I once heard a teacher describe herself as a gardener and her students as beautiful flowers, each needing sunlight, water and thoughtful care. A lovely sentiment, I admit, but I see our students as the gardeners themselves, and the school as their garden. It’s theirs to design, theirs to plant, and theirs to care for. I’m oftentimes the gardening consultant, sometimes I’m the hired groundskeeper, and on occasion you’ll find me doing a bit of pruning or weeding. But I am there in the service of the students because Trafalgar is truly their school. So I was pleased when one of our grade 12 “gardeners” told me that she intended to undertake a critical examination of honour roll to determine if it was a perennial flower or a veritable weed. To me, that demonstrates just how much she cares about the health of her school, both now and in the future. She has a sense of ownership and shared responsibility.
Challenge and Change in Society (or “Cha-Cha” as the students call it) is a Grade 12 course that resonates with many students at a time in their lives when exploring big ideas, developing a personal sense of agency, and learning to make a difference in their community is important. According to the Ministry of Education’s course description: “This course focuses on the use of social science theories, perspectives, and methodologies to investigate and explain shifts in knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour and their impact on society. Students will critically analyze how and why cultural, social, and behavioural patterns change over time.” Our grade 12 gardener decided to survey the school community to determine people’s perceptions of honour roll, and to determine whether honour roll (in its current iteration) reflects the values of our community. Her plan was to undertake research, analyse the findings and develop recommendations for possible changes to this long-standing tradition.
Currently, honour roll is achieved by students in grades 8 to 12 who earn an overall average of 80%. A peculiarity of our school (and one that harkens back to the days when students wrote Christmas exams) dictates that Honour Roll is based on the first term report card and celebrated at a February Honour Society Dinner for recipients and their families. The dinner is an elegant evening that includes a keynote address by a Trafalgar alumna, and for those who make Honour Roll, it is a much anticipated, perennial delight. (For those who don’t…well, I’ll let our gardener’s research speak to that.)
As part of the research, students and faculty were surveyed; a small number of parents, the Vice Principal of Academics and I, as Head of School, were interviewed in person. When asked to define honour roll, students’ answers varied. Some students believe that Honour Roll reflects “excellence in academics” and is “made up of a group of high-achieving, dedicated students.” Others hold a less positive view, with one student stating, “[It’s] an achievement that’s easily attained so it points out who’s below 80 more than it celebrates those above.” Teachers are largely aligned in their views, seeing honour roll as “a way to honour those who have achieved success within their courses” or a way to recognize “students who have gone above and beyond in their studies,” although one faculty member surveyed sees it as “exclusive.” Most faculty (83%) and students (60%) believe that a cut off grade of 80% is too low given that the vast majority of students achieve over 80% every year. When a small minority of students is excluded rather than recognized, it begs the question whether the meaning of honour roll has shifted from its original intention.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines achievement as, “a thing done successfully with effort, skill, or courage.” Honour roll, if it is meant to represent academic achievement, should therefore be earned through exceptional hard work and skill. But we all know students who can pull off an 80% average without breaking a sweat. We also know students who toil endlessly to achieve their personal best, yet fall short of the honour roll cut off. This is the dichotomy I struggle with – students who may not have worked particularly hard being lauded for achievement, contrasted with those who may have worked exceedingly hard yet remain unrecognized. The question then becomes what is it we wish to recognize and reward? Is it merely a percentage grade? Is it exceptional achievement? Or perhaps it’s perseverance?
Decades of research demonstrate how an over emphasis on grades does more to undermine authentic and deep learning than almost anything else schools do. Overall, grades reduce students’ levels of interest in what they’re learning, push many students to select the easiest rather than the most difficult learning task when given a choice, and create a mindset where “Is it going to be on the test?” trumps “Wow, this is interesting to learn!” In academic settings that focus heavily on grades, cheating is more common and levels of student anxiety tend to be higher. Even Ivy League schools acknowledge the problem as evidenced by Brown University’s move to a credit/no credit grading option for many courses. Medical schools are also moving in this direction.
Percentage grades, however, are a requirement in Ontario secondary schools so report them we must. But there’s a difference between reporting them and emphasizing them as the Holy Grail of learning. Instead, I believe it is incumbent upon teachers to mitigate the negative impact of grade reporting by focusing students’ attention instead on the timely, specific and rich feedback provided to them because that’s what the research tells us better moves them forward in their learning.
But let’s get back to the topic of honour roll. Talking with our grade 12 “gardener”, and based on her research, she recommended that we keep honour roll but wondered what to do about the notion that it excludes rather than celebrates, and that it’s awarded mid way through the academic year. We also wondered whether focusing younger students on percentage grades was really a good thing, and whether or not delaying this wouldn’t help them stay focused on the joy of learning.
As we talked it through, we asked ourselves how our conversation would be different if the topic were athletic performance and high achievement. In sports, we allow for competition – in fact, we expect it. We know that hard work and dedication is necessary for all athletes but recognize that there will always be a small group that pulls ahead from the pack. We laughed at the idea of the Olympics not being held because athletes who didn’t make it would feel hurt. Somehow we accept that not everyone will get to the Olympics, no matter how hard they try. And we believe that there is honour in trying. Applying this same thinking to honour roll, the question therefore isn’t how to include more students in order to protect hurt feelings but rather how to structure honour roll so that it acknowledges high achievement that is earned by those who are willing and able to pull ahead (knowing that many students will have worked hard and tried their best yet missed the mark.)
After much thoughtful discussion, we decided on a new process for recognizing high academic achievement at Trafalgar Castle School. Students in grades 9 to 12 with an overall average of 85% or above on the June report card will be admitted to honour roll, and we will also acknowledge High Honours for students with an average of 90% or above. The Grade 12 students achieving honour roll will be acknowledged at Trafalgar Day, our graduation celebration. The remaining grade 9 to 11 students will be recognized at the Honour Society Dinner that will take place upon our return from summer break in September. Those student and their parents will be invited to attended dinner, along with all students in grade 9 to 12. It will be our Upper School’s opportunity to celebrate the achievement of all our students while recognizing those who achieved at the highest level. I hope these changes will bring greater meaning to our community, and will flourish in our garden more as flower than weed.