Of the many false truths we tell ourselves every day, which are the ones that most limit our potential?
When I was first introduced to the SCARF Model of Human Development, it struck me as a really fascinating way to think about rewards and threats in the classroom. From the very beginning, when our children enter school, they learn to think of school as an environment where they will either be accepted, or rejected, included, or excluded, and feel freedom, or oppression.
1 – Status*
My high school, and undergraduate GPAs were both 3.85. My graduate school GPA was a 4.0, both times. I know those numbers allow judgements to be made about me. Just the fact that I revealed those numbers, which are often kept so secret, gets the mind working. You measure them up against what you’ve gotten, and that makes your mind work even more. There you have it, the makings of a false hierarchy. We are taught, and we teach students to believe, that these numbers communicate something to the world about “hard work”, “perseverance”, and one’s standards for oneself. Another truth could be that these numbers show how well students know how to do school. My numbers show that “I, (as I’ve heard it said) …came to win, not to play,” and there you have it, you can award or withhold status from me because we both believe the GPA represents the same things.
2 – Certainty
I know that certainty is important for a lot of my AP English students, because by the time they get to me, they have been placed on a track that often involves a lot of other accelerated courses. They usually take on a sort of persona that goes along with taking the course and are certain that what has always worked for them will work in my class too. They expect to do work and get good grades. They have been rewarded in this way for 12 years, before they even set foot in my class. When I disrupt the false truth they have learned–that doing all the “work” gets them an A, regardless of the quality of said work–when I push them to think of learning as expansion and exploration, rather than work to get done for a reward, it causes a lot of upset during first quarter. My students eventually get over it, but it happens every single year.
3 – Autonomy
When I went to school to become a teacher and learned about classroom management, I remember a lot of books and articles recommending strict routines and structures to help students feel a sense of order and predictability. After all, they are children, and children like routines, right? I am a mother. I’ve raised babies. I know the cost of not having a nap and/or feeding schedule. It never really occurred to me that older children might benefit from having input into how the routines and structures work until much further down the road in my career. We encourage autonomy by co-constructing meaning and co-creating routines and structures in the classroom. The SCARF model indicates that people desire to have a sense of control over their environment, and sharing power in the classroom is one of the most important ways to show students we understand that need.
4 – Relationships
Working in an urban school with students from marginalized (even erased) cultural and ethnic backgrounds has helped me to expand my thinking about the importance of building relationships. Often, I spend more time with my students than their own parents do. We talk a lot about the oppression that happens when the mind is accustomed to thinking of self as inferior, and unimportant. What better way exists to help reverse this thinking than to build authentic relationships with our students, and show them we know their worth, by giving them our undivided time, and attention? We live in a world where there are near constant distractions, and claims on our attention, so the time we take and dedicate to each other is even more valuable.
5 – Fairness
Most students place a lot of value on grades. No matter what I say, every year, I have to have the conversation with someone about how the grade does not indicate how I feel about them and/or their abilities as a learner–their value as a person. I tell my students I know they have been indoctrinated to hold certain beliefs about what a “C” or “A” student is, but the beliefs they hold do not apply to me. In my class, grades correlate to proficiency bands, and the skills and knowledge you have proven you have through completed assignments done for the class. Ideally, we would co-create these proficiency bands to enhance transparency, and fairness about how grades get calculated. Students should be co-creators in a process of evaluation.
I’ve used the SCARF model as a helpful tool to evaluate how students percieve status, whether my students feel certainty, how I provide opportunities for autonomy, whether I am keeping the focus on relationships, and to evaluate my fairness. Additionally, working in an urban school, I very much see it as part of my job to help students recognize false truths that distort their thinking about themselves, and what is real and true in this world.
So let’s connect the two.
False truth number 1
“Students with higher GPAs are smarter, and work harder than anyone else.”
Today’s students compete for GPAs that are higher than 4.0. I didn’t even know that was possible until a few years ago. There is a tremendous amount of pressure, and huge amounts of money (in the form of scholarships) tied to one’s GPA. Every year, since we have a relatively small school community, I hear talk about who is at the “head of the class”. Every year, I give comfort to someone in tears whose sense of self has been tampered with because of a bad grade. When a student’s identity as an academic “winner” or “loser” is determined by GPA standing, grades becomes a very real part of who they are. This should not be. Too many of us are kept from knowing or exploring our full potential because of the idea that someone else–even if it’s a mythical someone else–is better than we are. Too many of our students “work” for “grades” rather than learning for self-advancement and to satisfy curiosity. What does it say about those of us working with marginalized youth if we only reward or celebrate folks who have learned to win a game that was designed for them to fail?
