An Open Letter to my Students

Dear Students,

Because of institutional requirements and societal norms, I’m required to give you a grade. This grade falls between 0-100 and in some way is intended to inform you and others how well you did in this course. The importance that number is given is appalling. While I do my best to provide you with some outcomes, indicators, rubrics and feedback I still feel my assessment of your learning is fairly trivial or at best a thin slice indicator of what you’ve learned.  I realize many would love to believe that the number or grade you get is pure, accurate and will provide future instructors, institutions or employers with an indication of your proficiency, understanding or knowledge. If anyone of these groups were to ask me about you, I could tell them what I’ve seen and observed. That may have value, the grade, not so much.

I also recognized that many of you took charge of your own learning, asking to change assignments, finding alternatives and creating meaning for yourselves. That’s what I wanted. While it wasn’t really an “anything goes” approach we were able to negotiate some ideas about what would be valuable for you to pursue the broad goals and guidelines of this class.

At the beginning of the term, I told you I had 4 goals for you. I wanted you to see that:

  • Learning is social and connected
  • Learning is personal and self-directed
  • Learning is shared and transparent
  • Learning is rich in content and diversity

I hope I succeeded in that. Don’t rank me from 0-100 but provide me with feedback and ideas to make me a better teacher.

As I’ve told you before, you all are the winners in our current system of education. You’ve come through 12+ years of education understanding what it takes to do well in school and please others. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle, however, if that’s all this class is, and the other classes you take, that seems like a waste. That system may have worked for you but it doesn’t work for everyone and certainly continuing to aid students in playing the game of school needs to stop. Personalizing learning and being able to take away clear and not so clear understandings, skills and ideas are what really matters. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to learn specific knowledge and skills but we have to move beyond that. I know that for most of you, you did.

So if you look at that number and it doesn’t make sense to you, I apologize. I try like crazy to make it meaningful but always get frustrated trying to make that happen. In the end, you tell me, what you learned. I would love to be like this guy and give you all A’s. The ranking you makes little sense to me. Helping and guiding you to become better at what you want to do is something I’m deeply committed to. I’m hoping I was able to do that and that we didn’t’ let a little thing like a number get in the way. Your challenge as future educators is to figure out how to minimize the meaning of that number and get your students to learn in spite of that. That won’t be easy. Will we ever have schools that truly model and commit to lifelong learning? I realize I’m dreaming but wouldn’t it be great if we could just learn because we want to?  Idyllic, I know but it’s worth pursuing.

Still learning.


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  • Terry Kaminski

    Bravo Dean!!!! You have very eloquently presented how I also feel as a teacher. The number I give my students says so little. Hopefully, as we all move forward we will get away from numbers and ranking students.

    Assessment and reporting in education has a long way to go. Some people, like yourself, are moving in the right direction. I hope all educators head down the path you are taking. Are students will benefit so much from a new path.

  • I have spent much of my post secondary education career frustrated by professors/instructors that wanted me to regurgitate their opinions of the content. I have come across a few professors that have allowed me to learn in a way that works best for me, and also to express this learning in a way that is meaningful to me. Also I have come across a few (two I think) that have allowed me to be who I was, to determine the type of learner/educator that I want to be, and did not judge me for those things. You were one of those people and this class was one of the places that I was able to grow into my own professional.

    Isn’t that a beautiful thing? I got to decide who I wanted to be, how the content would work for me and how it can make me a better teacher. I got to explore a variety of tools that expanded my learning and have also given me a whole new way to think about teaching. While grades do hold a certain importance for me, I also know that there are a few classes that the breadth of my learning and growth has meant so much more than the mark I ended up with in the end. There have been very few classes that have challenged me the way that this one has, very few where my foundation as a teacher has been changed, and very few where I can see the practical applications for making me a better teacher or for benefiting my students. Again this class was one of those.

    Thanks Dean for the great learning opportunity and at least for this learner, what I have learned and become because of this class far out weighs the mark that I will receive!

    Tessa Jordans last blog post..March Wrap-Up

  • Love this post! I am going to add it to my personal “noteworthy” posts list! Keep up the great work!

    Anne Daviss last blog post..MIT voted unanimously to make all of their scholarly articles available free to the public online!

  • Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our students could free themselves of the worry of whether they are “right” or “wrong” and just get into the conversation? So many students feel like asking questions means that they are inferior; they must not know something that they are supposed to know. What if they understood from childhood that asking questions is the whole point. It isn’t about the answer, it is about the question.

    David Coxs last blog post..What Did They Do With It?

  • We’re always so bad at predicting the future — so how do we know what we’re preparing learners for? We don’t.

    All we can do is burn worksheets, banish multiple choice quizzes and bell curves and focus on individuals, not test scores.

    And as long as learners are set in competition with one another to get the best possible grade — how are we ever going to fully instill a culture of collaborative learning?

    KerryJs last blog post..Notes from the Virtual Worlds Best Practice in Education conference

  • Dave

    Easy and impersonal but produces valuable data – assigning a grade from 0-100
    Difficult and personal but produces valuable data – helping students embrace their own learning
    Very Difficult, personal, but produces extremely valuable data – assigning a grade from 0-100 based on whether students are capable of embracing their own data

  • Learning how to get good grades is a transferable skill. Some kids learn it early and go on to be bankers and lawyers. Others don’t and go on to be artists, and, dare I say, teachers. Of course I’m being facetious.

