Leveling Up

Story by November 17, 2015

Think about your favorite video game or app. How do you feel when you achieve that next level? It’s probably one of the main reasons you play. Chances are when you get there, you’re not thinking about your mastery of the previous level. You’ve already moved onto something new. That’s the premise we follow in traditional education. Why shouldn’t we? After all, the gaming industry has generated billions of dollars from this simple concept. It’s a proven formula for success. The more levels, the more achievement. So when it comes to academics, it’s all about “leveling up.”

If you think that’s an oversimplification, just consider how we evaluate success in schools. Benchmarks. Standardized test grades are actually expressed in levels. In my County, an elementary student’s reading ability is measured by the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA). A level of 14 is where a first grader “should” end up, while a second grader should be at a 28. Above that level, good for you. Below that level, that’s a problem. What’s the message to children? They need to level up.

The message to educators is a whole different story – one that can be summed up in the words of a very high level employee of the County Special Education Services Department. During a seminar for parents and teachers a few years back, I asked how the department handled children who clearly were capable of higher learning but were struggling to meet the benchmark. She told me (and about 35 other teachers) that her department was there to “help children meet the standards but not exceed them.” Honestly, even if that is the actual policy verbatim (which would not surprise me at all), why on Earth would someone say that out loud to anyone, let alone a room full of teachers? But I digress.

When it comes to academics, the journey is the destination. At least that’s how it is in Montessori and how it should be everywhere else. We encourage children to spend as much time as they need to achieve mastery of any given concept. That’s an important word and a big difference. When we focus on fully understanding the process, the goal must be mastery. However, everyone knows that mastery takes time – something public school teachers have in very short supply.

When it comes to academics, the journey is the destination. At least that's how it is in Montessori and how it should be everywhere else.

Whether a child is capable of achieving mastery really doesn’t matter because most teachers will tell you there isn’t enough time for them to do it either way. Conversely, when we focus on a standard, the goal is simplified to reaching a level. Simpler goal. Less time to achieve it. Much easier to demonstrate and quantify progress. As a result, what a child knows at any given point has become far more important than how and what he learned along the way. Worse yet, whether the child remembers tomorrow what he knows today doesn’t really seem to matter much either – as long as he hit that level somewhere along the line.

It's a part of our DNA to reach into the unknown.

Don’t get me wrong. Learning new things is great. It’s a part of our DNA to reach into the unknown. We should embrace that. But the human effort to reach new heights is best made through sequential mastery (hey there’s that word again!) of the preceding/building block concepts. As much as we may want our child to crawl, walk or run, there are things he must learn first. But even in these situations, the adult focus tends to relate to the next new thing. When learning to walk, that first step always seems the most important when, really, the last step before running is the best evidence of mastery. The most important consideration should be what the child gets out of the time in between the two. The way our education system treats academic progress is the same as applauding the first step and ignoring everything that comes after it.

My two oldest sons are in traditional public school. As a 7th grader, my son has math 3 days a week and he comes home with a new lesson almost every time. Another day, another level. In some cases he understands the previous lesson – which may or may not be related to the new one. In other cases he doesn’t get it at all. Over the years, I can count on one hand the times I have seen evidence of mastery in any lesson. Yet by mid-year, he’s moved up dozens of levels and he almost always gets good grades.

Children are doing more advanced work sooner than ever before and moving through it at a dizzying pace. I’m not the only one who feels this way. Take my 4th grade son’s teacher who, during our last parent-teacher conference said “We’re giving children an education a mile wide and an inch deep.” She said “The curriculum looks gorgeous on paper.” But in reality, there isn’t enough time to teach it all so that children can understand it. So the teacher has to choose between teaching less of the curriculum or rushing through it to get everyone to the next level. The former may carry penalties which could cost a teacher her job, while the latter only ensures perfunctory learning -even for the advanced students.

Name a topic and you’ll find the same thing. A typical 4th grade history class may cover centuries in a matter of weeks. How many levels is that? It was the same thing 30 years ago when I was in school and probably 50 years before that. Ironic that our history curriculum itself violates the rule that those who don’t know it are doomed to repeat it. Seems like we’ve been repeating this story over and over again. Expecting a different result would literally meet the definition of insanity. I won’t go so far as to insinuate that, but right now I’m having a difficult time coming up with any other explanation.

About Bart Theriot:

Bart is Head of School at Montessori Academy at Belmont Greene, located in Ashburn, Virginia. A Montessori alumni and father to 4 Montessori children, Bart is inspired by the global perspective of Montessori education. He is a member of the Montessori Madmen, a group of active dads in the Montessori community, as well as CFO for the Northern Virginia Montessori Institute.

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