Educating for Democracy: What Makes a 'Great Student'?

05/03/2015 07:57 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2016

There's a definite irony lurking behind the recent honoring of the national "Teacher of the Year," Shanna Peebles, by President Obama who received her as if she were a head of state. For when interviewed by Charlie Rose, Ms. Peebles reflected the kind of teaching that is antithetical to President Obama's"Race to the Top" and President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" agenda with its emphasis on test scores. What she said about the importance of connecting with students is being crowded out by the "testing mania" that is driving potential "teachers of the year" from the profession.

But although there is much discussion of what makes a "Great Teacher," a "Great School" and "Great Parents," I don't believe there has been sufficient attention being paid to what makes a "Great Student," because no matter how skillful Ms. Peebles is as a teacher, she needs some great students to improve her chances for success as an educator. The following observations on what makes a "great student" might be controversial but are based on my 50 years of teaching.

1. "Great students" learn despite, rather than because of, the way they are generally taught.

I know there are many creative and innovative teachers that find ways to resist the "testamania" that is creating an atmosphere of anxiety and confusion among young learners and their teachers. It finally seems that parents who are "opting out" of testing are beginning to see the difference between drilling and educating. But even in earlier times when teachers were given greater autonomy in what to teach and how to teach it, the educational system in this country, since its development in the nineteenth century, has been based on an industrial model. This system has mostly included set times for attending class, compartmentalized instruction divided into subjects that reflect a rigid approach to knowledge, and, especially in the upper grades, little if any class discussion. Too often this results in "passive learning" in which the brightest students fight boredom and the less "gifted" become indifferent if not hostile.

The "Great Students" find learning strategies to make their own connections among the subjects they are taught. The learning that stays with them into maturity and not easily forgotten is self-instruction developed initially through collaborative and independent thinking.

It is very difficult and often impossible for teachers to accommodate the many different learning styles -- as well as learning avoidance -- that are presented in a class of thirty or more young learners. But until a dynamic and highly flexible method of instruction is nurtured, supported and encouraged, the "great students" will be in a minority. They are the relatively few that continue to grow intellectually and truly possess the "critical thinking" skills that are so often demanded by employers. In the present anti-learning environment, potentially "great students" are stifled by the misguided policies that discourage the very skills they purport to develop.

2. "Great students" are motivated less by grades or other rewards than by their own self-initiated projects and investigations.

Over my five decades of teaching, I have had discussions with parents of "high-performing" students who believe that a high grade point average is a confirmation of academic success. But when I've asked them what their son or daughter has actually learned, they seem at a loss, as if being well-educated can only be proven by a number. If a number on a piece of paper is accepted as evidence of intellectual prowess, then that number can be manipulated by teachers and supervisors, afraid of the loss of their jobs, to create the illusion of "academic progress" when there might not be any at all. What happened in Atlanta where ten educators were regarded as criminals for manipulating test scores is a more commonplace practice than educators would be willing to admit. Several years ago a progressive educational reform group, "Fair Test," found evidence of test cheating and manipulation in thirty-seven states.

However, the "great students" do find strategies to develop their own gifts in a "grade bound" environment. Of course there should be ways to measure learning but using tests as a punishment or a reward for success encourages fraud. "Cash for grades" as well as "bonuses for numbers" do not promote substantive learning, as a number of studies have shown. Besides, the frequent misuse of grades for purposes that have little to do with what should be the objective of education--life-long learning--discredits the supposed objectives of the so-called "Education Reform" movement.

In terms of grading itself, although the competition for high grades in order to qualify for elite institutions can be a motivator, students who are equipped to deal with the complexity of the world of work do not really need grades to excel in their chosen field. I would call their true motivation "following their passion." But poor grades are even less effective for unsuccessful students who often lose interest in improving their learning. This is true for many reasons which include factors over which schools and teachers have little influence. The "standardized" learning styles that have to be adopted for standardized tests do not have room to accommodate slow learners whose classification as ADHD and other categories can stigmatize students who might more likely thrive in a different environment. I am not suggesting that remedial measures are useless, but that the system that is being rigorously established to measure "progress" works against the teacher, There should be serious efforts made by educators to explore different teaching strategies to enable them to connect to students who do not respond to conventional teaching practices. Consistently poor grades will only convince poor performing students that school is a useless endeavor and the sooner they drop out the better.

The educator Alfie Kohn has often pointed out that grading is a method of "sorting out" young learners who don't have the learning strategies practiced by the "great students" who have discovered their own pathways through the data-driven wilderness that education has become. But in a society that treats its workers as if they were used toilet paper, the "great student" still learns how to thrive. The true role of a "great teacher" for "great students" is as a pathfinder, not a gate keeper.

3. "Great students" have "great passions."

In a number of my blogs over the years I have recounted my many positive experiences when I attended the High School of Music and Art (now Laguardia High School) in the late 50's. I was fortunate enough to be among "great students" even though I could not say that we all had "great teachers."

What educated me most at Music and Art were the "great passions" my classmates showed me in their music and dedication to creating beautiful and astonishing works of art. They were willing and eager to put in the many hours of practicing their instruments or painting and sculpting to develop and perfect their skills. They were not devoting their time and efforts to excelling in music and the arts for a monetary reward or a high grade; their true reward was the applause and their own sense of accomplishment that followed a recital or concert at which they performed or the expressions of wonder at the viewers of their works of art .

Not coincidentally in the years that I attended Music and Art, the school had the highest graduation rates and college acceptance rates of any school in New York City. And it seems perverse to me that often the most common victims of school budget cuts are the arts. And although relatively few of my classmates pursued a career in the arts, many of them became teachers who maintained their passions for their gifts and were impelled to share them with a new generation.

"Great students" are inspired students who thrive with open-minded and creative teachers who find ways around the obstructive bureaucracy and soulless obsession with numbers that the so-called "educational reform" policies have engendered. Many more "great students" could be developed and supported if only their schools allowed their teachers to discover who they really are and nurture their passions. At present we are moving in the opposite direction.