Comments NOT Grades: A Practical Story

There are a few very important topics to me at this point in my career and this post will expand on anther one.  My blog has been dedicated to my exploration of my teaching practices and beliefs.  As I attempt to teach ethically, I also want to ensure I adhere and consider the Teaching Quality Standard set out by Alberta Education.  To this end, most of what I’ve written here has been focusing on how my understanding of the 21st century competencies are changing my beliefs and practices while the categories I use for my posts highlight my commitment to my profession.  Today’s post, while titled in such a way as to take on a hot topic in education, is more of a practical story rather than an argument.

At the end of last year I changed up how I was reporting grades to students.  Instead of providing students with their percentage for an assignment up front, I required them to grade themselves on the rubric and then have a conversation with me about my rubric for them.  We compared the two, talked about how to improve, then I gave them their mark.  This worked wonders for morale and increased the willingness of students to make improvements and learn from their mistakes.  This year I decided to take this a step further.

This year, students don’t receive a percentage at all (though I still need to arrive at one for my report cards).  In fact, assignments do not even receive an overall percentage.  I’ve decided to take a bit of a standards-based approach to my high school ELA courses (though I’m very much alone in this, at least in my district).  I have taken the curriculum and narrowed it down to what I believe are the 3 main overall standards in which students need to be proficient, plus a fourth as a catchall for the outcomes that don’t fit the other three standards.

  1. Decoding the ideas of others (ideas and support, etc from texts of all kinds)  30%
  2. Having powerful personal ideas of their own  30%
  3. Presentation  30%
  4. “Other”  10%

I’m not sure these are the best or only criteria my curriculum could be broken down into, but this is me being a ship at sea and taking a risk to move my teaching practice closer to my teaching beliefs.  With this grading practice, each criterion in my rubrics fall into one of these categories; therefore, students are given a “star” on the rubric for each criterion, which is then recorded into my marking program.  This means that each assignment is entered anywhere from two to six times, depending on how many criterion are used.

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A portion of one of my rubrics for the next authentic assessment task for ELA 10. Suggestions?

(I have a gold star stamp I use.  They love it!  BTW, this is based off Angry Birds:  1-Star is a pass.  Fail is Angry Bird terminology.  Students are okay with the harshness of it.  They recognize it as “try again!”  Like Angry Birds, assignments can be redone until you’re happy with your star-ranking.)

The practical side of this is that I/students/parents can clearly see what aspects of the curriculum students are doing well with, and which need focused improvement.  It also allows me to focus my comments for students and seek to provide feedback on problem areas.  Towards the end of the term, individualization can happen as students prove proficiency in certain areas, but still struggle in others.  Comments are becoming our focus rather than our grades, and learning is becoming the most important thing in our classroom.

On Monday of this week, I walked into my grade 10 class with a few pieces of work to return to students.  Two were “for” marks while the third was not.  (Formative and summative assessment have all but ceased to exist in my classroom:  with the criteria-based reporting, each “summative assessment” rubric criterion becomes formative to the next assignment; and students ALWAYS have the opportunity to take feedback and improve their work).  As I was commenting on the work, I realized that a few mistakes kept popping up over and over again.  Sure, this means I have a problem that I need to address on my end, but I have an important decision to make about how I do that.  In the past, I would address the issues via lecture.  Lately I’ve tried to put the learning back on the student via comments and redoing the work.  However, it struck me that I had a third option (and likely more than that).  With my focus on critical thinking and collaboration I find myself attentive to opportunities to reinforce these vital 21st century competencies.  The rest of this post will quickly explain what I did and what students thought of the learning activity.

The Learning Activity

As I was assessing their work, I decided I wouldn’t write the same feedback for improvement on more than one or two students’ work (I’d suggest three or four students for larger class sizes).  Then, on subsequent work that required the same improvements, I referred students to my comment on the other work.  For example, “I left some tips to improve introductions on Sandra’s paper.  You should go ask her if you can copy down my tips. Then compare your work and discuss how to incorporate some of the tips.”

I also began to identify students who had particularly positive aspects and began to refer students to look at these positive examples.  “At some point, go and see Frank; he has a well-written introduction and I’m sure he’d be happy to let you take a look.”  I made a point of ensuring every student had others referred to them for something positive in their work.  Those who need more improvement had more comments referring them to others, while those with better work had more peers referred to them.  ALL, though, had both types of referrals.

My original thought was to expect students to do this on their own time.  I arrogantly thought that all my teaching about collaboration would make them responsible enough to do this.   While this may or may not be true for my grade 10’s, I decided it wasn’t fair to ask this of them.  I also realized the collaboration and critical thinking aspect would be significantly stronger if we did this as a class.  So I set about planning the 84 minute period.

