Colonized by the grade book

Modern education has been fully colonized by the grade book. As any colonizer, the grade book imposes its values as truth and reality over those whom have been colonized. This is not an easy process as these values often are in direct opposition with the colonized‘s previously held values. Eventually, however, with force and other methods of control, these values will be seen as the only way forward and will not to be questioned. When this shift happens, the colonizer’s ideology becomes reality and the colonized see no other way but that way of life.

My AP class just read George Orwell’s, “Shooting an Elephant.” Every time I use this essay in class, I am reminded why I sympathize with the speaker when he is compelled to use his rifle, which he calls a”magical,” because it transforms him to a man of power and authority.  While I do not have a magical rifle, I have a magical grade book. And like the speaker in the essay, I am forced to use it. And sadly, due to the process of colonization, sometimes that is all the students, like all colonized, understand.

A quick summary if you are not familiar the essay: The speaker of the essay is a British police officer in Lower Burma. As such, he is a representative of the colonizing force from England. The speaker admits early in the essay that “imperialism was an evil thing” and was doing what he could to get away from it. One day, however, the speaker recalls a “tiny incident” which he claims reveal the true “nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.” He was called to do something about an elephant running amok in the bazaar. The speaker does not want to hurt the elephant, but with the collected wills of the local population, he is compelled to use his magical rifle and shoot the elephant.

Much like the speaker I am compelled to confront my own elephant, which I do with my magical grade book. My students understand in the abstract the meaninglessness of grades and test scores. They understand that the only people who care about their grades and transcripts are them, their parents, and (to a certain degree) their college application. But the values imposed by the colonizer is quite different. The colonizer seeks to supplant the will of the colonized with the will of the colonizer. This is not an easy process and one that has to be done over and over again, lest the colonized’s will resurge. And so my students focus on the magical grade book.

Every time I read this essay, it seems that the colonizer, too,  must be re-colonized in order to inflict the colonizer’s will upon the natives. The speaker realizes that what he is doing is not the right thing, regardless, he continues with it. He continues to use this magical rifle. He continues to enforce the colonizer’s rules and impose their values.

Just like I continue to enter and ‘value’ grades. And spend the first few days back from summer break looking over SAT, PSAT, IB, AP, and other test scores (I don’t mind data, what I do mind is not allowing my students to be individuals). In doing all of this, I break the will of my students a bit more so that they are fully under the spell of the colonizer.

To push this metaphor of colonization one step further, there is a time when learning is about joy and fun. When the grade book does not matter. A time when school is about exploring. But then enters the test. Enters the venerated test maker. Enters the person who has the fucking audacity to ask if your first grader is college ready? Here, the kid leaves and is replaced with a data point or, worse yet, the stresses of being adult.

I find myself playing into the game. I find myself pulling out my magical grade book. I listen to the crowd of thousands making sure I use it.

As we started to discuss “Shooting an Elephant,” I presented this idea to my students. The irony is they agree. They agree that they are the elephant and the system (through me and the grade book) is taking their will very slowly. They agree that their thoughts about school and education have been fully colonized and they cannot see anything beyond the ‘significance’ of the grade book. They agree that the first question they are concerned about is if an assignment is being graded and how many points it is worth. It seems the more it is worth, the more work they will put into it.

And so I work to combat it. I work to find the balance between satisfying the needs and wants of the colonizer and making sure my students leave my classes with their wills mostly in tact. To be honest, in order to function as a society, we must give a bit of ourselves up, I have no problem with this. What concerns me, however, is the lack of desire for many of my students to learn for themselves in school, to put themselves into their learning. That if we want them to become lifelong learners, then we have to confront the incentive for learning in school. We have to confront the process of colonization through the grade book.

I will be spending some time over the next few posts as I explore some of what I am trying to do to combat this process colonization by the grade book in my classes. Right now, I am experimenting with the grades themselves, I am including some PBL approaches to learning, and other ideas. But I wonder about you? What are you doing in your classes to try and get your students’ focus off the grade book and on the learning? Please share some ideas in the comments.