Once upon a time there was a boy who measured his worth by the numbers. When he was number one, he felt valued and important. When he was not, doubt and disappointment consumed his thoughts. This applied to playing a game of pickup basketball, being the top scorer on the teen bowling team, playing a family board game, getting the highest score on the school math test, even being among the first to finish the test. Since as far back as he could remember, this boy loved numbers and what they said about him. He tracked his numbers on a large whiteboard that he kept in his bedroom. He fell asleep each night scanning his numbers, and he woke up thinking about the new numbers that he would earn that day.
The Joy of School
Every day he woke up focused on the numbers. School was an especially enjoyable place for this boy. He worked hard to get the highest test scores and the highest grades. He spent every day of school focused on that prized top of the class number. After school, he participated in extracurriculars and a sport for every season. If it had numbers to earn, he wanted to be part of it.
When the FitBit came out, he asked for it for his birthday. Ever since, he lived his day by the numbers. 10,000 steps a day was the baseline, along with at least 10 flights of stairs, 30+ minutes of being in the aerobic level, 8 hours of sleep, and being ranked among the top ranked among his friends.
He was an Eagle Scout by age twelve, largely because he loved to be the one with the most badges and set his mind on being the first in his age group and troop to become one. When his state adopted the mandate to measure BMI of every student in school at certain grades, he cheered. He starved himself for weeks to get the best possible BMI when the testing day arrived.
One semester he showed up for his first day of class, sophomore English. He sat in the front row confident and excited to rack up some more academic numbers. The teacher passed out the course syllabus and as he started to read through it, he came across a troubling paragraph.
The Troubling Paragarph
“In this class, you have the opportunity to participate in a learning community committed to reading, discussing and learning from great books of the past and present. As an experiment, I have special permission to run this class without traditional letter grades and point systems. Instead, we are going to be about deep and authentic learning. There are no rubrics, no traditional test scores, and no letter grades. There will be plenty of thinking, reading, writing, laughing, collaborating, deep thinking, and rich conversation. I will give you feedback on all of your work, providing you with suggestions, offering questions to guide your thinking, and challenging you to stretch yourself to higher and higher levels. I invite you to join me by fully devoting yourself to this experiment and helping to create a rich and rewarding learning community for all.”
The Quantified Boy’s Dilemma
“This is terrible!”, he thought to himself. “How can you possibly have a class without points and grades? What would be the point of such a stupid experiment? Why would I do any of this work it didn’t help my GPA?” He found it hard to hide his outrage at this distasteful “experiment.” “Stupid” was the word that kept coming to mind for him.
Right after class, this quantified boy marched to the principal’s office to express his displeasure and outrage. He started by making sure the principal fully understood this boy’s numbers: number one in class rank, 4.0 GPA, over a 30 on his first attempt at the ACT (and he wasn’t even a junior yet), a perfect score on his last six tests, and much more. The principal listened and nodded, but once the quantified boy finished speaking, the principal simply said. “I really think this course might be a good experience for you. How about this? Why don’t you give it a try for the semester? If you still feel this way at the end of the class, I will talk to the English department to see if we can arrange for you to take a test on the course content and get a traditional grade. Then you can work as hard as you want for that perfect ‘100%.'”
He didn’t like it, but this offer placated the boy enough to give a try. He still had the hope of getting his numbers. So, he agreed to continue participating in this “stupid experiment”, but he wasn’t going to like it.
He went to class the next day and decided to sit in the back. “Why sit in the front if there are no grades to earn,” he thought. The teacher began class by reading a strange poem. The words didn’t seem to have any apparent meaning. Determined to not be interested in what happened in this class, the quantified boy feined a yawn or two. Wide awake, he listened to every word. He vaguely remembered hearing this poem before. In fact, he heard it back in 4th grade, but he didn’t remember that at the time. Something in the words drew him into the story, craving to understand what he didn’t, but also enjoying the fact that he found some sort of meaning in a collection of otherwise meaningless words.
After reading the poem, the teacher provided a brief background to this well-known poem, Jabberwocky, explaining that it as part of a larger book, but that the term jabberwocky found its way into the English language as more generally referring to “meaningless speech or writing.” As such, the teacher provided the students with a challenge for the next class. “I would like each of you to either find or write a short excerpt of what you consider to be a perseonally meaingful piece of writing. What makes a piece of writing meaningful to you? What makes it meaningless to you? Be prepared to read your piece to the class and discuss it.
The quantified boy found himself actually thinking about the assignment. Yet, he couldn’t leave class without asking for clarification about how he would be evaluated. The teacher reminded him of the experiment, which frustrated him and others in the class. “How are you supposed to do well on this assignment with such unclear expectations?” The teacher assured him and others that there will not be an evaluation. There will be a converastion, one shaped by the writing brought and shared by everyone in the class. After a bit of back and forth about expectations, the bell rang and the quantified boy, along with others, left the class a little confused and frustrated.
The Library Encounter
He went online after school and started doing random searches for things like “meaningful writing”, “What makes writing meaningful?”, and “What is the definition of meaingful?” He didn’t find much that helped, so he deided to go “old school”, heading down the block to the local library. This quantified boy knew the library well, being one of his favorite places to study for tests, but he never wandered the shelves before.
He didn’t read books unless he had to for a paper or project. So, it was an altogether different experience to wander the shelves, scanning different titles, pulling a book out, paging through it, and going on from there. He did this for over an hour, wandering from history to biology, carpentry to mythology, parenting and computer repair to archeology, gardening to psychology, politics and poetry to scientology, American novels and philosophy to ethnology. He didn’t read all of these, of course, but what struck him was how much of this never occurred to him before. Very little of this ever showed upon on a past test or as part of a course. Plenty was generally familiar, for sure, but in less than a couple hours, he came across countless ideas that sparked his curiosity. The world seemed a little larger than it was before he wandered those shelves.
I don’t want to overstate what happened to him. It wasn’t like he had some instant, life-changing epiphany. He was still the same quantified boy, but now he tapped into something that he didn’t have much time for in the past, his curiosity. In the past, when he had to write a paper or do a project for a class, he read and learned new things, but he didn’t let himself get too caught up in them. What mattered most was getting the best grade.
Yet, at this moment, he wasn’t absorbed in figuring out how to get the highest score, mark off all the elements on a provided checklist, get the perfect rubric evaluation, or even competing with his classmates. Surprising even to himself, he thought this assignment sounded sort of fun…albiet part of a larger “stupid experiment.”
The Subtle Change
Nonetheless, he persisted. He found something meaningful to him, shared it in class, and joined in what turned out to be a rather fun an interesting conversation with his classmates. This first “assignment” was just the beginning of what turned into a semester of personal “passion” projects for the students. They read together, laughed together, debated, practicing writing and sharing their ideas with each other. They explored books and ideas that never found their way into past classes. The teacher guided them with lots of questions and ocassional direct suggestions or a slight re-direction. She also introduced them to new ideas and resources, and set them up for group and indivudual explorations. Some learning happened through games and simulations. Some happened through role-playing activites. Others were just groups gathering in a circle and unpacking ideas in a text, or debriefing a recent learning experience together.
By the end of the semester, the quantified boy still loved numbers. He maintained his 4.0, continued his record of perfect test scores in other classes, and preserved his prized first in class ranking. Yet, for one hour a day, he set the numbers aside and let his curiosity take the lead. He read. He wrote. He laughed. He questioned. He explored. He learned. And in the eventings or on weekends, you could even find him hanging out in the library studying for the next test, but with an interesting book nearby, one that he didn’t have to read for any test or course requirement. He read it just because it interested him.