Let’s talk grades, young man.

I haven’t seen my nephew since Christmas, so I took him out for some errands this weekend, thereby giving us some needed catch-up time and his parents some needed alone time. For reference, G (as my nephew will be called) is my sister’s only child. He’s 14, and he’s going through the awkward stages of puberty. This means he towers over his mom now, walks with a little uncertainty, and his voice is hovering two octaves below his uncle Ben’s. Where’s the time gone, man?

For a little more about G, he is autistic; he often addresses his elder family members by their first names (his mom is ‘Gina’); he often stammers through his thoughts in a halting, stream-of-conscious way. For example, when asked if he thought homeschooling was a good idea, his response was this:

G: Kinda. I think it is… well, A) they don’t have to be… eh.. and I mean.. eh.. I’m not sure, I guess, I’m going to totally,.. I do… Yeah, I really do not think… eh, I will… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

For this reason, I will simplify the conversation we had for expediency, as I would like to share his thoughts on our education system with you, dear reader. At times he is contradictory. At others, quite pensive. He gives no full answers, but he’s brutally honest in his attempts. I tried to keep my inputs to a minimum, and I prodded mostly to keep him on topic. I have left some tangents along for context and flavor. [some of my inner thoughts are available, too].

Here’s how it went down: Driving down 460, I asked him “How’s school going, G?,” and he promptly dove into a dialog about the current conditions of learning in the school system, beginning with [wait for it] assessments – our current class topic! I realized how interesting this might be for some, so I asked if I could record. He agreed but continued talking before I could fully capture his next sentence. It began along these lines: “Grades are killing learning, Uncle Ben. They should do away with grades and create…”

B: Wait, what? We need to ‘create more _’ what?

G: World preparation centers. We need world preparation centers.

B: What are ‘world preparation centers?’

G: I guess they help students to prepare for the world.

B: And you think there should be more of them?

G: I think they should exist.

B: Okay.

[you heard it here first, folks. make it happen and send the kid some college cash.]

G: One should exist, and we’ll see how that does with students… [long pause] I guess school technically is. I think we are entering a new age – the information age, or something. And, I think technology is helping learning. I mean, there’s online school, and more and more students are being home-schooled… [long pause]

B: And you think that’s a good thing?

G: Kinda. I think it is. Well… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

[See what I did there? G dives into a long discussion of the political climate, a favorite topic of his, and he states our country needs better people in the world.]

B: How do you suspect we get better people?

G: I don’t know. We should educate them better. Yeah, we need to educate them. And we need to stop teaching them stuff they don’t need. And we need to teach them stuff that they do need. People may not like school, so maybe we should have school… be important. We should try to fix school in some ways, I guess. Like, remember when you woke up early to go school?

B: Yeah. [I still get up early to go to school, but that’s beside the point].

G: Well, I hear that some schools in the UK are being asked to shift their school days an hour or two forward.

B: True.

G: Because at different stages of your life you have different sleep cycles. And, like, people around my age generally continue to sleep through the early part of the morning and don’t even start learning until later, like mid-morning.

B: What kinds of things do think students are learning that they don’t need?

G: I don’t know. [long sigh] I guess maybe school has its purpose. Let me ask you this, Ben: Do you think learning about the fact that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell that important?

B: It is if you’re a biologist.

G: Okay.

B: It’s good to know it’s out there.

G: I guess. Maybe we do need… I think…

B: I mean, in truth, I’ve never used it in my life. I do understand it a little bit, but… I’ve never had to use it.

G: I guess some people might have to use it. I guess school does have its purpose.

[We were just starting to make our exit]

G: By the way, I think tests are absolute… ugh! Maybe schools should stop worrying about tests. Because seriously, grades make students feel like they need to worry about grades. And I’m like, students shouldn’t have to worry. Students shouldn’t let grades define them.

B: Where are you learning this stuff?

G: I don’t know. I think I’m trying to do a little research in what people think of school, I guess.

