by Neal Brown, Green Acres School, Head of School
At schools such as Green Acres, we are focused on teaching children “how to think, not just what to think.” In the same way, we are less interested in filling students’ minds with information than we are in opening them up to new understandings about themselves and about the world around them.
And, ultimately, while we ensure that our students leave our school after 8th grade with the skills that they need to be successful in high school and beyond, we are equally interested in instilling in each student a love of learning for learning’s sake. Rather than seeing school as a game to be cynically played in order to achieve the highest grade or to please the teacher, we aim for our students to develop a genuine interest in the material and a sense of satisfaction in the act of learning.
The evidence for widespread cynicism about learning is nowhere more acute than in the all-too-common examples of cheating at schools and colleges. Students are most often seen as the root of this problem; however, teachers and schools/colleges also bear some of the blame. In a recent article from The Atlantic, former teacher Jessica Lahey shows ways in which schools both contribute to cheating and have the power to lessen instances of cheating.
In “A Classroom Where No One Cheats,” she cites the causes of cheating explored in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty by James M. Lan. Lan points to the pressure students experience to compete against one another for scores or grades. While some degree of competition in school (and life) is inevitable, students often internalize the message that getting a good grade and out-competing one’s classmates is much more important than learning/mastering the material. This seems especially true in schools where tests have high stakes consequences and where they are over-used to determine student understanding at the expense of other types of assessments.
So how can educators and parents create an environment that engages children in learning for learning’s sake, while also preparing them for the pressure of grades and testing? One way is to ensure that a range of assessments is being used to measure student mastery. Among these assessments should be ones that authentically measure not just what student know, but what they can do with this knowledge. There should be opportunities for students to demonstrate their creativity, rather than simply to find “the answer,” and there should be opportunities for students to interact with classmates and the teacher in completing assessed tasks, rather than overly assessing what a student knows by him or herself in a traditional paper and pencil assessment.
Of course this isn’t just a recipe to avoid the problem of cheating; it’s an approach to teaching and assessing students that acknowledges that what a student can do in context, what he or she can create that is unique, what he or she can discover with input from others, and what he or she gains from reflecting upon a learning experience has the most lasting value. It’s also an approach that enables a school to communicate to students the value it places on teaching skills and understandings that are in many ways inseparable from what is valued outside of school. We know that students, especially beginning in middle school, need to prepare for tests and for other closed-ended assignments; however, these should represent only a fraction of how students are motivated to learn and how their success is assessed. This approach also demonstrates to students that while learning and any type of true accomplishment is often challenging, it also can be joyful, creative, and assessed in a less-pressured environment—one also were cheating would less likely thrive.
While it would be impossible to claim that students at Green Acres School or other progressive school never cheat, I would argue that students in these environments spend more time focused on learning and less time worried about competition. I also would suggest that teachers in these schools spend less time determining what students don’t know or figuring out which students know more than the others—and much more time, as Lahey says, “catching students in the act of learning.”