Report Card-full

-by Jon Farmer

When the geese begin to flock and the earliest leaves change colour on the trees I always think of the first days of school. Some of my strongest memories involve carrying a full load of school supplies into new classrooms. Even in my mid-twenties, the start of September makes me think of school. As students of all ages head into their classrooms for another academic year, it's the perfect time to ask why we send them off and what we expect them to learn.

For most of my childhood the purpose of school seemed obvious. It never occurred to me that there would be any other option. I was there to learn and hang out with people. The success of my time at school was measured in grades on report cards and laughter on the playground. I was never one of the 'cool kids' and my jokes fell flat so I focused my school time on class work and grades. It took me years to realize that tests might not actually be the best measure of my worth as a person.

Personally, high marks came easily to me. I did well without much effort and enjoyed free time and flexibility because of it. I learned that I was a good student because I got good marks and that being a good student made me a good kid.

I got my first low mark in Grade 5 and I was devastated. It was a B- in something. Not a bad mark by most measures. I thought something must have been miscalculated. I don't remember how the situation resolved but I can still remember where I was, standing outside my classroom, when the feeling of shame and panic reached full strength.

I coasted through the rest of my public education. My periodic attempts to seek constructive criticism were generally unsupported. I approached my Grade 11 English teacher one day after an essay had been handed back to ask how I could make it better. "You got an 86%," he told me. The silence following his statement rang with an unasked "what more do you want?" I don't mean to discount his professional opinion but I'm sure my paper could have been improved.

I don't tell that story to point fingers or trumpet my own academic strengths. Maybe he thought I was just asking for a higher grade and not for specific feedback. Either way, we both mistook the percentage circled at the top of the page for the quality of my work.

Report cards included some qualitative feedback. Letters indicated whether my organization, cooperation, and problem solving were satisfactory but there was never much comment around those assessments. Throughout my thirteen years in public school, work returned weekly with numerical grades. Having learned the nature of 'greater than' and 'less than' early on, my peers and I had a common language to assess the 'smart' and 'dumb'. When we got to high school the classes themselves made that distinction. Some of us were headed to University, others to College, and some were struggling with Essential learning. In the years since graduating high school I've become aware of how much truly essential learning was omitted for the sake of our University preparation.

I don't remember receiving feedback on the extent to which I showed compassion. I didn't learn how to solve problems with my peers. I didn't learn practical skills; most hands-on learning didn't fit into the course schedule that pointed me towards a post-secondary degree. As an adult I wish that school had better prepared me for adulthood rather than simply University. I was loosely trained for university but if we want students to grow into good people, then we need to teach them the skills they need to live well, collectively, and kindly.

Post secondary schooling is not guaranteed for every student nor will they all graduate from public school. They will all, however, become adults. As we send kids back to school for another year we need to ask ourselves what we expect them to learn and how we're going to help them to learn it. Grades can't measure their most important lessons.

Learning is not restricted to school. Kids learn during time outside, in the shop, in the kitchen, visiting local businesses and museums, and simply in conversation with others. If we want to support good education we need to help kids gather all the skills they need to be compassionate, well-informed, and constructively critical adults. You can't grade that sort of thing. It's simply what makes good people.