On Academic Hoop Jumpers & the Fate of Education

Sometimes it seems like the education system is designed to reward academic hoop jumping. Academic hoop jumpers care as much about grades and accolades as they do about learning. They are sometimes more interested in titles and awards than tangible accomplishments and demonstrable progress. It is about compliance and doing what you are told more than imagination, creativity and learning to think for yourself. Test scores are evidence of their worth and a way of setting them apart from others.

The more successful they are at academic hoop jumping, the more passionate they become about fighting for the value of hoop making and rewarding the next generation of academic hoop jumpers. Sometimes they like to make the hoops smaller and higher, perhaps not consciously, but essentially assuring the prestige and value of their own past hoop jumping accomplishments. As parents, they strive and pray for their kids to become Olympic-grade academic hoop jumpers. They boast of their successful jumping as evidence that they are indeed exceptional. They love competition as long as it sets them and their loved ones apart from the rest. Rules are opportunities to set themselves apart from others.

Too often, these academic hoop jumpers will work like crazy for a letter grade, striving to learn or do whatever they have to do get that “A” in a class. Once the class is finished, they rarely or never crack a book on that subject again. The content or ideas were not as important as the skilled hoop jumping that they just demonstrated. Or, they only crack the books when they read some critique like this, wanting to win yet another competition and put critics like me in their place. The greatest disappointment for me is that trying to have a deep, lasting and substantive conversation about ideas and important issues are often minimized, that is unless there is some new promotion, rank or accolade to reward their “work.”

When they find themselves in “the real world”, they are quick to work hard at building a hoop jumping culture beyond schools, quite often appealing to “fairness” as the motive for such efforts. Or, they gravitate toward those roles and organizations that already align well with the hoop jumping approach. It is to be expected that we can find plenty of hoop jumpers in education roles, although some reject it because it lacks the prestige and big rewards of other career choices.

The enterprise of academic hoop jumping is the demise of a great K-12 or higher education system. It turns school into a game instead of a learning community. It forces school into a role of producing winners and losers, and producing (or restricting) at least a percentage of losers becomes parts of its role in society.

If you are an academic hoop jumper, by now many of you have likely stopped reading. If you are a hooper jumper and you are still reading, you are probably feeling a bit defensive, finding some solid critiques of me…probably not even my ideas. It is likely more about me, thinking that I must be one of those bitter losers in the system who never refined his own skill in academic hoop jumping. You would be right and wrong. I’ve certainly done my share of academic hoop jumping. In fact, this critique is focused on me as much or more than anyone else. I am an academic hoop jumper sometimes. Worse yet, I am sometimes even a hoop maker.

Life has hoops. We are not going to create a world without them. However, whenever possible, we can do something about it.

  • We can fight for hoops with deep meaning and relevance.
  • We can work hard to make sure that the attention is not placed on the hoops, but that our schools and classrooms are instead focused upon a greater and more noble goal that just happens to include jumping through some hoops along the way.
  • We can create spaces for learning apart from hoop jumping.
  • We can recognize and reward those who choose hoop-less routes to noble pursuits.
  • We can resist the temptation to equate worth and value with hoop jumping prowess.
  • We can stand apart as champions for making the passion and pursuit of learning and growth the main focus in¬†education.
  • We can reject the drive to replace authentic assessment and evidence of learning with abstractions like grades, test scores and ranks.
  • We can find more interest in considering what we and others have learned compared to what we have earned.

Hoops will remain, but by doing these things we can tame the hoops in our schools.