B: Okay.

G: And, I think Ameri…

[FYI: G is not a fan of Trump, much to the happiness of his parents and to the chagrins of (some of) his grandparents. After the venting and much fine toeing of strong language boundaries, he mellowed into more typical teenager subjects of Kid Cudi, the Chili Peppers, Eminem, Facebook and Instagram. We were somewhere near Lowe’s when he picked up the thread again. And once again, I hit record in the middle of the action…]

G: It makes children feel like grades define who they are, even though they don’t. I mean, I know Gina told me to try the best I can, [but] I always dreaded… most kids are worried about, or always say, ‘what’s going to be on the test?

B: That’s true.

G: Eh, it’s just, I think school needs to teach more important things and have less tests. According to Google, tests can help children memorize, but… but I’m not sure if we should necessarily have, … [He loses his thought at the red light. I try to steer back into the lane.]

B: So, with the tests, did you ever feel that you were trying to study for the grades and only for the grades? Or were you actually enjoying what you were trying to learn? I mean…

G: I felt like I was just studying for the grades.

B: Okay.

G: Yeah. I guess it just felt like I had to learn it. I’m glad my mother was like, ‘Just try your best.’ I’m glad my mom didn’t get absolutely furious with me when I got a bad test score.

B: When did you get a bad test score?

G: I think I’ve gotten a couple bad ones throughout my school years.

B: Okay. [long pause]

B: So how do you learn? What’s the best way that you learn? What are you finding that’s most effective for you?

G: Um… I … I honestly don’t know. I guess when I was in home-school… Gina is really passionate about me learning. And, I kinda feel like I should be learning?

B: Okay, but do you want to?

G: Eh, no. I’m not really into that, but I’m like, ‘okay, I’ll look up this, and I’ll look up that.’ Some of the stuff that Gina wanted me look up was actually useful. However, some of it wasn’t… Gina says she’s not a good teacher… and I understand that [she’s] probably not a good teacher… but I really do think she could teach me a few life lessons. Actually, she does, and when she does teach me life lessons… I think she does a good job of that… I gue… yeah… [the struggle is real with this kid!]. I don’t know.…

[extra long pause]

All rivers must run their course. Our conversation was coming to an end. He later told me that his friends and his aides, the persons who guided him through the public school system, were the best resources he had for the enjoyment of learning. A quick note: after failing an SOL in 2017, G was required to spend his summer in school – no time for free play. His anxiety shot through the roof, and he could no longer focus without heavy medication and therapy. My sister applied for the Homebound program and pulled him out of public school. He has been in the program ever since and done well. He’s dropped most of his medications and doesn’t have to see his therapist so often. He is involved with his life and wants to make changes for the better. I’m so proud!

But, this also comes at the expense of not learning with his peers. This coming fall, he plans to attend an “alternative” school system, which shows promise to his interests, his well-being, and his abilities. It is my understanding they promote an emergent adaptive learning system, and I hope they are responsive to my nephew’s inquisitive mind. Anything has to be better than the traditional prescription. I look forward to his next report.

B: Thanks, G. We’ll catch up later.

G: Bye, Uncle Ben.

Changing Lanes again,

… but using turn signals, because there’s nothing wrong with it.

Teaching with non-teaching. Maybe we should just stop teaching. Sort of. Many of the lessons we’re learning in this pedagogy class focus on changing our abilities to teach, on how we can better use the newest tech as tools, and how to let go and allow students to teach themselves. It is as if our ability to adapt will somehow allow all students to be reached, to allow all students to learn, to allow all to succeed. I say, that depends.

I’m going to switch gears for a minute regarding last week’s post so that I can better see both sides and ask more questions from you, dear reader. It’s kind of a devil’s-advocate-view against my own words. In those words, I discussed cross-training and well-rounded students. Now I’m going to ask: What about highly-specialized students instead?

