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