"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Commencement and Not Graduation

In the Philippines, commencement ceremonies are currently being held. These ceremonies are indeed occasions of joy and pride for everyone. Parents, teachers and students are together as one, acknowledging years of labor and hoping for better years to come. Commencement indeed celebrates a beginning. As students embark on a new episode in life, everyone therefore looks forward to hearing a message that hopefully is worth remembering.

The stage is set for commencement exercises in an elementary school in the Philippines (copied from Ibaba Elementary School's facebook page)

Here are excerpts from a memorable speech delivered by an English teacher, David McCullough, at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts in 2012:
"...commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clich├ęs like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same. 
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special. 
You are not special. You are not exceptional...
In school, there are stages. One year leads to another. Every end is a beginning. Learning is never ending. Graduations like any end of the year event provide not just an opportunity to look forward, but also to glance back. That someone we look back at the end of a school year is our own self in the past. It happens at the end of the school year that teachers give students evaluations of their schoolwork. In most countries, these come in the form of "grades" or "marks". These are results of assessments. There is nothing inherently wrong in assessments. In fact, assessments should inform teachers, students and parents and help in enhancing teaching, learning and even parenting. Assessments can indeed be both informative and formative.

Unfortunately, grades have also become summative and competitive. In this regard, grades can actually influence a student's behavior or attitude toward learning. With grades possibly affecting a student's engagement in learning, it is important to be aware of how grades psychologically affects students. In "Do Grades Shape Students’ School Engagement? ThePsychological Consequences of Report Card Grades atthe Beginning of Secondary School", published in the Journal of Educational Psychology,  Poorthuis and coworkers conclude:
In many schools, giving grades is a daily routine, yet teachers may not always be fully aware of the possible emotional and behavioral consequences of the grades they provide. This study suggests that low grades may set in motion a downward spiral, whereby consequent declines in engagement result in even lower grades. Low-performing students who perceive their classmates to receive high grades are particularly vulnerable. Also, boys are vulnerable for declines in engagement because they tend to receive lower grades and are more affectively reactive to grades than girls.... 
The study emphasizes the need to communicate to students the correct message behind these evaluations. These grades are temporary and oftentimes reflect not only one's abilities or skills but also effort, opportunity, strategies and luck. Comparing grades between students achieve nothing but impart the destructive lesson of competition. It is sad to note that in one recent high school commencement exercise in the Philippines, an occasion meant only to be joyous and celebratory, resulted in a student airing grievance against teachers for not receiving the highest award.


The misguided emphasis on rankings of individual students only promotes selfishness. It only instills the wrong notion of why someone is special. McCullough therefore correctly points out:
"...Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you...
...If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters....
...Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. 
Because everyone is...."

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