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When students walked into class they looked at the board (as routine is) and asked, “Do we need to read all that?”  Too funny.  My response:  “I wrote it all.  The least you can do is read it.”  Little did they know this was just a portion of the reading they’d be doing.  But you know what?  I didn’t hear a single complaint after that.  Before handing back any work, I asked several students to reiterate what the board was instructing them to do today:

  • read all the comments on their work
  • jot down anyone they are suppose to talk to (they had no idea what that meant)
  • reflect in their thought journal what they need to improve:  critical thinking through the comments and rubrics to see trends in their work
  • talk with others they were referred to, and to those who have been referred to them:  collaboration and critical thinking as they assess what their peers did compared what they themselves did
  • reflect in thought journal about how their conversations would help them improve their own work

It was about to be sheer and utter chaos for 80 minutes.  Organized chaos I hoped.  I’d never done anything like this before.  I had invited several others to witness the upheaval (and get some video), but because the idea was last minute no one could come. I knew this was going to be either spectacular or tragic.  Either way I had wanted witnesses to tell my tale.  I managed to get some video, but FOIP is up in the air at the moment, so I’ll just highlight a couple interesting moments.  At first, the room was silent for 15 minutes as students poured over their written feedback NOT grades.  They jotted down names and areas to improve upon.  Then there was movement. Slowly at first, mostly turning to their neighbours, then true mingling began and students turned to peers rather than friends.  It was wondrous.  Students were talking (mostly on task, but not 100%) and jotting notes, and reading more work than just theirs.  Desks were moved, couches utilized, groups formed and leadership occurred.  I couldn’t be happier.  Learning was happening.  Student-led, teacher-designed learning.  I got to record a few conversations with students that were inspiring and affirming.  One student (the cool boy) actually said that the purpose of his learning was to improve and grow from his errors rather than to get a better mark.  I teared up right in front of him.  We had a 5-minute conversation, some of it on tape about the role of education in his life.

Student Reactions (via Thought Journal responses)

The following are direct quotes, in some cases entire responses, from thought journal entries the next day.  Remember, these are grade 10 students (an even split of boys and girls).

“I know that I have to read more carefully to understand everything and maybe read it 3 or 4 times if I need to. . . I think it was good what we did yesterday because we could see what others did wrong or did right and why.  And what you did wrong or right and why.”

“I agree with 95% of the comments because most of them were on finding support and examples which I was just to lazy to do. . . As long as I use the comments as they are meant to my writing should improve.”

“To be honest, I believe that this excerise or activity didn’t actually help to the extent that I or Mr. Groff wanted it to.  I noticed that I needed to improve on my quality of support but the one person I was recommended to was overwhelmed with others work.  The result of this ended up forcing me to get the teacher to bring us together and start a conversation which left the other to have a free 20 min at the end of class.  As well as I don’t feel that I learnt about giving better support.  I’m not saying this was a bad idea though, I believe if we were taught how to teach and were given time to go in depth with the other person that would’ve accomplished more.  So I would like to try this again but maybe a different way.”

(It wasn’t 20 minutes of “free time,” but he’s right, a few students took advantage of me not paying close attention to them; however, the majority kept right on sharing.  After 60 minutes of hardcore learning, I wasn’t about to interrupt a great conversation regarding the need for schools to offer students more personalized education, just to harass a few others after such an empowering activity.)

“Along with this [the work we got back] we had gained additional feedback and comments along our text.  This information told us what we were doing wrong, what could be improved, and what we were doing right.  I had many comments, along all pieces of my work.  As I took the time to read and learn from this feedback, I understood what needed the most improving in my work: 1. Using better work choices  2. Going more in depth, maybe using more examples  3. Preparing a proper conclusion.  I tended to agree with almost every single comment and point.  And even when I didn’t, I learned and understood what could’ve been better and what was wrong.  And going off of that note, that was a major way other had aided me yesterday.  I glanced at there work and mine as well, and analyzed the pros and cons of both writing.  This way I could help others as well as myself.  The learning from yesterday gave me better insight and analogy for my work.  It made me realize and understand what can be done better in my text.  It was a good way to better my work.”

“I would like to do this activity again.  I learned lots from it and it was more interesting than listening to Mr. Groff talk.”

“After talking to “Joe,” and being able to read his conclusion, I found that I see where I went wrong.  I still have old habits to kill, but now at least I know what I should be doing. . . I can make my writing sound good.  That’s not good enough though.  I want it to be good. . . I agree with the feedback I got yesterday, know it needs work and I know I have strong points and also my weak points. . . I can fix it.”

