How 4 Simple Words Can Solve Education’s Biggest Problem

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Four simple words that revolutionize learning

What is education’s biggest problem? Helping the impoverished? Working with students with disabilities? Feeding hungry children? Standardized testing? These are all worthy issues that require much attention, but they are not education’s biggest problem.

Education’s biggest problem, one that has plagued educators for centuries, is the continuing attempt to measure learning with numbers, percentages, and letters–traditional grades.

Subjective numbers do not account for these very human issues
In my TEDxUrsulineCollege talk today, I’m sharing the four simple words that can solve education’s biggest problem. Of course, loyal readers of Brilliant or Insane come first, so I’m sharing this powerful solution with you, even before the TED talk.

We often wonder why some longstanding problems are never solved. Sometimes, it’s because the solution is so simple that people just don’t see it. Consider the centuries-old problem that James Pillans solved.

When educators had no way to present a visual representation of learning for a large group of students, teachers would draw on tiny individual slates or on students’ hands. Then, Pillans invented the blackboard, creating a new visual world for students and revolutionizing instruction. Teachers drew on slates and on hands for hundreds of years, because no one could see this remarkably simple solution.

4 words can solve education’s biggest problem

More than 200 years later, an even bigger problem exists–an archaic attempt at measuring learning with basic math. This outdated method is subjective and penalizes students by leaving them out of the conversation about learning and labeling them with measuring sticks that say nothing about achievement. Furthermore, numbers, percentages and letters never account for issues students have outside of school that interfere with learning.

A student with dyslexia, who is asked to demonstrate learning in a two-hour writing test, is often labeled a failure, because she isn’t involved in a conversation. She may inadvertently omit something; she may be distracted. Subjective numbers do not account for these very human issues.

The solution to education’s biggest problem is to create a beautiful conversation about learning that invites the most important shareholder–the student–into the discussion. Best of all, this conversation begins with an abbreviation that represents four simple words:


  • Summarize — Provide a one- or two-sentence statement of what was accomplished.
  • Explain — Give a detailed, objective explanation of what learning is demonstrated and/or what is missing, based on the activity’s guidelines.
  • Redirect — When learning outcomes are not demonstrated, redirect students to prior learning or to seek help from the teacher or a peer.
  • Resubmit — Ask students to resubmit activities, projects or assessments, after they’ve returned to prior lessons and models and made changes to the work. This way the teacher can re-assess for mastery learning.

When a student turns in an activity or project that is missing half of the guidelines, traditional grades label her a failure. The four simple words outlined above create intelligent discourse about learning. These words give teachers an opportunity to share what they observe. “You identified the conflict in the story, but I do’t see an identified setting in your response. Do you k now the setting?” A number, percentage, or letter will never ask this question. It will only presume failure and improperly label the child.

An obvious question invites the student to explain what happened. “I got a drink of water and just forgot to finish,” she might say. Or perhaps she was confused by the wording in the problem, a monumental issue that plagues most test questions, especially those contained in standardized tests.

The simple words represented by SE2R encourage students to revisit prior learning. “Why don’t you review the brief video I shared yesterday on conflict and setting in fiction, and see if it helps you complete your response? When you finish, let me know, and I’ll see how you’ve done.” This simple redirection and request for resubmission inspires learning and continues this beautiful conversation.

Traditional grades are a problem with a James Pillans-type simple solution that most people just can’t see.

We can solve education’s biggest problem today with four simple words.

Now Available

Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning, by Mark Barnes

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Mark Barnes is the author of many education books, including Bestseller Hacking Education, part of his Hack Learning Series, books that solve big problems with simple ideas. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and student-centered learning. Join more than 100,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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