Saturday, February 2, 2013

"Don't Let the Sorting Define You...."

The other day I spoke to a group of students at our academic Honour Roll assemblies.

For the last few years I have attended and spoken at these assemblies with mixed emotions and a sort of tension in my "gut".

I have written before about awards in high school and the need to walk a bit of a "tight rope" .  Yet the other day, as those students that had achieved academic honors were being called up, I couldn't help but notice how we were, once again, "sorting" our students.

Following the roll call, in a moment of inspiration and vulnerability,  I spoke the students and implored them to not be defined by how they are sorted in school.

Our education system is obsessed with sorting students.  Academic ability, athletic ability, gender, creative ability,  age, "diagnosis" - we have found any and all ways to sort students.  In most cases, I understand why we do it and understand the systemic forces that drive the sorting.   I don't necessarily agree with it.

Ken Robinson has eloquently and convincingly has made the case for changing our educational paradigm.

Perhaps the best way to shift the paradigm is to empower our students to push back against the system.

In my message to our students I asked them to do just that.  Push back against the system.  To force the adults, most of whom profess to be about "students first", to expedite some the shifts we are looking for.

I also asked the students to, regardless of how they are sorted by the system, to not be defined by this sorting.  I asked them to follow their hearts, their passions.  I asked them to explore new opportunities, to always persevere and put their best foot forward.  I asked them to define themselves NOT by any external achievements, but rather by their own internal best efforts and passions.

As the assembly ended and staff and students streamed out of gymnasium, I (naively) felt better that I may have mitigated the negative effects of the sorting we had just participated in.

I also walked over to my Vice Principals and reminded them that we need to initiate a broader conversation about reforming what we are doing with our Honour Roll Assemblies.

I hope the students took my message to heart and will put the necessary pressure on us adults to rethink how we are sorting our students.....



  1. Great conversation you started, Johnny! Great idea to empower students to continue the conversation and make further appeal as well!

  2. As semester 1 wound done last week, with report card prep etc. and semester 2 starting, I was reflecting on the mark challenge.
    On Friday I asked students to share what they thought, I got some great quotes from them:
    "Marks are a way to make Ss who have figured a way to game the system superior to those who have not."
    and "Marks are a way to keep the pyramid of life sorted."
    Students seem keenly aware of the sorting that goes on, but how to help empower them to push back? Is it by asking them to take part in creating the hows of mark generation in co-creating class policies? Is it giving them more control over what they learn and how they show their learning?
    How do we as high school push back at universities who use our marks as sorters?

    I had a student this past semester who worked tirelessly and gave 110% just to pass Bio 12. She had a lot of growth and seemed to really enjoy the course. I wish we could celebrate her tenacity and her willingness to not give up even when by the norm 50% is considered "not good enough". Whereas I have other students who easily can score in the 90%. But it feels like by giving/posting or producing marks for these students I really am not giving them any valuable information about themselves as learners.
    It feels like what really matters gets lost.
    So I only have questions and a growing sense of discontent with the situation.
    But thanks for starting this complicated conversation and being open to the idea of change,


    1. Hi Carolyn
      Thanks for the comments. I am increasingly becoming convinced that the best place to change the system is at the micro-level (classroom). Waiting for the system to change (e.g. universities, schools, etc) will only delay some of the shifts we need. Having said that, schools, when given the necessary autonomy can also initiate a tremendous amount of change. One of ideas we are considering around honour roll here at St. Pat's is to have the "work habits" of our students honoured more than their "achievement", but without eliminating the systems "requirement" to report achievement. This is at the conversation stage and will require more discernment and dialogue.

      I also think that teachers like yourself are instrumental in adding to the growing momentum that will cause the systemic shifts we are looking for. Thanks

  3. A growing, MASTER teacher in our school said the other day...

    I feel so terrible that for twenty years the students who came in with the most knowledge got the best grades - not the ones who LEARNED the most and the ones who did well didn't do well because I taught them. I am glad I don't do that any more.

    And it's true. Students who have lots of information before they walk into our classrooms get better marks. It's not because of what we've taught. It's not because they learned. They already had a good store of information to draw on.

    Assessment in our classrooms is so flawed. It's sad.

    1. Thanks for your comments. Master teachers like the one you mention need to continue to be forces of change in their classrooms and in their schools. Thanks for sharing