If School is a game, it is becoming a grind. Especially in the senior years as students are essentially farming for experience points (XP).
For those unfamiliar with the term “grinding” or “farming” refers to the repetitive aspects of some games that allow players to build up XP or credits. These are the aspects of games that may not advance the storyline at all but allow a player to achieve the goal of leveling up or collecting some tokens to buy something in the game.
Now I get it, in the current world of credentialism that leveling up is seen as being more important. Students want to achieve the best grades, so they grind away in assessment tasks that do little more than tick boxes. This allows them to leave school and head to a college or university. But then at the university, the process starts again. Various universities and their student bodies have noticed this problem (see here and here). And why? So the gods of credentialism can be appeased and students can grind their way to the best scores. Thus allowing them to enter the job market and grind away on someone else’s clock.
I get that education as a means to get students into gainful employment is indeed a factor of our job. However, that is not all the job. We’re educating students for life and employment is indeed part of life, but it’s not all of it. While we are keen to point out the lack of work-life balance for ourselves (and rightfully so) the work-life balance for students tends to fall under the position of it was “I worked that hard and I survived”. Well good but just know that this is the same argument used by those who beat their kids. Not that it can’t be justified, but this can’t be it.
Our senior students in High Schools are often criticised for their entitled ways. Often criticised for the way they only care about the work that’s going to be assessed. Criticised for wanting to know the bare minimum that they can either learn or do to satisfy the marking rubric. We criticise them because they’re grinding away on assessment tasks instead of doing the hard work of learning. But how can they?
Assessments have become king. Epic Boss Battles fought on an almost weekly schedule. And that’s not an exaggeration and nor is it necessarily the fault of individual schools, and nor are schools individuals when they impose such a schedule. Maths break: If a student has 40 weeks in a school year, 6 subjects each with 4 assessment tasks. That mathematics comes out to one assessment every 1.7 weeks. Except, that’s not going to work out either. Think about all the interruptions in an average school year. Then add to that the cheeky practice of splitting assessment tasks up into components that are due at different times, effectively making multiple assessment tasks. One student I know – the daughter of a friend at the local government school – will complete eight mini-assessments for English and two of her 3 unit Mathematics tasks will be broken into various assessment tasks part A and B and NOT sat in a single session. Our students are getting crushed by the sheer volume of tests. If the assessment is indeed king for our students, this repetitive grind can leave no time for focusing on the learning – and as some like to say, that is supposed to be our core business.
And if you were concerned that I’m exaggerating on the Epicness of these boss battles, let’s talk about how size matters. Recently in NSW, we’ve implemented Depth Studies to our senior science curricula. This is intended to be largely open-ended and the students could do whatever style of presentation that they wanted. Today, students have come up asking if they’re going to be ok with a word count as low as 3,000 words. 3,000 words! And they think that this is a normal workload because that is what they are producing for so many of their other subjects. Again, these are the students at many high schools across Australia. University won’t require assignments longer than 2,500 words generally in their senior years of an undergraduate degree (while only studying four subjects) and the Monash University Honours Thesis is only 15,000 words, and this takes five months to write.
Our senior students are bouncing from assessment task to assessment task. Summative assessment tasks. These tasks are the very definition of grinding, they will have almost no positive impact on teaching and learning, only on their scores. While they collect XP, they aren’t developing the storyline of School. Remember that these are summative assessment tasks and aren’t formative or assessment for learning. In my school, we’re lucky to have some staff who are using their personal time and professional development time to investigate and research assessment practices and attitudes. These staff will be reviewing our assessment practices constantly but this is a cultural problem. It’s a problem that exists well beyond the gates of any particular school.
It is commonly accepted that if students are learning for tests that they aren’t going to have a long-term retention and that it reduces the validity of standardized tests – please don’t confuse this with retrieval practice, this is entirely separate to the issue of “teaching to the test”. With that in mind, these assessment tasks that students are bouncing to and from almost every week can have a little-to-no positive effect on their learning. The work is not reflected on appropriately by the students as there simply isn’t the time. Students need time to reflect on their work or their grinding results in nothing more than a number and maybe an achievement badge with no educational value.
Or am I just wrong? Are we not assessing students enough? Or alternatively, have we got the balance right and I’m just being a progressive hippie? From where I stand, if School has become a game, it’s in danger of becoming E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.