    Chris Browns last blog post..Ethiopia with Water 1st

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  • Wow Dean thank you for this, it is the truth; when will we be able to get past the numbers, once I knew that I wanted to be an educator, I knew I had to come to University. I was then face with the number dilemma, I had to have the write numbers to get in to university and I am now worried about the numbers that I will receive in all my classes because I need to maintain these numbers to ultimately convocate and do what I want to do. Thank you for this course it has made a big difference not only on my knowledge of technology but on my educational philosophy.

    Robert D. Dolans last blog post..Reflection on Socail Learning

  • Jenith

    I loved this post! You say what thousands of us struggle with each day. As both a student and a teacher, I fully appreciate the idea of learning being both personal and self-directed as well as social and connected. So many teachers don’t get this and in fact, in my EdD program, I am embarrassed to admit the number of professors that I have had that have used their doctoral students as guinea pigs to accomplish some personal agenda.
    I also work in K-12 where secondary teachers are passing out D & Fs to over 60% of their students, now don’t even get me started on that topic! Anyway, just wanted to commend you on a brilliant post! I would love to see the feedback from your students!

  • Thanks Dean. This class really forced us to learn independantly, even after all the social learning we achieved. To succeed in this class required self-motivation and perhaps a small passion for technology. Although I still think grades are important (of course, not nearly as important as what is learned), I understand your view of evaluation and assessment. I hope I have the opportunity to take ECMP455 with you or Alec in a couple years. Thanks for the challenging and stimulating class.

    Robin Howells last blog post..Daily Picture 09/04/09

  • I think what resonates with me the most is the disconnect that you seem to feel between the merit that others will put in the numbers that you give and the confidence that you have in those same numbers.

    While others will celebrate ever 92 and mourn every 73, I know there’s unspoken realities behind both of those numbers—-and those unspoken realities are far more important for understanding individuals and their interests/abilities.

    So a question: Who has to lead the charge for changing “assessment” and “evaluation?”

    Is that something I should take on as a classroom teacher? While I probably know more about assessment and evaluation than most other stakeholders, I sure don’t feel like my ideas are going to be “heard” or “valued.”

    Do we need parents to take the lead? While they may not have a ton of technical knowledge about what good assessment/evaluation looks like, it would be hard for elected officials to ignore them!

    Are policymakers are only hope? While they have the organizational power to make changes a reality, they don’t seem to have a ton of motivation to up-end the apple cart.

    I don’t know where to begin….

    Bill Ferriters last blog post..Email and the Elementary Schooler. . .

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  • Hadass

    Beautiful post, as usual, Dean. Thanks.

  • Nice to see a colleague be so transparent, that’s modeling excellence from in from of the chalkboard. I appreciate the analysis of evaluation as a questionable process. We become present as lead explorers of truth when our voice speaks from an emotional place of humility.

    None of us have all the answers, but just openly recognizing it in an intelligent way to our students brings them onto the course of enlightenment. The establishment, other teachers, or parents for that matter may not endorse this type of honesty, but it remains a pedagogical requirement to understanding the value of being open in the pursuit of being better – It’s normal.

    LaRon | @laroncarter @K12Live

    LaRon Carters last blog post..K12 Live | Spotlight on Success

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  • “Your challenge as future educators is to figure out how to minimize the meaning of that number and get your students to learn in spite of that. That won’t be easy. Will we ever have schools that truly model and commit to lifelong learning? I realize I’m dreaming but wouldn’t it be great if we could just learn because we want to? Idyllic, I know but it’s worth pursuing.”

    I’ve read your post a few times. This past year, my approach to teaching and that view of learning has been changing. It would be great if students can take control of their learning, take ownership, take risks.

    My shift with students this year has been in the initial approach. Instead of just having targeted goals and an individualized plan for each student, choosing to come alongside that student and helping them to create their own personal learning plan.

    Yes. Teach what they need to know.

    Yet helping them to learn in community and encouraging them to take risks in making connections and collaborating. Isn’t that a challenge? I want to foster that love of continual learning while sitting in the passenger seat, as they take the wheel.

    Donelles last blog post..Creating Your Own Professional Development

  • Greetings from Costa Rica! I think it is very important to let our students know laerning does not equal a passing score nor a final score reflects learning. Thank you, Dean, for this nice, heart-felt letter which inspired me to write one to my students as well.

  • Hi Dean,
    I agree with you that it is ridiculous to mark us on a scale from 1-100. I guessed that you didn't like giving grades because you haven't given us one all semester. I liked that though. I personally take grades to heart.
    It was nice to have a written midterm assessment like you gave us that told us how we were doing. If you had given me a mark as well, I would have just looked and it and ignored the comments. It's sad but it's the truth. Without giving us a grade, you have enabled us to just care about the quality of our work instead of care about the number you put on our transcripts.

    From the crazy pirate lady,

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