“What we are learning is great.  I enjoy how you are considering both what we need in school and after school.  What I think I need to improve on my work is my spelling, eliminating I and you from my work, and most definitely my personal reflection.  I feel the class discussion are going very well.  I enjoy them much more than just writing and pear work because it keeps me entertained through the whole class.  The help I received from others yesterday was great.  they truly helped me in areas where I am struggling.  Looking into the future I feel if we continue a similar path as we have lately I think the class will be fun and interesting which is making me want to learn more.”

My Takeaway

  • I was so impressed with the critical thinking that occurred as a result of this activity.  Students were able to consider the activity, their conversations, and their work in a way that would benefit their learning.
  • This would work so much better with just one assignment being handed back rather than three (my fault for not keeping up).  Though, with a class of only 13 students, I’d be concerned with not finding enough from each student to refer them evenly to others.  The three assignments certainly gave me some wiggle room to ensure all students had peers referred to them, and them to peers.
  • Some structural changes may need to occur.  Organized chaos did occur.  And I liked it.  But as the one student pointed out, it was tough for everyone to get the most out of this activity.  I’m not sure exactly what the answer might be, or if simply having a single assignment might be enough to lessen the craziness.  I’ll be talking with this student and the class as a whole in order to have them solve this problem for me.
  • For the vast majority of students this was an extremely beneficial learning activity.  I know many teachers offer extensive feedback, and some even require their students to do extensive work with that feedback.  I think this was different though in a couple ways.  First, I didn’t force students to actually change their work.  As the one student pointed out in conversation, for him it was more about the learning for his future than it was to improve his grade.  The comments were what he needed.  The video of the conversation is quite moving, and if I can get permission to post it, I will.  Second, while I pointed students in the right direction, the activity was far from structured.  It was up to students to take ownership of their learning, to be a leader, to be a learner.  Third, this task emphasized the 21st century skills of collaboration (community) and critical thinking over the content knowledge.  Students could see the benefit of the task as applicable after they leave formal education behind.
  • Offering students grades on their work would not allow this activity to run anywhere near as smoothly.  Written feedback was the key.  One of the assignments they got back didn’t even have a marking guide with it.  It was simply a pre-evaluation of their formal academic writing skills.  This did not detract from their learning though.  Even the rubric, because the criterion are categorized into curricular standards, allowed students to begin to identify where their errors are occurring most.  With no overall grade on the work, students were able to look at the positives and negatives without feeling “overly satisfied” or “overly disheartened.”  One student, at the start of the explanation for the activity, stated that there was no way anyone would come to him for improvement.  I guaranteed him they would because he had a least one positive attribute that some of his peers did not.  It was amazing to see this student engaged for 80 minutes with his classmates, sharing his work with them, and learning from theirs.  A grade at the top of his work, with his barely passing percentage, would have ruined what little confidence he had that allowed him to at least be open to this learning activity. (***3 days later (today), this same student expressed his interest in sharing with the entire school, via the next assembly, his upcoming authentic assessment task.  That’s how confident he’s become that he can do great work.)

Comments, NOT grades, have the ability to empower students.  Comments, not grades, have the ability to say both, “This is fantastic!” and “This could be better.”  Comments, not grades, have the ability to transform schools into a community of learners rather than a competition between rivals!

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Content Knowledge Vs. 21st Century Competencies: The Battle Begins

I had an interesting conversation today with @tstarkey1212 that began with a question from @appeducationfox regarding how to respectfully reply to teaches who don’t have time for tech with students, and ended with me questioning the dichotomy of knowledge and competencies.  And the battle between content knowledge and21st century competencies was spawned.  The conversation spanned a few different educational areas but these two focuses (knowledge and competencies) continued to be in opposition to one another.  For example, we “debated” which focus would provide students with better future prospects; whether or not a content focus creates students who expect answers rather than students who discover answers; whether or not competencies should be the focus of education; and whether or not content is only beneficial for standardized tests or whether it serves another function.  Each of these ideas kept coming back to content knowledge being at odds with 21st century competencies.  By the end of the conversation, I think both Thomas and I had some points to reflect upon.  This post is the result of some of my reflection.  I know I will have a lot more to do on this issue.

