Saturday, 9 June 2012

System Error

I have had many sources of inspiration throughout my journey as an educator, and there are many different reasons why I teach. The story I'm going to share today is unequivocally the strongest justification for the way I teach, and my ongoing effort to offer more choices in my classroom.

The man in the picture, Jordan, will tell you that his difficulties in school began in grade 1. Sitting still was an issue, and he was constantly disrupting the class by trying to talk to his neighbours. He was regularly reprimanded for speaking out was often sent to the office for his inability to focus. He swears he had no intention of deliberate defiance, but he was uninterested in school in general and he kept getting distracted.

Jordan was extremely social and very athletic but these skills were only a detriment in his elementary years. It took seven years before his first highlight when his teacher assigned an oral presentation on a character from a Greek myth. He created a full costume and wrote a script and shocked his class with an amazing and dramatic presentation. It was the only "A" he received in his entire elementary or secondary school experience.  

Grade 8 brought high school and still more struggles. Class was no less boring than in elementary school but at least he changed teachers and classrooms every hour. Then in grade 9 his home life officially fell apart and because of family issues he ended up living in 3 different communities and attending 5 different high schools.  Regardless of the city or the school, the classes remained the same. He walked in, sat down and listened to the teacher talk. He filled in worksheets and struggled to stay awake.  It took him an extra year to graduate from high school (he failed Biology 12), and throughout those years his only passion was hockey. Once he finally graduated he decided he'd had enough of school and he travelled around playing Jr. Hockey for 3 years at both the Jr. A and WHL level.

Jordan's experience in Jr. hockey earned him the attention of some university hockey programs and despite his very low high school grades he was offered a scholarship by the University of Ottawa. When he returned to his high school to pick up his transcripts a counsellor warned him that it was unlikely his grades would gain him admission even as a mature student, but the university made an exception on the condition that he maintain a reasonable academic standing from that point on.  Once Jordan completed his first semester at the university he discovered something that completely changed his perspective on education. He learned that there was a difference in the way professors evaluated their courses. Some courses weighted heavily on written exams, others put most of the emphasis on papers, and still others put heavy emphasis on discussion, seminars, projects, and presentations. Jordan knew that he truly struggled with traditional written exams.  He also had difficulties with writing, but essays and term papers were slightly better because he could work on them ahead of time and take them to a professor or TA for feedback. He also discovered that he absolutely excelled at oral presentations because verbal exchange was a definite strength. In Jordan's words: "I am a thousand times more effective with oral communication than with written. I simply cannot write the way I can speak." He started getting positive feedback on his presentations from his classmates and professors. His style and passion resonated with people.

By his third year in Ottawa Jordan was choosing his courses based exclusively on the method of evaluation. He went to professors ahead of time and asked to see course outlines. If a course evaluation was weighted heavily towards a timed exam then he avoided it. Papers were better and courses with any component involving verbal expression were his first choice. He completed his Bachelor's Degree in Criminology and graduated with honours. 

Then came law school. Unfortunately the number one criteria for entry into law school was the LSAT which was exactly the type of test Jordan struggled with. He studied and took courses to prepare and ultimately survived the exam, however he was frustrated because he knew he possessed skills that would benefit him as a lawyer yet were not measured by the LSAT itself.  After rejections from 9 law schools he finally received an acceptance letter from the University of Ottawa and after completing law school (while playing for the University of Ottawa's varsity hockey team and also being an assistant coach) he wrote the bar exam and received an articling position with a firm in Victoria. 

Once he became a practicing lawyer, Jordan's success was quick and notable. Within a year of being called to the bar he was running his first jury trial. Just 3 years into his career he was made partner by the largest criminal law firm in B.C. He is now in his fourth year and has run trials involving the most serious charges in our justice system. He faces incredible stress on a regular basis and works with some of the most difficult citizens and situations that exist in our society and yet he is successful. The reason I find Jordan's journey so fascinating is that none of the traditional indicators for professional success (such as high school grades, provincial exams, and admissions tests such as the LSAT) accurately predicted his future capabilities as a lawyer. People who were far more engaged and successful in elementary and high school, and who scored much higher on standard assessments would never be able to handle the requirements of his career. 

What's even more interesting about Jordan's story is that the skills that have benefited him so much as a lawyer (mainly his public speaking and presentation skills, and his ability to relate and connect and work with people) so rarely did him any good throughout the majority of his years in the education system.  What good is the ability to communicate verbally if you only sit in a desk and listen to a lecture? Who cares how well you argue when teachers reward students who sit quietly and listen passively? How important is your ability to relate to others if everything in the classroom is completed individually?   When Jordan was finally successful in university it was because his number one focus was on how he would be evaluated which he prioritized even above the subject of the course itself.  Imagine his educational experience if he could have taken the subjects he was the most naturally interested in, and then been given a choice of how to demonstrate his learning.

Jordan is an intelligent human being with obvious strengths and abilities, however he is someone who was not a traditional "academic".  He would not have been a person expected to continue on to post secondary and later law school, and yet the reality is that his strengths make him almost perfectly suited for a career in a courtroom.  Jordan points out that, "our school system only values one style of learning. It is heavily weighted towards students who excel at essay writing and written tests, when there are other ways to learn that are equally valid".  As educators we must make it a priority to provide more ways for students to connect with their strengths and be assessed in ways beyond written response. We must provide more varied opportunities in our classrooms for students to both engage with the material and to express their understanding. Jordan was successful because he was finally given some choice in university and he learned to navigate the system to his advantage,  but if it wasn't for hockey he would never have considered university in the first place.  Most students would not return to formal education after 12 years of frustration. How many potential success stories have we lost because students were unable to use their natural abilities and passions to their advantage for most of their educational experience?  A path that suits each student's strengths should be available in our schools and we must strive to make it clear and well "marked".


  1. What can we do to ensure that more students see themselves as capable? What changes do we need to make in our assessment?

  2. Naryn - again such a powerful blog. I agree with Jordan, we have traditionally valued one kind of learner, and thankfully some fabulous teachers are working on changing that. I think Jordan would be thrilled with some of the work happening now. But as I say that I know there are so many kids like Jordan who are not appreciated in many classrooms.
    Thanks for sharing.