When do we start trusting students? At what age or benchmark in the education continuum do we deem students as capable of making their own academic decisions?
By the time this academic term is over, I will have taken a grand total of zero tests. No quizzes, no Scantrons, no short answers, no fill in the blanks.
Instead, I will have done a lot of writing.
Throughout graduate school, I haven't been told what to learn (or worse, what to memorize). Instead, I’m being given tools and examples and experiences that I can apply to what I want to do. What I learn is up to me. After literally a full day of writing and editing, I just submitted a few thousands words for an essay in my Leading U.S. Schools class based on an observation visit we made to Hillsdale High School, a couple conversations with principal Jeff Gilbert, required readings, class discussions, and independent research. The assignment is called a "reflection paper," but it's massive size should be hint that it's not a platform to pontificate about your feelings. "Do not be misled by the term Reflection Paper," Professor David Brazer wrote. "Sometimes students take that to mean, 'I can write my opinions. I don’t need to worry about structure or argument.' This is not our intent." The paper was written in APA format, with a cover page, about ten cited sources, and four distinct sections built around explaining and defending my thesis. It was hard, but incredibly valuable.
This is strikingly different than high school and even undergrad, where the exams are more about testing to see if you did the reading than giving you space to apply your learning. When I think about my approach to undergrad, where all of my friends and I played the game of trying to find the easiest classes that would check off specific content area requirements, I realize that I almost never did the reading with the intent of learning. I figured out tricks and secrets, I scoured the internet for study guides or summaries, I asked friends to explain what the reading was about. Now, it's opposite; the reading is overwhelming but I know I'll be missing out if I don't do it, and I actually like it. The irony is I get no credit or points for reading now, whereas in undergrad there was almost always a weekly quiz or a midterm or final to test how loyal I was to the assigned reading schedule.
I have done nearly all the reading I’ve been assigned in grad school. I’m getting pretty good at skimming and pretty good at taking notes. In undergrad, I almost never did the reading. I’ve been thinking about why that is. Maybe it's because I’m older and more mature. Maybe it's because I’m more interested in the subject matter in graduate school than I was in undergrad. Maybe it’s because the content all seems relevant to what I want to do. I’m sure that’s all part of it — but I think there’s something else, too. It's that, in all my classes, there is an implied trust. It’s assumed that if you're here, you want to be and that you’ll put in a good faith effort. Everyone here is foregoing paychecks (and, in fact, forking over a lot of money) and time spent with family and friends for this experience centered around learning. This understanding also makes it easier to have meaningful relationships with professors, who treat us more as professionals than kids.
I wish that education at every level started with trust and used accountability only when necessary (and only with whom it is necessary).
One other important distinction is that the material and the learning itself in graduate school is designed for the consumer — the student. The content is supposed to be useful and valuable for us, and explicitly so. The relevance for our lives is clear and consistent, both explicitly and implicitly. I think we all can remember moments (or large swaths of time) from high school and college that felt neither useful nor valuable.
We ought to do a better job at that. If academic content in high school cannot be convincingly described as both useful and valuable for the student, then it probably doesn’t belong in the curriculum (and I think the student ought to have at least some say in what useful and valuable means).