“Never Give Up!” Really? Do You Mean It?

During the past 20 years of working in and visiting schools, the most common slogan I have seen in classrooms is “Never Give Up!” The poster below is just one example of the many that we have all seen hanging on classroom walls, encouraging students to persevere when learning becomes difficult.

For me, a student’s perseverance in solving an algebra problem, concluding a geometric proof, or understanding a calculus concept was an indicator that the student was taking ownership of their learning. External motivators such as parent and teacher approval, good grades, and high test scores can all be important in motivating students to prioritize school work over play. But, if we are to prepare students for a life where they will change careers multiple times, then we need to build their belief that perseverance and dedication to one’s own learning are necessary life skills.

Yet, the structures that govern today’s schools encumber teaching this “Never Give Up” attitude. For instance, when students take assessments, they are usually given their score and the class moves on. How can we tell a student to “Never Give Up” and not give them the opportunity to correct their misconceptions and re-take the test? Another example is the assignment of a set of standards to predefined periods of time: “Jimmy Freshman, you need to learn these 45 standards in the next 36 weeks or you’ll need to repeat the whole 36 week course next year.” Jimmy should be able to ask, “How about if I learn 30 of the standards this year? Do I really need to take the whole year over?”

There are century-old artifacts that need to be removed from our school systems for true innovation to occur. For instance, Carnegie Units—or, as I call them BTUs (Butt-Time-Units)—determine whether students deserve credit for a course, rather than determining a student’s competency. Another example is that schools are funded based upon student attendance and enrollment, not student completion. I am sure that you can list many more.

I don’t mean to suggest that removal of the Carnegie Units is innovation; but their removal can free the system so that innovators can develop better ways for students to learn. As well, if schools were funded by how much a student learned, don’t you think that we would find new ways to address individual student needs?

Whether it is the Common Core State Standards, or other state standards, if we are serious about being an education system whose goal is to teach a diversified student population a rigorous set of learning goals, we must remove antiquated rules that are now barriers to innovation.

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