Yes. All students learn differently, and we need to approach them in ways more conducive to their abilities. But what I haven’t heard is this: we’re still teaching all of the students all of the the same material long after many have shown they lack interest. For instance: Basics? Core? Fundamentals? Are they really essential to our lives? I’ve said it before, I don’t always math good. Not all designers are engineers, and not all engineers are designers. I hated my core classes, and it wasn’t until I got into my major that I became excited. Why did I have to take another English course? Why does this feel like just another year of high school?

Is it possible that some students don’t belong in those 100-plus lecture halls? “Don’t belong” doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning, only that what they’re learning in those classes doesn’t apply well to them. It seems like a waste of time. Again, devil’s advocate voice here.

Flip side: What about the students in their latter years, when they’re starting to get into the meat of their major and really focus on their goals: Are they more focused than in their core classes? I definitely was. So why are we still requiring these ‘fundamentals’ for graduation? I realize the core system is older than the Standards of Learning law, but if you think about it, isn’t this just an extension of the SOLs we so loathe? Why are they in the room if it isn’t important to them? Are they in the right room? #seewhatididthere

I can’t remember his last name, but his first was Chris. He was Swiss, and he was the best CAD teacher I ever had. His background was what Americans might call a high school degree, except his was highly advanced in the construction field. That’s because several countries like Switzerland and Germany allow the educational focus to change according to a student’s abilities. Some kids are more adept with machinery and shop tools. Others are artists and comprehend the nuances of Nietzsche. After their primary years, students are directed into vocational and/or theoretical secondary education depending on their aptitude. This happens when they are around age 11. Secondary education in this manner is meant to prepare you for life-beyond-school, and it begins at eleven in these countries. Eleven. I was trying to figure out how not to get beat up at eleven.

Preparing students for life-beyond-school: what is that? Again, are we beating ourselves up because a few students didn’t read the Odyssey? I’ve read it four different times in four different school systems, including my freshman year in college. It’s a wonderful story, but I can’t think of a context in my life where I’ve used it until just now. It has more than 123,000 words to read, which is time I could have spent better honing the hand skills that my life-beyond-school required. Did I have a bad teacher that did a poor job expressing the metaphors and meanings of this Homeric epic? No. He was humorous and affable, and I picked up the word übermensch from his lectures. I sat right up front and paid attention and read all books and wrote all papers. It just wasn’t my desire to learn more about this material. This fundamental text was not in my lane. And besides, the Iliad has more life lessons in it, am I right?

I think Ellen Langer was misguided in describing her seven mindsets of learning as myths. They aren’t myths to everyone, but to be fair, I also don’t think they are truths. I believe these precepts to be subjective to the person teaching and to the person learning. There are right and wrong answers in air-traffic control – #7. Forgetting to set your alarm will get you fired in life-beyond-school – #5. Rick Perry will never live down that time he forgot what agency he wanted to destroy during the presidential debates. And even though Langer’s driver continued to use a turn signal when no one was around, the law requires he do that. Stupid law, yes, but he was in the right. Change it.

Back to my Swiss-born CAD teacher. Chris lived on a small-town beach in North Carolina with his wife and children. We took study breaks by swimming in the ocean and catching fish. We grilled whatever we caught for dinner, and his kids ran around laughing in English, German and Spanish – his wife’s native language. His skills as a CAD instructor had him flying around the world. He loved what he did and couldn’t have been more welcoming to me.

He also couldn’t stop talking about how the education system in the United State sucked and he was so thankful to have been born somewhere else. He credits that he was setup for success and was encouraged to follow his strengths early on. Similarly, Germany has an 80% rate of hire after graduation, which means there is great value placed on this type system and a high incentive for students to learn.

For some reason, it reminds me of my friend Ty, the designer who stated he went to ‘art school, not smart school.’ Maybe he’s right. He got the art part absolutely right. And the other part about not being smart? He got that right too, but not the way we think. Our society places a high value on certain fields over others, and calls one group smart and another group ignorant.

