Strategies for keeping active SBG cohesive

Does breaking the grade into 10 or 20 different topics help? or does it foster a reductionist attitude toward learning—that everything is discrete and independent of everything else?

Does allowing lots of reassessment help? Or does it focus kids on point chasing?

GSWP left these poignant questions about SBG for us, and today Sam Shah said that so far, the answers for his classes are bad.  To keep the punches coming, Alfie Kohn points us to “When Good Teaching Leads to Bad Results: The Disasters of ‘Well Taught’ Math Classes,” which concludes that “Despite gaining proficiency at certain kinds of procedures, the students gained at best a fragmented sense of the subject matter and understood few if any of the connections that tie together the procedures that they had studied.”

A scary and sad morning for people just starting to use active SBG!

Sam’s last point is that practice of active SBG needs to include some kind of protection against the choppiness that splitting your curriculum into discrete chunks brings.  If we assume that students will see their grades as the final result of our classes (a depressing but realistic assumption), what can we do with our grades to include learning and connections in them?

My Strategies

Here are two strategies I used to hold my courses together and fight tendencies of reductionism.

  1. I worked hard to reward students in ways that didn’t include grades, and heavily rewarded higher-level, holistic thinking.
    • Praise: “Great realization, John – that’s the real root (hah!) of the connection between factors and intercepts here.  This isn’t going to be on a quiz, but it’s one of the most beautiful parts of this stuff.”
    • Recognition: “And this is another case of what Sarah was describing before!”
    • Interest: “Whoa, how did you think of that?” followed by a 90-second conversation.  (Requires students to do something interesting, of course).

    This stuff felt cheesy at first, but I realized that if I only used it when it was really genuine, then, well, it would be really genuine.  Unfortunately, it tends to reward some students more than others, but we also give some kids As and some kids Cs, so I’ll leave that debate out of it.

  2. I reserved my highest grade for students who showed more complete understanding. At my school the highest grade was “honors,” but you could use “A” or “A+” or whatever.  If a student earned 100% on every skill in the whole course, he or she still wouldn’t earn the highest grade without completing a few projects that brought together a larger scale of knowledge.  This is, I admit, very un-SBG.  The effect was that students who just learned each concept individually and minimally could never get an A.  I made that very clear from the beginning, so that students wouldn’t be surprised, and I spaced the projects so that I introduced about one per month, keeping the emphasis on holistic learning throughout the year.I didn’t like requiring more work for the highest grade, but I did really like requiring a different magnitude of understanding.

SBG is no guard against point-chasing, and even active SBG has a lot of loopholes kids can exploit.  And, I mean, of course.  Teaching is freaking hard and teaching 80 kids at a time is even harder.  We’re set up to use grades as a reward by the system, and have to fight to keep them low in importance.  When grades are the reward, how can we really expect learning to be most important to all kids?

Strategy 2 above is the most practical – an administrator could just drop that into your class without caring if you’re a total grump with your kids.  But strategy 1 is really the most important, I think.  You know how I feel about personally connecting to our students already – I think it’s our only tool that actually does elevate learning over grades.  And with that our only tool, every point-chasing kid looks like a nail!

9 thoughts on “Strategies for keeping active SBG cohesive”

  1. What kind of projects would serve that purpose?

    I have no idea how to develop a project that would tie things together so neatly.

    1. As a starting point, you can just give the kind of problems you think require a connection between concepts. A problem that requires addition AND multiplication skills, not just one or the other.

      Once you get started, you’ll see how more complex projects can be more interesting and require more connections. One of my projects in calculus was just a video of a speedometer / odometer we recorded in a van. The students had to interpret the speed data, graph it, identify it as a derivative, and integrate it to see if it matched the odometer data. Then they had to graph the odometer data, identify it as an integral, and differentiate it to check it against the speed data. The project required a much higher level of understanding than the problems like “find the derivative of f(x)=x^3-cos(2x) with respect to x.”

  2. Requiring higher-level thinking for an A+ (or whatever) doesn’t sound un-SBG to me at all, or at least not my take on it. Who says your “standards” or topics have to be limited to lower-level skills?

    What if you had a standard titled “Connecting Other Skills” or “Creative Problem-Solving”? You’d probably have to break out of the usual quiz-each-skill structure, and rather assess these “skills” when the opportunity arises – and recognize that not every student will have the light-bulb of a creative solution pop on for every problem equally. But that’s the beauty of this whole active SBG thing, right? We can be more flexible in where and how we choose to assess specific skills for different students.

    But that’s brainstorming and maybe more complicated than needed. Having a thought-provoking project worth a notable chunk of the grade, parallel to the rest of the SBG stuff, seems fine to me. I don’t think this falls into the “HOMEWORK IS EVIL” trap as long as the projects are set up in such a way that it’s clear the kids are doing the thinking (vs Google, or their parents or peers).

    My wife is doing something sort of like this with her chemistry courses; she has SBG-like stuff going on, plus a large research project. Students pick their topic, submit a proposal of their plan w/ schedule and (optionally) rubric, and have to show their progress at checkpoints along the way. The projects are meant to get students more context and background into what they’re learning, not explicitly assess higher-order problem solving, but it gets them out of the grind of “follow these steps to pass” and looking at a bigger picture.

    1. I called it un-sbg because it isn’t separated into chunks that kids can focus on separately (as much). A big benefit of SBG is the help it gives kids who fall behind – they can catch up in discrete chunks.

      But, it doesn’t make my whole class un-sbg, because you don’t need it to get a good grade (only a great one), and anyone who can get a good grade is also in a position to aim for the great one, because they must already understand most of the discrete topics in the class!

      I think you’re right that it’s fine to have higher-level things on your concept list. Thanks for the reaffirmation!

  3. Oh yeah, the other thing this reminds me of: I read just a bit of Marzano’s “Art and Science of Teaching”, the assessment chapter being right at the front. What struck me there was that he started describing a system very similar to the active SBG stuff we talk about online … except his rubrics kicked it up a notch. It was 0 to 4, and paraphrased off the top of my head:
    0: Don’t know nothin’
    1: Know a little
    2: Almost got it
    3: Demonstrated mastery of the specific skill
    4: Same as 3 ***plus you’ve inferred or connected beyond what was directly taught***.

    I have no idea how he suggests translating that system into final grades, but from the sounds of it he’s saying that even to just get a 4.0 on specific skills, you have to actually demonstrate some higher-level understanding with that skill (vs just regurgitating what was explicitly covered in class).

    I dunno, that blew my mind. I need to read more of it though.

    1. I like that a lot! Maybe an A is an average of 3.8, a B is an average of 3.4, a C is an average of 3 or 2.9?

      That scale is fantastic. Thanks for posting it! I’ve really got to read more of Marzano’s stuff.

        1. But I think if your “go beyond” grade requires students to connect multiple standards, that’s a little un-SBG. I first started doing SBG in my classes so that students could focus on one thing at a time.

          Another example of the overloaded nature of the word? Who picked “standard” to mean “topic” anyway?!

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