Written by: Kendall A. | Umm Iman
One of the biggest and weightiest factors of a traditional education is the emphasis placed on grades and testing. From the time children are very young, like around first grade or so, they are introduced to this culture of tests, quizzes, and other assessments to ensure that they are retaining the information that was taught in class. While I do agree with the necessity of a student being able to represent understanding or big takeaways, I am against the culture of testing itself. I think it places undue stress on children (and second-hand stress on their parents!) to engage in false memorization of facts simply to pass an exam. Science has showed us that the differences between short-term, long-term, and working memory are noticeable. (See below for definitions.) In other words, when children are being tested on material, it is usually a reflection of working memory. However, certain knowledge will transfer into the child’s long-term memory, if it is of value to the child. For example, memorizing the Quran can be a long-term memory experience if the child sees it connecting to their autobiographical, episodic, explicit, implicit, and semantic functions of long-term memory. That’s one point–that the culture of testing does not inherently produce long-term memory, so much as it can produce stress, anxiety, and self-esteem complexes for the child who has difficulty with testing.
One might ask here: “Isn’t there value in standardized learning? How will I know that my child is on track if I don’t test her in accordance with what she is supposed to know at this age?”
My answer: “We have an opportunity here to reimagine learning free from the preconceived notions that we have been given about it.” Who said that just because a child has reached a certain biological age, she should have mastered x skill? The whole concept of schooling is highly politicized. Standardizing education is a way for governments or countries to instill certain values into the population, ie: patriotism, literacy, health, etc. These are good values that governments should be concerned with. Through formalized education, countries can produce societies that are healthier, literate, have loyalty to the country, and will produce a work force that sustains the country, ideally so that it does not have a poor population that depends upon the government. When a country is developing its curricula, it is with these ideas in mind–that it seeks to create a population of people that will carry on a stable country.
The other part of that is, if a country has a standardized curricula or set of skills that are expected from each grade level, it makes it easier to assess whether students, teachers, and schools have met those goals, which is usually directly tied to the amount of funding the district will receive. So standardization of knowledge is more political than it is about agreeing that all five-year-olds have to know a particular thing and if they don’t, they are doomed for the rest of their educational lives. They will grasp whatever concept it is, when it is time for them–when their brain makes those connections. While having standards can be a good framework for getting an idea of roughly where a child should be at certain points in the educational journey, it’s not the end-all, be-all; nor should it mean that we begin to see our children as less intelligent or less capable because they haven’t fully grasped what the textbook says they should have.
I’ve seen this be a problem in the classroom as well, when one child just isn’t making the connections and the majority of the class is. It can be a devastating experience to feel that you (as the learner) or your child just isn’t making progress. This experience could go one of two ways–it could either push the child to try harder to catch up with everyone else or it could cause the child to completely shut down and be discouraged from trying, which usually manifests itself in negative behavior in the classroom and possibly in the child’s home life, as well. My argument would be that it doesn’t have to be this way. If we didn’t say that all the seven-year-olds need to know x, then the child who hasn’t mastered x wouldn’t be deflated. Imagine the learner that that child could have become if this impediment of knowing x hadn’t been placed in his way for deeming him “intelligent” or “successful” or “on-track with his peers.” Perhaps he could have simply enjoyed learning x without the pressure of being assessed on x.
There are some certain things that everyone should know, and this goes back to the basics that I originally outlined and that schools in their initial formation focused on: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Everything else falls into those categories and are part of life’s experiential learning–learning about Science, other cultures, practical life skills, etc. It should also be noted, that children are pretty much learning the same thing every year, at a new level. Teaching starts with what the learner already knows and builds upon that. Essentially, a student is learning the same skills or subjects, with new information or layers added on to it. And, if we are honest with ourselves, as adults, we don’t remember most of what we learned in school, unless it holds some meaning to us now.
Similarly, I was talking to a friend about when to start teaching grammar. I shared with her that it starts in kindergarten/first grade when the children are beginning to write–they learn punctuation, capitalization, etc. I pointed out to her, that these are skills that my middle schoolers were still working on and hadn’t mastered, and that there are writing centers in colleges to help students with grammar and cohesive writing. Now, there are programs like: Grammarly, for adults. Coming out of school does not entail mastery of all subject matter. I think we need to shift our thinking around education from “mastery of skills” to “exploration of information.” If we take that approach to learning and place less emphasis on producing a letter (grade), we would have joyful, life-long learners who are not self-conscious about their understanding of material and who feel empowered to explore what is valuable and of interest to them.