In reality, it is as much bottom-up as it is top-down. I’m not screaming socialism, but welders are as equally important as engineers in the working of our society – the bridge requires both to function. What if someone had told my teacher Chris that construction work was for drop-outs and engineering school was the way to go? Maybe he would have done well. Maybe he would have burned out. Maybe we should stop teaching students what they don’t need to learn.

I’m not laying blame on teachers teaching poorly. And I’m not laying blame on students skipping lessons. I think there’s another mode where the actual abilities and desires of the students are given more credence and the classes they take are truly important to them on a base level. I believe Chris was right about the differences in our systems. It’s very societal and complex.

We should change that if we can. And please understand I’m not saying a person has to be one thing and only that thing and not anything else. I do not believe this in my heart. We all have many skills and I still encourage their exploration. Some people have lots of them: Think of the jack-of-all-trades, the polymaths – the übermenschen. If my doctor is also an artist – wonderful. But really, I’m not going to cry if she failed my design class – maybe it wasn’t her lane. And truth be told, I’m okay if my heart still looks like a heart and not like a Picasso. I’m fine with that. Does that mean I’m a bad design teacher?

What does your devil’s advocate say?

Am I in the Right Room?

I’ve spent the better part of two hours typing a blog that will sit in draft mode until further notice. The gist of the conversation I was hoping to stir concerns our responsibilities as teachers and parents in the avenues our children and students make. Not all engineering students will become engineers. Not all designers become designers. And we should all understand that that is okay.

I switched halfway through my undergraduate from mechanical engineering to industrial design. Don’t get me wrong, I could grasp the concepts, I just couldn’t produce the math. In my professional career as a designer, my area of expertise has always been more function than form, but I’m still not producing the numbers. That’s what engineers are for. And I don’t expect engineers to always get the form right. That’s what designers are for.

Does this mean my math professors didn’t teach me correctly, or did my engineering colleagues have terrible art teachers? No. Most students will be better at one thing over another; it’s how we become specialists in our respective disciplines. But let me pose this, if an art teacher had taught more like an engineer, or the math teacher had thought more like the artist, would things have turned out differently?

I had parents that backed me up when I decided to turn around. I had tears in my eyes when I told them I was quitting one thing to do another. But it was worth it. For all of us. I ended up in a career I didn’t hate with the best teachers I could have asked for. I grew stronger in my relationship with my parents through honesty and open conversations like that one. It changed my life for the better.

Now, I am fortunate to be in an immersive field of study. Industrial designers learn concepts of form and function, conceptualize through drawings, receive feedback from students and teachers both, and iterate through physical models until the final form is delivered, usually a full-scale working prototype. It is extremely satisfying. It requires the input of the student. It requires the student’s peers to make comments and provide feedback. It’s a shame other fields of study do not have this same opportunity.

Or do they? Does this translate to other disciplines? How does a history major build? Is it only though their writing, or does it require physical travel to places of historic significance? Or both? What if you can’t get there from here? What if it’s too cost-prohibitive? What if you’re too ill to go? What if you have obligations outside of academia that we all find ourselves in? What if’s can kill dreams.

I think this a world preparing itself for VR. Advances in the technology are going to shift what we can do, and make accessible the inaccessible. Adbhut wrote a good blog with plenty of questions we still need to examine and answer. Using VR?AR, can we experiment with how we teach engineers through the lens of the artist? Can we create a virtual art class that designs sculpture through the algorithms of human bone growth? What new information will be passed, exchanged, and shared by those students, as was pointed out in our latest GEDI readings?

I am hopeful. It is my opinion we are already providing more avenues for students to learn than ever before. We are beginning to provide the most current of tools and are creating more. The students are also already changing how they learn if given the space. Hopefully we are able to guide them toward meaningful lives, able to help them correct themselves when that path gets rough, and even have the strength to say it’s okay to turn around and find a different path. And hopefully, it is because we’ve already exhausted all other options, and not because we told them they weren’t good enough.