By avoiding the notion to “tell them what the text means,” teachers will bring back the joy of reading and allow their learners to discover the meaning for themselves.
Reading, writing, speaking and listening “for real” should be implemented in every classroom and in the home. Students want answers to life, and their questions should become part of the school curriculum. Districts and classrooms have approached this by adding essential questions to assignments (What are the dangers of racism? What is the true meaning of success?), and this must continue. Beers and Probst emphasize that we must stop using monologic questions—questions with only one right, or best answer (152). Instead, teaching students to appreciate the dialectical tensions that exist in the world will make them think deeply about solving problems. Students see dialogic questions as authentic, and they are much more willing to complete their assignments if they see real meaning in them. Parents who talk to their kids about such questions extend learning and make their children understand that what happens in a classroom is setting the stage for life.
Final Thoughts Standards and tests can be terrific tools for teaching and learning. However, it is important for everyone involved in students’ lives to see the bigger picture. Data, used inappropriately, can be damaging and divisive. However, by transforming our approach to teaching and learning, and using data to inform our work, we will be helping learners to find their joy, understand why they are being asked to complete their assignments, and live fuller lives that transcend their years in school.
Beers, Kyleen and Robert Probst. Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters. Scholastic, 2017.
About the Author: Colleen Ruggieri, a recipient of The Martha Holden Jennings Foundation Master Teacher of Ohio award, has worked as a National Board Certified English Teacher. She is an English education professor at Ohio University, and she is a past-president of the Ohio Council of Teachers of English Language Arts.