I sometimes think about a conversation I had with one of my grade 8 students while we were learning about World War II and The Holocaust. It went something like this:
Reagan came up to me in the middle of class and said, "Mr. Bower, I can't do my project anymore."
I was a little taken aback. Reagan had been so eager to start her research on Dr. Mengele and initiated a majority of her project. At first glance such a pronouncement from a student might easily be labelled as defiant, but I was pretty sure there was something else going on here. So I asked, "Really, Reagan? Why's that? What's up?"
"At first I thought I wanted to learn more about what happened during The Holocaust, and then I started researching Dr. Mengele in that book you suggested, The Holocaust Chronicle. But now I'm just saddened by it all. It makes me so sad to read about the awful things that these people did to others. I just don't think I want to do this anymore. I don't want to be sad."
"That's fair. I know that sometimes I have a hard time reading books about The Holocaust. Sometimes it's hard to spend a lot of time focusing on such an uncomfortable topic."
"Before you quit your project, Reagan, I have a question for you. Would it be worse if some people like you and me got a little sad from spending time learning about The Holocaust or would it be worse if we avoided being sad and just forgot about The Holocaust?"
Reagan stood there looking at me.
She didn't say a word.
I knew she was thinking.
In short order she went from looking perplexed to certain. She said, "It would be way worse if we forgot."
"Why is that?"
"Because if we forget, we might avoid being sad, but we would risk allowing it to happen again. And we can't do that." She turned and went back to her project.
I was proud of Reagan.
A couple thoughts:
- Can you see how asking Reagan about what was up was more productive than just assuming she was being lazy or defiant? People like it when you seek to understand them before you seek to be understood -- and children are people, too.
- Can you see how lecturing Reagan about why we need to learn about The Holocaust would have missed the point? Can you see how asking provocative questions that inspire thought are the real work of teachers?
- Can you see how a text-book, computer software or app can't do this? Reagan needed "just-in-time" feedback and guidance that only a real life teacher that she has a relationship with could provide.
- Can you see how this conversation with Reagan would be very difficult to quantify or symbolize on the report card and yet witnessing her new-found realization is what might matter most? The most important things that happen in school may be difficult, if not impossible, to measure but they can always be observed and described -- this is why assessment is not a spreadsheet, it's a conversation. And when we try to reduce learning to a number, we always conceal far more than we ever reveal.