The teacher’s way is rarely the only way


Last week, I asked a few hundred of my former journalism students:

Did you ever feel like you received an unfair grade in high school? If so, why was it unfair?

I asked them to share their stories with me, and I received just one — from Alistair.

His experience is good food for thought, so I asked him if it was OK to share it, and he said yes.

Here’s Alistair’s grading story:

When I was a freshman in high school, I had a very stubborn math teacher who would consistently fail me on every assignment and test. This wasn’t because I answered the problems incorrectly, but because I almost never solved them “her way”.

The main reason I didn’t follow her exact method was that at the time my ADHD was untreated and I only paid attention to maybe 20% of the class. This led to me teaching myself how to do the math problems, which would very often differ from her ways (which in my opinion were often needlessly convoluted as well).

I would always answer the question correctly and show my work, but she would give me a zero based on the work I showed. Towards the end of the semester I was literally failing the class, however, I aced the final due to it being multiple choice without needing work to be shown. This bumped my grade up to a D- and caught the attention of my dean who later on notified the associate principal.

After the associate principal interviewed me, my grade was changed to what it would have been based solely on correct answers.

I was reminded of this experience when my math professor in college took me aside to discuss the method I used to solve a problem. Rather than treating it like my high school teacher, however, he praised my method, calling it “prestigious” and “very impressive” and encouraged me to continue to find multiple ways to solve his problems.

There’s certainly debate to be had regarding both teaching philosophies, but I’ve learned, especially in culinary school, that the teacher’s method is almost never the only way.

. . .

What strikes me most about Alistair’s story is that it exists outside of our conversations about grading practices. None of the popular new grading methods (which I wrote about last week) addresses this fundamental problem.

The issue here — and I don’t think Alistair’s experience is unique — is that his teacher was assessing him on too narrow a set of skills, rather than on the big picture: his mathematical thinking and reasoning ability. He was being tested on his ability to memorize a procedure, rather than on his ability to generate viable solutions to a problem, which is a far more valuable skill.

The grading mechanism wasn’t “unfair” exactly, but its priorities were wrong.

To be fair, there are many cases where specific procedures must be taught. It wouldn’t benefit my AP Macro students if I let them develop (and stick to) their own method of measuring unemployment. It wouldn’t help our English students if they never learned punctuation rules. We can’t have students doing science labs without safety protocols or the scientific process.

But we need to distinguish between these essential procedures and the lessons where we can, and should, encourage students to reason for themselves instead. Provide them the tools, and they can figure out so much for themselves — it’s the whole basis of Problem-Based Learning.

And then, assess students on their solutions and their deep understanding, rather than their compliance with our ways of thinking.

I know, it sounds difficult or maybe even impossible. But teachers are doing it, and they’re seeing incredible results. (You can read about Jose Garcia’s STEM classes and Mary Chin’s math classes in my book, Beat Boredom.)

The first step is just to realize that your method probably isn’t the only way — and open your mind to what works for your students.

The kids, like Alistair, will thank you. And the grade will be a much more authentic measure of what they know.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush