Education’s Holy Grail

Perhaps one of the greatest shifts in my thinking about education was the result of experiencing the drudgery of assessment. Recently, I had this view confirmed while reading The Innovator’s Mindset by George Couros.

I have never heard a teacher say, “I can’t wait until we get to write report cards!” When you think about who is doing the work, often it’s the teachers spending countless hours collecting evidence to show others what our students know and can do. If you can write a report card that a student can do something in October but they can’t do it in January, is that report card still relevant? Teaching students how to assess themselves, rather than just do it for them, provides them another opportunity for reflection. And they will take ownership of their learning.

Couros is speaking specifically about student self-assessment, but the point he is making is similar to my thinking. No doubt, assessment is necessary for learning, as feedback is essential for anyone to make any progress; we need to know when we are doing something properly, or whether we need to revisit or change our thinking. What strikes me, however, is that in many situations, it is the teacher, not the student, who is responsible for the learning. In its simplest form, the teacher delivers the curriculum and the student follows along as best they can. Of course, there are some minimum standards that the student must meet in order to demonstrate that they have understood material, but rarely is the student held accountable for meeting, let alone mastering, those standards; this is education’s Holy Grail.


Most of the reasons we have continued to implement teacher directed instruction are systemic; curriculum is delivered to aged based groupings, held in time set blocks, and assessed at the completion of a topic of study. What if we changed the system such that students were offered a set of criteria and asked to complete it at their own pace, only moving on once they had demonstrated mastery?

Imagine the situation where a student actively looked for the teachers and lessons in order to proceed with their studies. Once they have the prerequisite skills and understanding, they would book time with a teacher (preferably in smaller, tutorial size groups – see 6 is a magic number) and get the instruction they need, when they need it. My hunch is that lessons would be considerably shorter given the material would be within the zone of proximal development of all attending students. What might take longer, of course, would be the projects, labs, papers, and presentations that would demonstrate understanding.

Rarely are students held back because they have not met the minimum expectations. This is due to the idea that the social implications of keeping students from their similarly aged peers would have lasting and damaging effects. Although (possibly) true, there are also the lasting effects of pushing students into arenas where they are not competent enough to perform. Just think of those who may have developed a phobia towards mathematics because they did not understand the previous concepts necessary to build upon.

My belief is that until students, not teachers, are held accountable for their learning, many students will just plod along, doing the minimum, and not really learning what is expected. They are ‘doing school’, and that is a shame.

NOTE: This post was originally created in June of 2016, but then updated in March of 2018

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