False truth number 2
“Students will only learn if there is a reward, or grade to motivate them.”
This is learned behavior. We teach children to learn in return for grades in the later years of elementary school when they start connecting status with numbers they receive on assignments, and rubrics. What if we stopped doing this? Would children cease being curious? Stop seeking answers to their questions? I doubt it.
Unfortunately, the system I am working within has taught too many of our students to value outcomes over process and input, with the rigid way we “measure” or “commodify” learning. A lot of adults think that there has to be a system of measurement, otherwise it would be a free-for-all. Furthermore, I am working within a constant deficit framework that doesn’t allow for flexibility with grading policies and procedures. We haven’t even proven we can do what everyone else is doing sufficiently, so why should we be trusted to think outside the box? This is limited thinking; thinking that has been perpetuated by a male-dominated, Western European colonizer hegemony that, for clear reasons, put their own views of how educational systems should work at the forefront as the drumbeat to which everyone else must march. When we set ourselves up as The Keeper of All Knowledge and employ systems, and structures that reinforce dominance, we make students more, rather than less dependent on us for learning. We set them up to learn as a way of proving their worth to us, rather than striving for the best for themselves.
False truth number 3
“I have to maintain control in the classroom, or no learning will take place.”
Power dynamics in the classroom are inextricably connected to the desire for control. When working with students from marginalized communities it is imperative that folks understand the deliberate and pervasive systems in place that rob our students of control–on a daily basis. It is an act of resistance and radical love to put some of this control back in the hands of those from whom it has been taken by any and all means necessary. This may mean we have to think in new ways about how we share power and control in the classroom. This may mean being vulnerable and accepting that the “teacher-as-head-of-the-classroom” model may not always be necessary and is often counter-productive. This may mean that in order for our students to truly become liberated, we have to give up some of the control we assume we should have, the right to power we feel we have earned, merely through the process of maturation.
False truth number 4
“Students don’t have to like me, they just have to learn from me.”
It’s a hard truth to accept about this world. I’m not going to like everybody, and everybody isn’t going to like me. For me, it is true sometimes, that we are put in situations with unpleasant people to learn from them, and about ourselves. However, classrooms are a strange sort of ecosystem in which students have to feel safe to take risks in order to stretch themselves, explore, and grow. We cannot help students to engage in discomfort if they do not feel safe. They have to trust that if they fall, somebody will be there to extend the hand, and help them back up. How can students feel safe if they don’t have some sort of trusting relationship with the adult who is expected to hold everything together?
False truth number 5
“You don’t think this is fair? Deal with it. Life isn’t fair.”
Sometimes, life isn’t fair. Or at least, it doesn’t seem to be. We find ourselves in situations that feel beyond our control, and allow ourselves to become victims of circumstance. In school, the goal is for students not to feel that being educated is something being done to them. The goal is to enhance conditions that promote fairness, not teach students that unfairness is a cross in life we all must learn to bear. We have to be partners, my students and I, in creating a space for empowerment, risk taking, emotional, psychological, and intellectual expansion. When I make all the rules, create all the punishments, and dictate the rewards, I set up a microcosm of “The Real World” we often tell our students about. The real world is full of those who oppress and exploit–intentionally, but also those who are forgiving, and just. The real world is a place of great suffering, but also beauty, joy, forgiveness. The real world teaches us harsh lessons that often force a loss of empathy, self love, and love for others. When we forget to prepare students for the best, along with the worst, we forget to be loyal to the naturally hopeful selves we once were in childhood and adolescence.
Is a harsh, and unforgiving real world the way the classroom should be?
In looking at the false truths beneath so much of what we speak (and believe) in education, we can become more than we are by using the SCARF model to help us return to what we know we, and our students need. When we allow our students to co-create the future of what learning looks like–that is when we will all get free.
*It makes sense to me that we would think of ways in which we award or withhold status from students, and the ways in which we teachers are encouraged to seek it. This piece, “The Principal’s Pet: A Cautionary Tale” really works well for examining status and our often unhealthy relationship with it as adults in educational spaces.