My journey into 21st century competencies is summarized here, along with some of my concerns with how we are evaluating students.  I have a hard time separating the use of standardized tests from what our current education system is.  I see the tests as the main focus for the government and, unfortunately, for many boards, admin, and teachers.  Whether my teaching focus is on content knowledge, as mine was for the first several years of my career, or on 21st CC, as the latest several years of my career have been, these standardized tests have been the bane of my teaching.  I don’t understand how the Alberta PATs (grade 3,6,9) and DIPs (grade 12) relate to what I’m teaching.  I know the “what” is the curriculum, and that this is also used to create the PATs and DIPs; however, where I teach my ELA students that writers write from a personal desire to express themselves and readers read with a personal context (I find new meaning in texts every time I reread them based on personal context) the standardized test expect students to identify “the correct” multiple choice answer as determined by a group of expert ELA teachers, in a timed test situation, without the option to read and reread or discuss or research or defend their answers.  For me, these tests are the epitome of “Content Knowledge” as opposed to critical and creative thinking, collaboration, and contextual information.  One of the questions Thomas asked during our Twitter conversation was “Do you find that teachers where you are equate knowledge with ‘stuff needed to pass standardized tests’?”  My answer was a resounding YES!  I know I do.  I believe that in order for my students to do well on these tests, they need to strictly focus on the knowledge-based questions they will be asked, that they must be taught NOT to think for themselves or to bring themselves to the texts they read.  And I’ve refused to teach that.  Of the five major ELA General Outcomes, the diploma exam focuses on two, and barely scratches a few of the “less important” (IMHO) outcomes of a third.  Curious as to what has been left out?

  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to explore thoughts, ideas, feelings and experiences.
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to manage ideas and information. (inquiry and research)
  • Students will listen, speak, read, write, view and represent to respect, support and collaborate with others.

What’s left out are the hard-to-assess-with-a-standardized-test-non knowledge-outcomes.  What’s left out are the outcomes that ask students to think for themselves, to inquire and question, to collaborate.  What’s left out are the outcomes that begin to address what students need to be able to do in the 21st century.  So my answer to Thomas today was this:  “The fact that inauthentic standardized tests exist, perpetuates a negative equation of knowledge to the test.”  I believe that the very existence of these tests suggest that testing is the point of knowledge.  This is what our students come to believe, and many teachers as well.  Teachers teach to the test.  The test focuses on a small portion of the curriculum but is used to rank districts, school, teachers, and students to the tune of 50% of a grade 12 student’s final grade.  Teachers prioritize the curriculum to try to determine which outcomes are worthy of focusing on (for the test), suggesting that the other outcomes are not necessary.  The standardized test sacrifices competencies for the sake of inauthentic assessment of content knowledge.

My conversation with Thomas has led me to question how I truly view knowledge. What if I got my wish and inauthentic standardized tests simply vanished from existence?  Would knowledge then be given a place of honour in my teaching practice?  The obvious answer is “Of Course!”  I teach ELA because I love ELA.  I crave a well-written text, characters who make me cry or cry out in rage (though if anyone else is around I’m only crying because there’s dust in my eye), poetry that can make me see the beauty in our all-too-often selfish world, and persuasive texts that make me question my perspectives.  I relish the opportunity to create these texts myself.  I NEED to be able to share these passions with students.  It’s why I wanted to be a teacher.  I shudder to think that my students may not see the necessity of boasting of the knowledge of how to correctly place a semicolon in their writing, or that they lack the knowledge to comprehend an allegory from Greek Mythology.  I will admit that knowledge is not merely a requirement for career paths but also for witnessing the beauty of the world around us (and for you math teachers *yuck* I can now begin to understand your abhorrence with me for not knowing my multiplication tables–perhaps I’ll cherish the opportunity to gain this knowledge just as a means of self-improvement). For this realization, I owe you a sincere “thank you,” Thomas.

Coming back to a reality that still worships inauthentic standardized tests is hard for me, but I love my job, so I am forced to ask myself how I can continue to hold knowledge in high esteem while not falling into the traps set by testing.  I think the answer may be found in ending the battle between content knowledge and 21st century competencies and finding some common ground where the two can work together.  I do believe that much of the knowledge we expect kids to know can be “looked up.” However, I also believe that we can’t be looking up everything all the time or we risk looking incompetent (likely because we would be).  Consider this video shared with Thomas and me by @appeducationfox.

What would this video look like if the job candidate had been educated in a solely 21st century competencies classroom?  Would it really be that much different?  Reading and writing skills would suffer, basic mathematical equations would be time consuming, and science concepts would be unknown.  Clearly the two must work together.  I also believe that knowledge is tied to testing in the minds of students, even though it is the basis for life-long learning.  Education has become (or maybe always was) about testing and specific career prep.  In recent years we’ve tried to tell kids that school is about learning, but we haven’t separated it from the traditional methods of education.  The result is students who are beginning to hate learning.  I speak here from experience with my own children.  They used to love learning and school.  Now they view learning as something that should only happen at school (which every year they dislike a little bit more).  Just the other day, talking with my son at home about using his iPad more for learning than for games, he retorted that learning is done at school and home was the place for having fun.  I was repulsed.  Learning should be a life-long activity, embraced at every opportunity.  Learning should be fun.  My son has separated the two, and I blame a content-focused system that doesn’t value learning as a life-long goal but rather as a levelled activity, grade by grade.

