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Are School Systems and Curriculum Units Failing to Promote Learning that is Greater than Just a Reach for a Passing Grade?

alesnick's picture

by Elizabeth Koelmel

A strong paper on a prevalent trend throughout schools: many students learn to get the passing grade. How can the learning process be empowered to signify more than just grades?


            Every time a teacher walks into the classroom, he or she is charged with the task of utilizing a systematized curriculum to empower students in the learning process.  Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler comment that "teaching is not about what the teacher does, it is about what happens to the learner" (Davis et al 158).  Teaching, and the education process, ought to be about giving students a set of skills applicable to finding success in life; instead, it is becoming increasingly dominated by meeting grade and core curriculum requirements.  Too often in today's world students fail to recognize the value, and the level of empowerment, that the educational process can provide, and instead focus on attaining a specific grade.  Some might argue that any grading scale is structured such that in order for a student to meet requirements to attain any grade, he or she must have invested themselves in the learning process, and thus become empowered by the educational system, to some degree. 

            Teachers can sometimes be handcuffed in their ability to empower, not just by the curriculum that they are instructed to teach, but by an overemphasized focus on the attainment of a specific letter or number grade.  Davis, Sumara, and Luce-Kapler argue that, unfortunately, "teaching is conceived not in terms of drawing innate goodness out of the learner, but as drawing the learner into belief and social systems that are deemed to be good" (Davis et al 163).  Early on in the educational process, students learn what the requirement of a passing grade is, and such knowledge can cause a student to have a very limited, or tunnel-vision like, approach, to his or her learning experience. 

            As a tutor, I have encountered students who have expressed a failure to see beyond the grade that is received in a class and a refusal to appreciate the real-world value that participating in the educational process provides:

Example A:

Levi and I sit down to work on the research paper that he has been working on for the entire school year, with its completion serving as a requirement for graduation in the spring.  Levi recently  turned in a rough draft of the paper, and the teacher has already returned it to him, providing general commentary and a grade for the state of the current paper.  The grade that Levi was given is a D+. As we begin working, Levi turns to me and makes a comment to the effect of "I only need a C to graduate, and we are already at a D+, so we are almost there".

Example B:

Later that session, Levi and I begin working on learning basic math skills that could be applied to work in his Physics class.  In a commentary unrelated to any specific  math work Levi discusses his frustration with certain schoolwork because he does not see the point of learning it.  He makes several comments to the effect of "when will I ever use this skill later in life?" I respond by asking him to find the area and perimeter of several shapes. He does this, and I comment that knowing how to complete such work is valuable because there could be a time in life where he needs to build something that requires him to know the dimensions of a space and the amount of material needed to complete the project.  Levi generally disagrees, and responds very quickly with a brief comment about "things being pre-measured".

Example C:

During our session the following week, Levi and I again begin to work on his major research paper.  Levi again makes a comment about just meeting the basic grade requirement to "pass" the project.  I comment to Levi that it is important to put as much effort into the project as possible, more effort than just what would allow for reaching the passing grade, because wouldn't it be great to get an even higher grade? Levi responds in a very negative way, commenting on his status as a student, saying that he has "already failed two quarters," and what is the point of working hard and getting a better grade this quarter because "two can't make up for one".


The above examples illustrate how students often fail to see the beyond the structure of the school system in their educational experience.   The big picture educational experience ought to include a sense of becoming empowered through the act of learning, and sometimes students only focus on the little picture aspect of being in school, which revolves around grades.  Students need to be able to see how the "little picture" fits into the "big picture" of their learning experience.  In his study "Another reason that physics students learn by rote," Andrew Elby concludes that "students perceive "trying to understand physics deeply" to be a different activity from "pursuing good grades"" (Elby 356).  Although it is appropriate for students to understand the value of good grades in school, an equal, if not greater, value needs to be placed on the deep understanding of a subject matter.  Ideally, the achievement of a deep understanding, and the pursuit of good grades, ought to be synonymous goals for any student in the learning environment. 

