When I was a 7/8 English teacher, I was responsible for 108 students daily. Ideally, I would have preferred to sit down with each of them individually and have a conversation about the books we were studying to see if they really got the main ideas and understood the characters. But there's no way to do that with a class load that size. The best way to gauge learning in a classroom of over 20 students per hour is to use comprehension questions, Socratic class discussion, pop quizzes, multiple-choice questions, fill-in-the blanks, matching, essays, and the occasional group project. It's a necessity to use these methods (and they aren't necessarily bad); how else can you give a quantifiable measure of learning to the students and to the parents? (This does not fault the teacher at all; believe me, I know there is simply no other way to handle the amount of work we are required to do with the number of people in our care!)
However, now that I'm on the other side of the classroom, as a parent of students, I see the strategies my girls use to deal with the necessary classroom forms of assessment. They often use the "hunt-and-peck" method; read the questions at the end of the assignment first, and then hunt for the answer through the reading. Do the assignment as quickly as possible to get it over with. Memorize the set of definitions or spelling words to get it right on the test, even if they don't make sense to you.
What concerns me is that my girls are not learning how to learn. They are learning how to cope with assignments. I remember doing that as a child too and even through high school. When my grade was slipping in Chemistry, I did extra credit assignments by cleaning out test tubes in order raise my grade. My grade went up, but did I understand the concept I was having trouble with? No.
What surprised me when I went to college was the method of assessment. In the math and science courses, there were still knowledge exams, but we mostly did lots of reading, lots of discussion, and lots of essay writing. You were judged based on how well you could apply your knowledge or explain the comparison between 2 topics. Learning wasn't about spoon-feeding and memorization anymore.
So why do we wait until college to begin assessing learning that way? Are my 7 and 9-year-old kids capable of analyzing topics and explaining connections? Is it realistic to ask them to use their whole brain to learn for mind memory of concepts, and not just rote word memory? Can I expect them to really invest in their learning because they are excited about the subject, not because they have to do it?
From what I'm reading in Charlotte Mason's Companion Guide, the answer is yes. The key to this kind of learning is self-education. "Self-education is achieved by a regular and steady diet of the best books combined with the use of narration to develop retention and understanding of what is read. This approach maintains students' interest and helps them develop the habit of attention, as well as a literary style, a readiness of speaking, a wide vocabulary, and a love of books. This is self-education (vs. traditional education,) because ultimately it is the child who is doing the work." (Andreola 45)
"Self-education is not dependent on a system of artificial rewards, prizes, and grade scores, because it is not bound to a system of education, but a method of learning. A system and a method are 2 different things. A system depends on a cycle of tedium: read the textbook chapter, find the facts and record them as answers to the chapter's list of questions, take the test, get the grade, get it over with. A system makes the process more important than either the information or the learner. On the other hand, a method emphasizes the process by which the goal is attained. If the goal is an educated child, a variety of means will best achieve it" (Andreola 44)
Right now I'm at a critical crossing point with my kids. They are just teetering on the edge of feeling burdened by school and keeping their enthusiasm to read and learn. I see that they do enjoy certain aspects of school, but I also see that they are employing strategies that are unhealthy for their future habits of study. What if we took a year to retrain them on what grades really mean? Right now Ellie worries that she got a 92 in Math as opposed to a 100 or that she got one question wrong on her homework. If we took a year to work on the method of becoming educated rather than working the system of homework, would they begin to see that the goal of every subject is full comprehension, not an "A"? Will they feel less defined by the almighty report card? I hope so. Charlotte Mason said, "The best work is not visible." Next year might be my "invisible" year, but it may also be the most important one!