“It matters.”

August Thoughts from Heather Gallant, 577 Executive Director

“Where’s the rest?” “Why not the best?”

Years ago in my college days, one of my political science professors told us on the first day of class that he does not give tests or grades.

Huh? He was joking, right? Based upon all of our years of academic experience, this hadn’t happened. That’s what teachers do. They give tests. And grades.

When the time came for our first assignment, he instructed us work hard, learn about the subject, and do our best. When it was due, he said, “Ok. Please take out your papers so you can turn them in to me.”

Aha! We thought. Here comes the grading. He WAS joking after all.

But he continued. “At the top of the first page, in the left-hand corner, you are going to give yourself two grades. First: give yourself a percentage out of 100 that you think captures the effort you put into this paper.” He paused, amused at our quizzical faces.

What? What does that mean? Why does he care what effort I put into this paper? I wrote down, “94%”. I had worked hard on this paper. I was a good student. I wanted to impress him in this first assignment. But I was a humble Midwesterner, and I didn’t want him to think that I thought too highly of myself. I wasn’t about to give myself a 100%.

When we had all written something down, he said, “Good. Now, the second grade you’re going to give yourself is this: out of all the papers you’ve ever written, on that same 100-point scale, what percentage do you think this paper ranks?”

Well, this was even more confusing. All the papers I’d ever written? What does that have to do with my grasp of the subject matter, which he was supposed to be the expert on? How will we know if I understand this material if he doesn’t judge it for me?

I wrote down “91%.” I’d written some pretty good papers in the past. This one was good, but I’d worked full time all week in addition to being in class and writing this paper. There were probably better papers I’d written in the past. Plus, this had to be a joke, right? He was still going to grade our papers. Right?

Turns out, he was serious. When we received our papers back the following week, the grades I’d written on the page were circled in blue ink and marked with a check. Next to the 94%, he’d written, “Where’s the rest?” Next to the 91%, he’d written, “Why not the best?” On the succeeding pages, his insights and notes were extensive and detailed, underscoring important points I’d made and challenging me to go deeper in my understanding in other areas.

You might think that this approach would cause us all to slack off on future papers, taking advantage of his grading system by writing lousy, uninformed papers and giving ourselves 100% for both effort and quality. I would venture to guess that one of the students did that. The rest of us, interestingly, did the opposite: we wrote some of our best work, put even more effort into our papers, and earned those 100% that we ourselves wrote on the top of our papers by the end of the semester.

Why did we do that?

Firstly, because we were unafraid of messing up. In taking away the grades and tests, he had established a safe learning environment, free of judgment. We were there to learn. Often learning involves making mistakes or saying something wrong. His approach opened us up, moved us away from performing the “good student” pantomime for the teacher, and taught us to listen to different perspectives.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t challenging or that we didn’t get into heated debates. We didn’t all agree with each other on the topics we were discussing. Far from it! We were living and working in Washington D.C. It doesn’t get much more political than that! However, this environment gave us an openness to erring, hearing, and understanding.

Secondly, while the professor was the content expert, he demonstrated that he was willing to do whatever it took – including sacrificing some of his power as the wizened expert – for us to learn deeply in a self-directed way. He wasn’t taking the easy way out by having us grade our own papers. The work he put into reviewing them and pushing our understanding of the topics was evident by the prolific notes and questions he added to each student’s paper. Plus, as committed as he was to teaching us the curriculum, he was also open to learning from us through our dialogue. And it showed.

This was the most unconventional course I ever experienced, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend his methods for all subject matter. Still, it was effective. I learned more about the subject, myself, my relationship with school and learning, and my peers than in any other class in my academic career.

What does this have to do with 577? Well, it turns out that I hear echoes of that professor’s class in Virginia Secor Stranahan’s vision for 577.

At 577, classes are intentionally non-credit-bearing, so you’ll feel safe experimenting with something new. We invite you to come to these classes for the sheer love of learning – not for a reward, or a pat on the back, or for competition. The self-directed nature of this learning model is critical. When you come to 577, you want to be here. You want to learn. You want to discover.

Classes are taught by people who know the topic AND are ready and willing to learn alongside you. Because of that, mistakes are not only tolerated; they’re encouraged. Mistakes are a great way to learn. Happy accidents and serendipity are always on full display at 577.

Here, learning happens in a community of people who challenge and support each other. Even if you just met, even if you disagree, if you’re meeting in a class, you must share some common ground. This makes it an environment ripe for listening and learning about yourself and others.

More recently, I wrote a thank you note to that professor. I didn’t expect him to write back after all this time, but he did. The way he signed his letter was profound. So, in honor of him, I’ll sign off this month’s thoughts in his style:

It matters,

Heather


What will be your next adventure? Click HERE to view our calendar of upcoming classes. Take the leap. You won’t regret it.

The photos below are snippets of our some recent classes. Thank you to everyone who has joined us ~ both students and instructors. You inspire us. See you again soon!

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Join us for Music in the Gardens on Saturday, June 8, from 11am to 3pm. Events are free, family-friendly, and rain or shine.

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