Thursday, March 25, 2010

To Grade or Not to Grade - An Open Letter to My Colleagues

If you were to take of poll of the hot button issues in education, grading practices would easily rank in the top five.  If not the top 5 it would definitely make the top ten.  We are currently debating grading practices at my school.  Among the issues on the table are the zero policy, how to handle retakes, and whether or not we will record a grade on our regular common assessments that are also used to identify students with remediation needs.  For the record, I would never give another grade of any type if it were completely up to me.  I advocate for an either "you learned it" or "you are in progress" system.

For the last twelve months, I have been soul-searching, researching, and people searching to help me find another way.  I have been looking for creative ways to satisfy both sides of the debate (even though there are probably more than two!).  Along the way I have read the works of Alfie Kohn, perhaps the most popular anti-grade activist on the planet today.  I have read the summary of Black and Wiliam's study Inside the Black Box. I have come across a host of other resources.  They all say the same thing - grading inhibits performance, motivation, and quite possibly learning itself.

I have to be honest in my thinking though.  Grades in themselves are not bad things.  They do provide a measurement of our learning.  You can't drive a car if you don't pass the test.  You can't perform surgery if you don't pass the test.  You can't even coach intercollegiate sports if you don't pass the test.  What has created this mess we have today if the way grades have been used.  Instead of providing a measurement of learning, grades have become competitive measures, reward (and punishment) systems, and proof that I have memorized a set of facts.  This shift is a result of the way behaviorism and "accountability" has permeated our culture.

As I write that last sentence, I am struck with an internal inconsistency that is forcing me to deal with an incomputable dilemma, ala HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I am a staunch cognitive behaviorist.  At least I used to be.  Perhaps I am slipping into some other primary mode of thinking.  Even so, I do believe that we learn certain patterns of behavior based on the negative or positive responses we receive for that behavior.  I still believe that such an approach to the classroom has merit, even when it comes to learning.

What if we set our expectations on the basis of whether you have learned or mastered a set of material instead of centering the the approach on the grade you receive?  I could provide several anecdotal accounts of where that is working.  Given a short amount of time, I can provide research to back it as well.  From a behaviorist perspective, you can then condition the student to value learning and maybe even become intrinsically motivated.

The bottom line in this debate is what is best for the kids?  We must take an honest look at that answer, considering everything we know to be true about how students learn, how their brains work, and what the data tells us about all of it.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

At-Risk: The teacher trying to reach at-risk students

Tonight on #edchat we will probably be talking about how to reach at-risk students.  I'm looking forward to the chat because it is an issue near and dear to me.  Reaching at-risk individuals in any arena or context has driven every vocational choice I've ever made.  It's especially timely for me personally as I survey my class rosters and identify those five-percent-ers.  What I mean by that are those five percent of my students that I just have not been able to connect with or impact in a positve way.

I do a pretty good job forming relationships with my students, always have.  It's one of those things that has been integral in getting me hired at the schools where I've taught.  When I walk through the lunch room or down the hall, students from all grade levels shout out a hello, even those I've never taught or whose name I don't even know.  I'm not trying to paint myself as Mr. Popularity here.  I'm just saying I work really hard at building positive relationships because I think they are integral to the learning process.

We have approximately one-third of the school year left.  The tension in the relationships with my five-percent-ers is growing.  They are becoming more disengaged each day, and not just in my class.  They came into the school year as at-risk students and they will leave the same.  They have worked hard to maintain that status quo.  And it breaks my heart.  It wears me out emotionally.  It's the kind of thing that causes me to ponder my own effectiveness in the classroom.  Yeah, I know.  I made a tremendous impact on the other 95% and I shouldn't be dismayed.  But I can't forget those other five because I fear no one will care next year.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Hmm. . . . what CAN we do?

I brand myself as a visionary and a dreamer.  It's because I'm an idealist.  I like to believe that we can actually do the things the way we should and that the results will be what we hope.  That's one of the reasons I am always looking for ways around the system that blocks innovation.  That's why I look for ways to see what we CAN do in the face of restrictions.  Maybe we cannot adopt all the changes we'd like, but what ones can we implement?

This "what if. . ." post by Jessica Luallen Horton energized to think about my philosophy above even more.  I love her post.  My comment to her was where do I sign up?  This energy fed into other thinking prompted by Joe Bower and this post about grades.  So now, one of the things I have to find time for this weekend is finding a way to implement some of these crazy ideas.

Now, what CAN we do?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Building Student PLN's

Tonight's #edchat was about how social media can/is changing education.  Social media's influence has greatly benefitted me.  My PLN, built primarily around Twitter, has enabled me to change so much about how I teach.  My personal growth over the last year has been exponentially greater than my previous eight years as teacher.  Part of my learning has resulted from the sharing I do as well.

What if my students' could build PLN's?  How would their learning change?  What would be the impact on their education?  After tonight's chat, I'm determined to begin that process tomorrow, even if there are only 12 weeks left in the school year.

So how do I get this started?  There are some important logistical and legal issues that must be considered.  Some I have thought of.  Others I need your help on.

  • Find a service permissible and properly secure for your age group that is accessible on your school network.  This includes getting them email addresses.
  • Find an avatar creation site so kids won't have to use their real pics.
  • Teach them proper digital citizenship.
  • Model and demonstrate how a PLN can be used.
  • Create an IMMEDIATE use for them.
What am I missing?  What services would you suggest?