So how can knowledge and competencies work together?  Where is the common ground?  What do our students need?  I’m sitting here thinking about what practical application this is going to have in my classroom when Easter Break is over.  I know I need to put some more emphasis on the knowledge, not that I haven’t been teaching it, but to actually make it more obvious to my students.  They need to understand that knowledge is important.  However, I also need to make it clear that it’s not knowledge OR competencies.  Everything we’ve done all term is still important.  I also think that I know exactly how I’m going to do this.  Before the break my students handed in a (more) authentic assessment task.  The focus of this task fit in with an ongoing term-long project where students are creating a meaningful opinion to share with others.  This assessment task was meant to highlight the importance of understanding the purpose of the writing.  Ironically, looking back at the project and rubric, this focus was not even mentioned.  Sure, we discussed purpose and studied a few texts with this focus.  Yet, my assessment of this task was 100% on 21st century competencies, linked back to the curriculum, and not on the knowledge I needed my kids to know:  That purpose will be shown through the presentation choices they make.  Skimming through their work, I know this is a problem already.  I received a few letters, and many academic essays, all of which seem to have the purpose of stating/explaining/defending a theme song choice for the film, but the presentation does not match the purpose at all, nor is it authentic to the situation.  I failed to put enough emphasis on the knowledge that was needed to produce authentic work, choosing instead to focus on the competencies that were needed.  I will need to correct this major oversight on Monday and use this work as a rough draft.

As a conclusion, I’d like to quickly share a chart from Alberta Education’s proposed Curriculum Redesign.  I’d like to discuss this shift in much more detail sometime soon, but for now, this visual depicts what I believe should be the common ground for knowledge and competencies.

curriculum shift

While the content-focus is lessened, so is the prescriptive curriculum and summative assessment.  What this means to me is that the knowledge the students and I deem as important (local decision making) will lead to greater depth of study and formative assessment.  There will be less focus on testing and more focus on learning.  This should benefit both sides of this battle!

(More) Authentic Assessment Tasks

I’m a supporter of authentic assessment tasks.  I came out of university 5 1/2 years ago with a project-based teaching style all ready to implement.  I created projects for my junior highs that were fun and meaningful and (more) authentic than most assessments and evaluations I endured growing up. I say (more) authentic because for the most part I am still the main audience for their work, even if I try not to be.  I know I need to work at getting their projects in front of a more authentic audience but thus far I haven’t consistently done that.

Here are some examples of the projects I’ve created for my junior highs:  My grade 7 students wrote and (randomly) presented instructions on a topic of their choice.  We’ve had instructions about how to properly groom a miniature pony, and the pony came to school to be groomed; how to put on hockey gear (always “randomly” assigned to a girl); how to do your make-up (always “randomly assigned to a boy); how to make a disgusting sandwich (and the boy who followed the instructions actually ate it–yuck!); and how to woo a girl (so cute with the writing of a poem and set-up of a picnic).  The 7’s have also created menu’s for a restaurant of their creating and in recent years some menus have been created online.  My grade 8’s have created tv ad storyboards for a company of their choosing to pitch to someone they actually thought was an ad agency rep.  They also created trading cards of the characters from The Outsiders again thinking they were actually being sent to a company who was holding a contest to promote their new line of educational trading cards. (I love how gullible grade 8’s are, and it leads to awesome authentic tasks.)  My grade 9’s have created CD inserts for a band and album they create from the ground up, writing all the “lyrics” (poetry) to go in it, based on a theme of their choice.  They’ve also written and mailed letters of complaint/compliment to actual businesses of their choice.

But that’s junior high.  When it came to my high school classes, I must admit I struggled greatly with utilizing authentic assessment tasks.  Despite believing that these types of assessments better engaged my students, required more creative and critical thought, led to deeper understanding of texts and concepts, and brought meaning to the tasks, I balked at the high school level.    That’s not to say that I didn’t create assessments that weren’t creative and interesting, but they lacked that authentic feel, and if I’m being honest they were much fewer and farther between.  Part of the problem has been the curriculum I have to teach and assess; I’ve struggled to envision authentic assessment tasks that relate to Shakespeare (comment with your suggestions) or how academic essays are in any way authentic (when’s the last time you wrote one???).  The time frame has also been an issue.  My senior high ELA classes are semestered 84 minute periods daily.  However, there have been years where I have had junior high classes that were also 84 minutes daily, but all year.  In order to cover and assess all the outcomes, plus prepare for diploma exams worth 50% of their overall mark, I just didn’t feel I had the time to assign authentic assessments that allowed students choices, opportunities to significantly revise ideas mid-stride, or deeply explore texts and concepts.  I felt they needed to be taught and assessed and shoved off to their next class.

