Sisyphus Meets Status Quo Education

From time to time, I receive email or Facebook messages from former colleagues sharing a new adventure or frustrated with status quo education. This one was a frustration.

The FB message from former colleague:

I just had to share a memory, overlaid with a reality I am experiencing, which also connects with where I will be next year. The topic? Examinations. The subtext? Traditional, limiting education. I remember you posted a photo some years back of the HS gym in its stark exam set up. As I recall, you didn’t feel this was a picture of human-empowering education. Agreed.

Well, as fate would have it, I am at an IB school now. I gained exposure to IB at a different school but have become far more involved with the IGCSE and IB systems here. While I applaud some of what IB stands for, the 10 learner attributes for example, the excessive focus on examinations is striking. We have basically stopped learning for the final 2+ months of the year. Why? Mocks and exams, of course.

Yes, there is value in a summarizing assessment, and particularly in what we call, authentic mediums. And revision has a place in concreting understanding. But, the huge time and organizational energy invested in what I am experiencing is not justifiable, at least in the bigger picture. The processes serve the existing system which is clearly limited and limiting.

The response:

Sadly, your account of external exam prep is replayed over and over all round the world. It is a focal point when it comes to frustrations with the lack of movement in status quo education. Every thoughtful educator is struggling with this question: We know better so why is systemic change so hard?

But, with every educator who affirms the limitations of this system, we get closer to actualizing learning needs of all students. I analogize status quo education to a huge boulder rolling down the only pathway on a mountain. With every person who gets on the bottom side of the boulder and pushes back, we slow it down and will eventually stop the momentum. Instead of pushing it back up the mountain as Sisyphus was condemned to do, we cast it aside and carve out our own pathways to the top. Perhaps, better yet, stop along the way to explore and learn what is most important to us.

Help is on the way.

There are large-scale collaborative forces in play to help the change process. Last year, Harvard and other “highly selective” universities announced Turning The Tide to shift the college admission process (huge contributor to lack of change in exam processes) to a more holistic system. More importantly, influential U.S. independent schools have launched the Mastery Transcript Consortium. This group is creating a new high school transcript built on the de-standardization of curriculum and no grades. Instead, the transcript will emphasize and illuminate the 21st century skills so in demand by universities and the work world.

Recently, I have been supporting an educational team creating a new international “school from scratch.” Without doubt, this is an exciting project that will have a significant impact on education. It is scheduled to open in 2020. FYI, there will be no external examinations nor traditional grades and the school will be different in many additional game-changer ways. I am anxious to share our journey and story with others but we are not yet ready for a public announcement. Surely, there are other teams creating their own “school from scratch” too.

To your earlier point, I wrote a blog post several years ago about the fallacy and folly of final exams.

Eventually, despite our frustrations, there are small ways everyone can help make the change, help stop that damn boulder. You can create that opportunity in your new experience next year. If you think I can be of any assistance, please don’t hesitate to ask.

As Albert Camus observed about Sisyphus, it is dreadful and futile punishment to push the boulder back up the mountain.