I was a teaching assistant in New York University for a year with the College of Arts and Science, teaching mainly economics to undergraduates. And there is a certain annoyance I get when students raise their hands (or even ask me during office hours) to ask “Will this be on the test?” in response to something I was teaching. It was hard to place a finger on the discomfort I felt; after all, isn’t it good that the students are concerned about their grades? Won’t it be worse if students didn’t bother at all?
I think that tension I felt was one where someone seems to be trying to cheat on the game. And inviting me to be an accomplice. But what is the game? What are we trying to honour here?
For a teacher who thought that the game was to get the students to perform in the tests, to get brilliant grades so they can please their parents, impress their peers and get the certificate eventually, I think there should be no tension. But for me, I think the real game was different. It was one where students get inspired to learn, where they recognise the value of acquiring knowledge and developing the skills through their engagement and participation in class. And this is important because we are preparing for them to be self-reliant, to be able to navigate and thrive in the world after they graduate. And we know that the grades, the certificates and exams are all but signals attempting to reverberate the precious truths about your capacity, capability, of who you are. But no matter what, these signals are never accurate, and worst, they can be dishonest, they can be gamed.
When we become teachers who think that grades are the game, when we try to lift up the grades of the students rather than lifting up their capabilities, we are being dishonest to the world. And we are also being dishonest to ourselves, about the state of preparedness the student have to take on the world. It is like being lenient to the driving test candidate during the test and shirking responsibility for the accidents he/she caused subsequently by his/her bad driving.
I’m trying to undo the damage our systems and culture have created in the new generation of young adults, and young professionals. Find out how I’m working on this. And join the community I’m trying to create.