Bottom of the class syndrome

What happens if you consistently punish someone for engaging in a particular practice? Most of us assume that it will get them to stop. Right? So, why have we developed an educational system that punishes millions of children for learning?

Because all capabilities are distributed in the population as “bell curves,” half of all children inevitably will be in the bottom half of their class. Most of these students will consistently receive grades that reflect poor performance relative to other students, primarily because (for a variety of reasons) they learn more slowly than their age mates. Young students tend to understand poor grades as punishments for poor performance or evidence of stupidity. The occasional low grade that is clearly attached to a lack of effort can act as an incentive to try harder. But consistently low grades with no hope of improvement teach students that learning is bad, because no matter how hard they try, it leads to punishment. I call this “bottom of the class syndrome.”

Clearly “learning is bad” is not the message teachers mean to send. They expect the punishment of a low grade to motivate students and their parents to try harder, and this is likely to work for many of the students in the upper half of the class. But it is not likely to work for kids in the bottom half of the class, because most of them are consistently slower learners. Most students in the bottom half of the class need more time and must make more effort to learn concepts and skills than students in the upper half of the class. They can’t afford to dislike learning; even more than students in the top of the class, they must retain their inborn love of learning to have any hope of success over the long term.

As long as we award scores that rank students, about half of those students will be vulnerable to “bottom of the class syndrome.” Society will lose many of them as learners, and their life choices and contributions will be unnecessarily restricted.

My colleagues and I have been working on this problem for many years. The solution we offer requires sophisticated ways of thinking about learning and motivation as well as new tools for evaluating learning—tools that don’t compare students, but allow each of them to develop on their own timeline. And it requires that we systematically study how students learn every single skill or concept we teach, so we know what every score on every assessment really means—in terms of what a given student understands and what he or she is likely to benefit from learning next. It’s hard work, but we’ve learned how to do it. Humans have tackled much more challenging problems. All we need is the will to ensure that every child has an opportunity to realize his or her potential, the patience to do the work, good people to carry the work forward, and a little thing called funding.

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Promoting development

There is a vast literature exploring ways to promote development. Much of this literature focuses on speeding up development, some of it focuses on optimizing development. Although both approaches are intended to support development, there is evidence that approaches focused on optimizing development are likely to do a better job. This is because development involves two intertwined processes, differentiation (broadening and deepening knowledge) and integration. In plain(er) English, you get more adequate integrations at each level if you accomplish rich differentiation at the prior level.

When we code an assessment, we pay close attention to the degree to which the test-taker elaborates each of the sub-skills it targets. In our personal feedback, we note areas of strength and areas that appear to require further growth. The basic idea is to bring all of the sub-skills up to an optimal level of elaboration to support the emergence of next-level integrations.

Most of the readings we suggest are targeted one to two phases (1/4 to 1/2 of a level) above the level of a given performance. This practice has been shown to provide the ideal level of challenge (scaffolding) for optimal growth. We also suggest activities like engaging in discourse with peers, journaling, cultivating a habit of reflection, and improving metacognitive skills, all of which provide support for growth.

We do not teach people to think at higher levels. Higher levels of performance emerge when knowledge is adequately elaborated and the environment supports higher levels of thinking and performance. We focus on helping people to think better at their current level and challenging them to elaborate their current knowledge and skills—including the not-so-sexy nuts-and-bolts knowledge required for success in any context.

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