This year I felt that a stronger focus on 21st century competencies might replace my guilt about not offering authentic assessment tasks to my high school students.  We did some really neat stuff last term in my ELA 20 and 30 classes, mostly revolving around collaboration and critical thinking, with some creativity and tech tossed in for good measure.  I tried to differentiate, allow for personal choices, and encourage deeper thought about the world in which they live.  And things were great.  Students actually said they enjoyed the atmosphere and purpose of the class and even some of the texts; although, the notion of ELA still depressed some of them.  It had been my hope that prepping kids for the 21st century would result in improved diploma exam grades.  I no longer believe this to be true.  (You can read THIS post of mine for more explanation.)  Reflecting on the diploma exams got me to thinking that 21st century competencies really aren’t enough if these competencies are going to be assessed through inauthentic assessments.  I’m not saying that critical thinking, for example, can’t be assessed unless it’s through an authentic task, but it would certainly help.  What I am saying is that very few people write essays or multiple choice tests in the “real world.”  I know professionals don’t create in isolation under ridiculous time limits.  So why do we expect these things from our students?  The more we can prep our students for their lives when they leave our classroom, the better.  For that reason I am hoping to bring better assessment opportunities to my students.  My goals are to remove as much inauthentic assessment from my courses as possible, including my final exams; to focus even more on the 21st century competencies; to incorporate more (more) authentic assessment tasks; and to find ways to bring my students’ work to more authentic audiences.  Please, pass along any suggestions you might have.

If you have the time, I’d love for you to take a look at a (more) authentic assessment task that I created for my ELA 10 class.  They are currently working on this project, but any feedback you can offer would be great!

See No Evil:  A Film Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s “The Possibility of Evil”

To Praise or Not to Praise? Is that the Question?

I have the immense pleasure of being the Senior High ELA Curriculum Coach for PWSD 76 in Alberta, and today that meant the opportunity once again to get together as a coaching cohort.  During our meeting we viewed a previously aired webinar by Jim Knight (@jimknight99).  I enjoyed tweeting what I was learning throughout.  One section of the webinar that caught my attention was regarding the need to praise students more than we correct them.  (Hopefully I’m not putting too many words into Jim’s mouth.)

These statements reminded me of some thoughts I’d heard a while ago that emphasized the idea that praising children may not be the best approach if we want to raise kids who are intrinsically motivated to do the right thing rather than doing it because of the attention they receive from doing so.  I didn’t have the sources of these quotes with me at the moment, but I tweeted a couple questions out based upon the impact of these statements.  The idea of not offering praise is one that I’ve actually tried to put into practice (when I remember to do so) with my students and my own kids.

When I got home today, I had a couple replies from Jim Knight about what I had tweeted. Jim had a question for me that I didn’t have a ready answer for.  He asked, “Re: praise. Do you think teachers should only give corrective feedback? I think both, but we often overlook positive.”  I went back to the webinar link and listened to this portion again.  Here’s one statement that made his tweet reply begin to make sense:  “The bottom line is, that you want to make sure that you’re giving more positive attention to the students than negative attention.  If all you do is correct students, pretty quickly the students know ‘If I want to get that teacher’s attention, the only way I can get it is by acting up.‘” I’m assuming correction is being viewed then as negative attention; we correct when a student has been “acting up” in some way.  This dichotomy of praise and correction is something that I didn’t see addressed in my reading about “the pitfalls of praise,” as Joe Bower (@Joe_Bower) puts it in his blog post If I Don’t Praise Children, What Can I do?

Joe’s post was the first I read on this matter.  At the time, I remember, it didn’t feel right to hear that I shouldn’t praise my own son or daughters when they do something great.  But the logic makes sense: “If I praise Amber by saying “good job”, it’s the equivalent of patting her on the head and throwing a mirror inches in front of her face – like the praise, the mirror would encourage Amber to focus on how her good-will benefited her.” I realized I didn’t want my children to be motivated to do good in order to feel good themselves; I want them to do good because it’s the right thing to do.  And I certainly didn’t want to manipulate my children or create praise junkies or steal their pleasure, make them lose interest, or reduce achievement as Alfie Kohn (@alfiekohn) writes about in Five Reasons to Stop Saying ‘Good Job!’  These writings and others inspired me to look for alternatives to praise my children and my students (though I must admit I’ve been rather inconsistent and that’s probably worse than picking a side and sticking to it).  A couple suggestions that I really liked as alternatives also came from Joe and Alfie:  Say nothing, state what you saw, and talk less–ask more.  Joe’s question to Amber, “Did you see the smile on that ladies face?” seemed to be a great alternative to “Wow, that was such a nice thing that you just did!”  Though, it may be argued that this question still encourages Amber to do good because it will impress others, if not her teacher.  Perhaps a better question would be something along the lines of: “Can you tell me why you chose to help that lady.”  This would require Amber to think about her own motivation and the results of her actions, and it may lead to follow up questions.  I believe my response to Jim Knight lies buried somewhere in this last alternative.