            In the face of the above examples, we must search for a solution to students only finding motivation in their educational experience on the basis of an unfruitful search for the passing grade, or fulfillment of only the bare minimum.  With the understanding that the school system is relatively unchangeable, the focus needs to be on how teachers can create a learning environment that can positively manipulate the system to promote learner empowerment.  Teachers must promote the learning process to be an energized, and not monotonous, experience for their students; teachers must also create a learning environment that promotes learning empowerment and not just mere survival in the educational system.  As a tutor who works with students on a very limited basis each week, the ability that I have to instill the necessary change has its limits, but nonetheless I can adopt and believe in the basic mentality and teaching approach that any full-time teacher can employ.  Richard Light comments that the most effective educators "[ask] questions, or [pose] a challenge, that [forces] [students] to think about the relationship of their academic work to their personal lives" (Light 88).  A teacher, in any scope or capacity, must encourage the learning experience to be a series of opportunities for students to witness the applicability of what is being learned in the classroom to their lives outside of the school system.  Instead of having the main goal of any educational experience be the attainment of a specific grade, the focus ought to be on the attainment of the deep understanding of a discipline that Elby comments on.  This deep understanding can increase the value of the learning experience because of how it promotes the attainment of a base set of skills that can enhance one's functioning in life outside of school.   Herman and Mandell allude to the fact that successful teachers, or mentors, "ask "leading" questions when they have something in mind to which they want their students to attend" (Herman and Mandell 55). The end-goal can be for a student to attain a specific grade, but that end-goal can not be the focus and sole driving factor of the learning process.  If students are encouraged to appreciate the curriculum because of its real-life value, the attainment of the best grade can be a much more natural (and less forced, or limiting) outcome of the educational experience.

            Making the attainment of the best grade a more natural and much less focused on outcome of the educational process is both the responsibility of the teacher, and the result of the type of learning environment that a student is engaged in.  As previously expressed, promoting a deep understanding of a subject matter so to encourage learner (and individual) empowerment, in the confines of a school system so greatly focused on meeting grade requirements, is difficult.  The degree to which a part-time, extra-classroom tutor can positively manipulate the educational system so to promote a deep understanding of a subject matter that truly empowers learners is limited.  However, no matter how limited a tutor's influence appears to be, it is important to not be deterred in efforts to affect how a student values his or her work.  Just as Herman, Mandell, and Light suggest, the act of asking questions, encouraging personal conversation, and listening to the situation of the student can be the simplest, and most productive, way to find a way to present curriculum in an empowering manner, relative to the needs of the student.  Although there might not be an immediate solution reached in regard to the problem of the limited manner in which students view the value of their education, it is important to utilize any opportunity that presents the freedom, and space, for personalization of an educational experience - a personalization that teaching outside the classroom allows for.


Works Cited

Davis, Brent, Dennis Sumara, and Rebecca Luce-Kapler. Engaging Minds: Changing Teaching in Complex Times. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Elby, A. "Another reason physics students learn by rote." Phys. Educ. Res, Am J. Phys. Suppl. 67.7 (1999): S52-S57.

Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and practice, dialogue and life in adult education. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Light, Richard. "Good Mentoring and Advising." Making the Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds."\(2001).


Liz Anderson's picture

While I agree that it is

While I agree that it is important for teachers to facilitate an environment where students feel a sense of agency and strive for more than simply meeting a grade, I question whether or not this is truly feasible. Are we putting too much pressure on educators within the system? Are they, alone, responsible for their students success? How do we also provide agency to teachers? While there can be many success and some educators can inspire their students to achieve more than the required letter grade, I think we need to examine the role of the teacher and how often times it is impossible for them to have a connection with every student, how some students may often slip through the cracks. That being the case, do we change the way we empower students, or change the way we empower teachers or simply seek to change the system?

Serendip Visitor's picture

Amanda F--comments

I agree with a lot of the content of this essay-- I do believe that the teacher/facilitator is responsible for inspiring the student to learn and not just jump through hoops. The teacher knows (or should know) best about how to incite a desire to gain further understanding and knowledge that will ultimately benefit them. But I think an important factor is also the attitude the student comes in with. What cultural/home values are instilled in this student in such a way that serves as an obstacle towards his education? I do believe that the teacher is to lead the student (the root of the word education is e duco "to lead out") but we mustn't put too much weight on the teacher either for the student does not come as a blank slate--he has some previous education, maybe not from within a classroom context/setting but from home--and the experiences that contribute to his knowledge may have been miseducative and hence contribute to his unwillingness to learn. However, Dewey points out that the good teacher has the ability to in a way bend or re-shape even the worst of miseducative experiences into positive educative experiences.
So yes, I agree with most of the ideas presented but I think there is something missing in regards to getting to know the student in order to empower, inspire, and lead them forward with the knowledge they already have.