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Questions Raised by a Placeholder Diploma

Last week I observed over 600 students from the LaGuardia High School of the Performing Arts graduate at the esteemed Avery Fisher Hall. Lining the aisles in uniform white caps and gowns, the students expressed their individuality mainly via style of footwear and cap decoration. From dangerously high heels to worn-out Converse, and from glittery bulls-eyes to a construction hat mounted with a mortarboard, our kids made their way toward the stage to the accompaniment of the LaGuardia Symphony Orchestra. When they arrived at the podium, they were handed a diploma, and as instructed, strode (okay, some danced) across the stage to shake hands with the principal, pose for one last official photo and head back to their seats to wait for the recessional. Pretty standard stuff, right?

But wait, the diploma was a fake, a placeholder to be replaced later that week when these seniors were made to take one last trip back to school to pick up the real thing. That, of course, got me thinking about diplomas, both the value of the experience leading up to one and the outdated form factor itself.

In auditoriums around the city, kids were going through similar ceremonies. They, too, were receiving placeholder pieces of paper in an effort to avoid the mishap of being handed someone else’s diploma instead of their own. Then a day or two after all of the buildup, all of the . . . pomp and circumstance, they dragged themselves back to school to pick up a piece of paper that they and undoubtedly no one else will ever look at again.

The fake diploma not only symbolizes an antiquated rite of passage but also an educational paradigm that no longer serves the very constituency it represents.

Toward a More Contemporary View of High School

There are many aspects of the high school experience that appear archaic given what we know about how people learn, how to design effective learning environments and experiences, the potential to utilize technology to support the learning experience, and the ways people interact in the workplace.

While many school districts and independent schools are making headway, these vestiges of traditional schooling are prohibiting rather than driving learning in many schools today:

  1. Teachers standing in front of the class lecturing students.

  2. Students sitting in rows and listening to their teacher lecturing in front of the class.

  3. Grades assigned to all homework assignments with little or no option for revision.

  4. Quarterly grades based on daily homework assignments and weekly testing.

What we should be seeing in place of the above are:

  1. Teachers engaging in whole class, group and individual discussion to build on knowledge acquired by students via engaging, foundational knowledge transfer and interactive learning assignments.

  2. Learning spaces designed for optimal engagement based on the type of learning activities in which students are engaged.

  3. Longer-term projects integrating a variety of disciplines

  4. Portfolio and project-based learning evaluations, where trial and error builds to mastery over time and with ongoing feedback.

When it comes to preparing our kids for meaningful and productive participation in society and in the workplace of tomorrow, it makes little or no sense to adhere to old school practices.

Toward a More Meaningful Graduation Exercise

A piece of paper shouldn’t represent the totality of a student’s experience in an engaging, problem-based and student-centered learning environment. And given current capabilities around electronic record-keeping, neither should that one piece of paper be necessary to document the actual event of completing high school.

If we could bust the paradigm of the paper diploma, perhaps we could engage in more meaningful ways of celebrating our students’ accomplishments. Instead of focusing on a single valedictorian or salutatorian, wouldn’t it be more meaningful to hear from more students about their diverse experiences? For a performing arts school in particular, I keep thinking of the old adage of my fiction writing days “Show, don’t tell.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud that my daughter has made her transition from high school, and I was glad to celebrate her for her accomplishments. I just keep thinking about the fake diploma and the meaning we have instilled in it.


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As of January 2024, Rewriting Paradigms is back and I'm writing about today's  issues, those that most test us and our humanity.

Designs2Learn blogs were originally published on a separate site devoted solely to educational issues. 

With the release of the Rewriting Paradigms site, we' ported them over to their new home.

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