The second point here is that representation of understanding and big takeaways are valuable and a part of the learning process; however, that does not implicitly entail that a grade has to be attached to it. I’m much more interested in a child sharing with me what she took away from the lesson than I am in checking off whether she memorized a few facts for a quiz. I think there is much more value in the discussion, the production of something that shows what was learned, and the application of those lessons into daily life as a representation of learning than is any type of formal assessment. Testing essentially is just showing whether a person is good at memorizing facts, less than it is about showing what a student learned.
Another interesting aspect to grading is what a grade takes into account. In some schools, each teacher has the autonomy of deciding the breakdown of components that go into calculating the child’s grade. For example: 10% homework, 5% attendance, 5% participation, 50% assessments, and 30% class work. This can produce wavering results, because if one teacher places a higher emphasis on assessments and another teacher places a higher emphasis on participation and homework, this can present a skewed view of where the child’s strengths actually lie, especially if this differentiation occurs in the same subject from one year to the next. In other words, the 4th grade Math teacher is more concerned about participation and the 5th grade Math teacher is more concerned about assessments. Perhaps the child received an A in Math in 4th grade, because she participated in class, but in 5th grade, she received a C, because she had testing anxiety. This discrepancy causes confusion for the student and the parent, because all this time, they were thinking that she was great in math! The alternative to that is a system in which all teachers use the same grade breakdown; however, I have also seen attendance and behavior be counted as factors in a child’s earning honor roll status. If we’re taking those factors into account–attendance, which usually has more to do with the parents than it does the child, when we’re talking about young children, and behavior–those pieces aren’t really connected to what the child actually learned in the class.
What I’m saying is that grades and honor roll are not really representative of a child’s knowledge in the way that we have been trained to believe they are. We (as teachers, parents, and schools) place all this pressure on young children to be A students, on the honor roll, under the guise of “pursuit of academic excellence,” and I think that in the process we have missed out on the joy of learning and the purpose of education and learning, which is to enlighten ourselves in becoming better worshippers and conduits on the earth. That is the purpose of education–to be learned and knowledgeable so that we are not ignorant and do not perpetuate the egregious errors of the past. Our education should be to forward ourselves spiritually and to make the world a better place. This is the essence of being the calipha on earth and the embodiment of the command “Iqra.” Education is not about arrogance, hierarchy, or competition, and unfortunately, that is what it has become in the systemization of schooling.
The third point here is addressing this notion of “success.” As I have said before, as a global culture, we have been fed a single narrative of what success looks like. And, it is a false narrative, because its formula does not produce the same result for every person who uses it. If the formula for success (from a worldly, educational perspective) were true, then everyone who follows that path would come out with the same result, and everyone who does not follow that path would also come out with the same result of having “failed.” However, we have seen time and time again, that this is simply not the case. Take, for example, college. The idea is that the person who has a Bachelor’s Degree should make a good amount of money to live “The American Dream.” On the contrary, some people get into college on legacy rather than merit; a Master’s Degree has become the new bare minimum requirement for most jobs to pay higher salaries; many graduates are in debt from college loans; having a college degree has not made women or people of color earn more than their White, male counterparts who may have less experience for the same position; and the list goes on.
So, what then does success mean? Does it mean that as adults, our children will make a lot of money in their careers? The reality is that there are people who have only 8th grade diplomas who are making far more money than some of their peers who attended the top colleges and universities. I saw a post today that was sharing the average salaries of vocational positions, many of which were quite high and comparable to some professional positions. So if your concern is about your child having all As or making honor roll or one day making a lot of money, these are not actually linked with learning or what they took away from their educational experience. These are channels for creating competition from a young age amongst children, rather than placing a value on the sanctity of the learning process and the joy of learning, which is a natural, human inkling.
Long-term memory is memory that is available for an indefinite period of time. More specifically, there are five types of long-term memory: autobiographical (relating to one’s personal experiences), episodic (specific to a particular event or point in time), explicit (everything that is consciously available in the mind), implicit (memory that pertains to body movements. Ex: riding a bike or swimming), and semantic (memory of facts).
Short-term memory refers to short-term retention of information, typically 20 seconds or less. For example, as you read this article, you may remember the title or previous idea that you read; however, it is not being molded into your long-term memory.
Working memory is similar to short-term, in that retention of information is held for a relatively short period of time; however, it differs in that you utilize the information gained to temporarily store it or manipulate it. For example, learning a new function in website creation and using it in the moment to make changes to your website.]