Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?
from The New York Times
The article that quotation comes from is spot on, but in a scary way. The author, Peg Tyre, nails some of the primary benefits of standards-based grading, like the emphasis of knowledge and skill over classroom participation and direction-following. She describes the improvement in parent-teacher-student communication after a school in Minnesota switched to SBG. As you may know, these are benefits I believe in.
But the whole article is framed in the context of alignment with standardized tests. The idea of standardized testing is not inherently repulsive to me as long as we can find some way to keep the focus of education on learning and away from scores. To have this great article about knowledge and communication framed in terms of test scores makes me worry that our ActiveGrade software, and even SBG in general, will be turned against us as another method of points-grubbing that is simply more specific about where to grub for points.
It’s up to the teachers and parents and kids to keep the focus on learning. No grading system can help much. ActiveGrade and other programs that report SBG grades can help by organizing the grades into topics, and emphasizing those topics over any final grade, but they all must ultimately rely on summaries of learning that can be interpreted as a score.
Here’s how I tried to keep the focus on learning when I was teaching:
- I made sure the class was interesting to me – if a lesson from last year felt boring, I tried to remake it. I let my interest show in class with enthusiasm and engagement. One day a young woman asked me if you could really crush a can with boiling water (like Bill Nye does), and I’d never done it – the next day I brought in the materials so we could try it! Clearly the can experiment doesn’t give me a pay raise or anything – it’s just interesting to me and I showed my students that I was interested.
- I tried to model learning for its own sake by letting students see me learn things I had no expertise in. As the math teacher, they didn’t relate to me when we were learning math – even if it WAS something new to me, I learned it faster and easier than they did because, I don’t know, I know the properties of multiplication about a thousand times better. I joined soccer practice for a semester, in which several of my math students were at least a thousand times better than me, and I asked them for help on small parts of my technique. They saw me falling down, getting muddy, going up for a goal and completely missing the (stationary!) ball (it’s funny now, but it felt really bad then), but staying with it and getting better.On a smaller scale, I did this in class by basing scenarios around things that the students knew a lot about (e.g. fashion or video games or music or juggling) but I didn’t, and just taking 30 or 45 seconds to let one of them share their interest.
- I went out of my way to hold students up as authorities in a subject. If a student had shared about juggling earlier, and so we were discussing something about it, I referred to him when another student had questions like, “how many times does a club flip over?” I did a lot of group work, with each group studying something independently, and I would refer the group studying vertex form to the group finding roots if it was appropriate. Giving students the responsibility of being authoritative in a subject gave them a new kind of reward for learning.
How do you emphasize learning in your classroom? One thing I never did well was including parents – I met with them once a year, if they requested it, for 10 minutes. I regret not talking about this stuff more explicitly with them, and also with the students.
I just realized that I’ve started to forget how much there is to keep track of while you’re teaching and planning and grading and reporting – writing about my regrets brings back all the stress of feeling like I’m not doing ANYTHING. I’m turning this into a run-on post, now, but please remember that you are doing a LOT of work for a LOT of other people. I hope you’re proud of yourself – you have my admiration, respect, and gratitude! Sure, SBG is great, and we can all improve at everything, but don’t sweat it: love those kids, first, and show them the beauty all around them!