As I mentioned, Jim’s perspective of praise comes from the relationship between praise and correction.  His webinar suggests a 5:1 ratio of praise to correction.  Thinking about my own practice, I think I’d be lucky to have a 1:5 ration in my classroom.  Jim notes that it’s not uncommon to find ratios of 1:10, 1:15 or even 0:28 in one Australian classroom.  What is the impact of this on students?  I can’t imagine that constant correction without praise will result in a positive self-image for a child.  And I believe this is Jim’s point.

I think I’m going to have to argue that if we are going to continue to provide students with correction, then we are going to have to also provide them with praise.  But is this the answer?  I’m going to step out on a limb here (hoping it doesn’t break away from under me) and suggest we stop doing both?  Through the course of researching and writing this blog, I continued to reflect on Jim’s question to me: “Do I think that teachers should only give corrective feedback?” My answer is this:  I believe praise is harmful to children, yet I also believe that constant correction without praise would also be harmful.  The only option I’m left with then is to abolish both.  Is this possible?  Can we teach without the use of correction?

A short time ago, I would have said no, of course we can’t!  However, my focus on critical thinking and collaboration is beginning to lead me to believe that students are capable of correcting themselves and each other.  I had an experience recently that reinforces this for me.  My ELA 10 class was working on getting commas and semicolons placed correctly within their sentence structures.  They were collaborating with a partner to write proper sentences based upon particular criteria I provided.  I was hovering, observing, refusing to answer questions (instead, helping them find the answers in the handouts they had in triplicate from a variety of sources showing the info in different ways).  Then I began to take pictures of the sentences they were creating.  I paused the activity and displayed their own examples on the board, using polleverywhere.com to ask the class whether the sentence used correct punctuation or not.  The results came in, and were not unanimous.  This let me know there were still some students struggling to figure things out, and it provided the opportunity for students to try to defend their answers.  The ones who were incorrect were unable to do so, but those who were correct provided justification from the notes and helped the others see why.  This is one example of how questioning students and providing the time for conversations and critical thinking could help us eliminate the need for correction in our classrooms and allow me to sleep soundly with the belief that praise should also defer to questioning and self-reflection.

 

***Amendment***

I couldn’t sleep last night and continued to reflect on this issue.  Here’s my problem:  My mind tells me that what I wrote is pretty solid; however, my heart wants to disagree.  I want to offer praise.  I want to offer correction.  Where does this desire come from?  Am I conditioned from growing up in a system that has told me this is what we do, or am I feeling a desire inherent in all humanity?  Where I ended up is admitting that perhaps I’m being too black and white about the issue.  I tend to do that (you’ll see it if you follow my blog and I’m hoping you’ll help keep me in line).  During my second year teacher’s evaluation, this was also the critique of of my acting principal.  I blame it on my strict religious upbringing where things were either right or they were wrong.  I’ve begun to mellow since then, wanting to be open to other perspectives and looking for common ground, but I tend to fall back on the “draw a line in the sand” approach when first confronted with a new issue.  In this case, I’m looking for common ground.  I see value in praise, which is why I’ve had a hard time not doing it.  I see value in correction, you can ask my own children about that.  As stated above, I see value in withholding praise and correction as well.  Perhaps that’s the answer I’m looking for.  Perhaps it’s a matter of analyzing the context and making a decision of what’s best for this child in this situation.  Does that sound like a cop-out?  I hope not.  I’m finally beginning to view education from this point of view, striving to individualize and see the gray areas where perhaps much of my time should be spent.

Teaching for 21st Century but Assessing in the Past

I learned about 21st century competencies nearly two years ago, and from that moment my teaching practices began to transform.  These competencies provided answers to many of the questions that I was asking regarding the disconnect between what I was currently doing and what I believed I should be doing in my classroom. I had been questioning my practice of copious note-taking, or rather note-giving, of how I was handling the assessment of group work, of providing answers to students and thus creating dependance, and of the use of technology in my classroom (and more).  I was unsettled, discouraged, and desperately wanted answers but didn’t know where to turn.  I felt trapped teaching in a style that I didn’t believe in.  And I continued this way for a long time, clinging to the teaching methods I grew up with in school, and must admit was never really told not to use throughout my university education courses.

