I Have An Assignment For You

My wife often watches “Morning Joe” on cable television as she gets ready for the new day. It is a group of people who discuss and debate politics and the world in general each morning. Last week, I wandered through and the people on the show that morning were discussing education. Just as I passed by, one person asserted: “We all know how to get great education: Demand Excellence and Expect Excellence.”

Demand Excellence and Expect Excellence. Hmm, sounds good. I wonder how many of us really do that? Do we really demand excellence from our students? Really? In fact, do we really demand excellence from ourselves? Or, maybe, they are just two sides to the same coin.

RESPONSE ONE TO MORNING JOE: After hearing the commentator, I immediately walked to my study and sent an email to one of my students. “You made a D on your first test in my class. Since then, I have not noticed one iota of improvement. None. You are not one bit better prepared for my class. You are not trying any harder as far as I can see. I can only surmise that your primary goal is to make a D in my class.”

The next day in class that student was clearly better prepared. Not sure how long it will last but it was nice to see him more engaged.

Was I demanding more excellence from him or was the email a way of demanding more excellence in my own teaching?

RESPONSE TWO TO MORNING JOE: However, that was not the part of “Demand Excellence and Expect Excellence” that really stuck with me. Since then, I have wondered a lot about two questions. First, what do I mean by excellence? Second, do my students understand what I mean by excellence?

How can I demand excellence if I don’t know what it means?
How can I expect excellence if my students don’t know what I mean?

Excellence is a word that is bounced around a lot in teaching. But is it just a word or does it have a real meaning to you?

So, I have an assignment for you. Write a short paragraph where you describe what you mean by a person being an excellent student in your class. Should be simple stuff. In your class, what is excellence? Is excellence just being able to achieve a certain score on a test? Surely not. If so, no wonder our education system is troubled.

For your students, what do you really mean by the term “excellence?” Then, email that paragraph directly to your students (and send me a copy at Jhoyle@richmond.edu).

Here’s what I mean by student excellence (not good, but truly excellent):
The student needs to come to every class having prepared and thought about the assignment so that they can discuss and debate each question with the teacher and other students. They need to show me that they understand the material so well that they can legitimately address any and all related questions. It’s not the first question that counts but where they can go from there. They don’t have to be right but their answers have to show a logical thought process. They need to spend sufficient time immediately after class organizing and reviewing our discussions so they can start to see the patterns and structure that form the foundation for the discipline. Then, they need to prove that they have gained a working understanding of this knowledge. They have the opportunity of doing this by showing me on a test that they can take a question they’ve never seen before and break it down into its component parts so that they can connect it to the logic and structure of the discipline in the same way we have done in class. In other words, they can use that connection to come up with a resolution to a problem that makes sense and that they can support.

In my class, that is excellence.
That really does deserve an A.


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