Then I learned about Twitter.  I remember the edtech for my district offering an online crash course for any interested teachers, and I thought, “Why not?”  It was a bit of a risk for me at the time; those who know me now often think of me as a “tech guy,” but prior to this moment a couple years ago, I wasn’t.  I was actually scared to participate in this session.  I’d never participated in an online learning session before, and although I’d signed up for Twitter some time prior to this, it was so confusing that I never went back to the site.  But Jen Clevette, Peace Wapiti School Division 76’s edtech at the time, was extremely helpful.  She made Twitter easy to understand.  Deciding to take this risk changed the course of my teaching.

Twitter led me to QR codes, Qr codes led to me taking initiative and posting them at Teacher Convention, which led to me being invited to Peace Wapiti’s Community of Practice, which led to me flying to Calgary with Jen Clevette, where, while sitting in the airport waiting for our flight, I was brought up to speed on this new concept of 21st century competencies (at least it was new to me). And this, as I’ve said, began to provide some answers to the apprehension I was feeling about my teaching.

Now, after 2 years of growing and changing and learning, I have noticed some of these feelings returning.  They are, in part, based again on my own teaching practices, but just as much they are because of broader practices in education.  One of the main sources of my current apprehension revolves around assessment.  It seems to me that we are teaching for the 21st century, yet we are still assessing students based on methods from the past.

This became staggeringly clear after reading a passage from Alberta Education Action Agenda 2011-14:  “Transformative change refers to changing the education system by re-examining student needs, how we teach students, what we teach them, how to better engage communities in educating students and how research can be harnessed to inform change.”  I quickly noted the absence of reexamining how we assess students.  Essentially we are being told that we should teach the curriculum through the 21st century competencies, but that we, and the government, should and will continue to use outdated and now inconsistent assessment methods.  From the same website as above comes this statement emphasizing that we should be teaching students the required competencies needed for life in the 21st century: “We need a curriculum that focuses on the competencies young people require in the 21st century.” So, we are to teach the competencies, but then we are to administer standardized tests that forbid collaboration, time to think critically and creatively, and utilization of digital literacy? Implicit to this then is the need to prepare students to write these types of tests and to provide ample practice, which for many teachers means midterm and final exams in the same format from grade 10 through grade 12.  I see the unsettling contradiction between how/what we teach and how we assess as an ethical dilemma as I strive to uphold the TQS for Alberta teachers.  On the one hand I’m obliged to “function within a policy-based and results oriented education system” (TQS standard b) and administer standardized tests (TQS standard i), but on the other hand I’m to “engage in ongoing, individualized professional development” (TQS standard b) and “use the results [of student assessments] for the ultimate benefit of students” (TQS standard i).  The results oriented education system demands that my students perform well on standardized tests; however, my professional learning is telling me that I am to teach students to learn in ways that the standardized test not only ignore, but oppose; consequently, I believe assessment consistent with what I teach will provide results I can use to the ultimate benefit of my students.  I’m left wondering how to ethically juggle these competing demands.

A final quote from near the end of the Alberta Action Agenda 2011-14 states that “curriculum, including assessment and education supports, will be comprehensively reviewed and modified as needed to incorporate holistic perspectives that allow for timely evolution to meet changing needs.” I’ve seen a lot of changes being discussed regarding curriculum and education supports: Government-funded AISI projects have been initiated (and now discontinued due to a new budget) that focus on research to support 21st century learning, and discussions for modifying curriculum are occurring, in addition to a restructuring of the competencies; PWSD brought a 21st century focus to district PD, as well as initiated a cohort of inclusion, AISI, and high school curriculum coaches (I’m the ELA coach for the district); and Mighty Peace Teachers’ Convention sessions also had a very strong focus on 21st century learning.  However, what I have not heard about is any proposed changes to standardized tests. So now what?  Do I just sit back and wait patiently, hoping change comes, hoping my students can somehow manage to walk the fine line between what they’re taught and how they’re assessed, hoping that things turn out the way I believe they should?  As we approach the midterm point for this semester, I am reflecting on where my grade 10 ELA class has been and where we are headed.  I am strongly considering the possibility of radically revising my final exam for this course from a diploma style structure to a more collaborative and critical thinking based model.  I’m not certain yet exactly what this will look like, but I do know that my students are thoroughly engaged in the collaboration and critical thinking opportunities I’ve presented them with so far this year.  They are building these skills and seeing how these 21st century competencies improve their understanding of texts and their text creations.  I shudder to think that after all of this I might revert back to the way I’ve always done things in order to prepare my students for government tests that have not yet been “modified as needed.”  At what point do we demand that assessment practices shift to match the changes in teaching and learning?