Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Futilitarian State

It has been a couple of weeks since last I posted. As a principal, this time of year is filled with the myriad of evaluation and assessment that needs to be done in order to fulfill the accountability expectations that our educational system and parent population require.

It is at this time of year that I slump into a futilitarian state. Often I feel that convention gets in the way of creativity. An opinion shared by Kris (an ex-student of mine) at Wandering Ink in her brilliant post about Killing the Next Da Vinci.

[an aside to this post. Kris' blog post has made the edublogosphere take notice. One of the best commentary posts linked to her post is here at Dave Truss' blog Pair-a-Dimes for your thoughts. Dave was Kris' teacher the year after me. These posts and subsequent reactions/comments are a must read for educators.]

Back to my point. In the last two weeks I have read a plethora of report cards, crunched data for growth plans, garnered consensus on goals and objectives and reviewed our results from our provincial Foundational Skills Assessments that we wrote in February.


Unnecessary and unfortunate comparison.

Innate in our system (in British Columbia, Canada), is a competitive thread. Convention if you will. It starts with the universities who require a particular Grade Point Average for entrance into their programs. This necessitates a grading system in the high-schools that is quantitative so that the method to achieve said grade appears to be transparent. The majority of the high-schools, therefore, use a percentage based benchmark where (for most) 86% equates to an "A" which counts for 4 points and 72% equates to a "B" which counts for 3 points and so on. The points are then averaged to get a grade point average. To most educators (and non-educators for that matter) this sounds like the typical experience. The issue that this evaluative mentality creates is that it trickles down to the early grades. Parents, who's last experience with the education system was high school, impose their experience and thus schema of evaluation onto the report card that their child in grade four gets for example. In British Columbia we start giving students grades in grade 4. Up to that point we use anecdotal comments that use performance standards language. Unfortunately, due to being so ingrained, many parents impose their letter grade schema onto the anecdotal language. As soon as you assign grades, students stop learning for the love of learning and they start learning how to play the marks game.

Let me share a story to illustrate. I watched as a 10 year old negotiated with a teacher to get an additional mark on a math test ( a very common experience for teachers). I couldn't help myself, I had to insert myself into the conversation. I asked the student to explain their interpretation of the question, their rational for their answer and the process by which they arrived at that answer. The student, who had scored a 14/16 on the test already, spent thirty minutes going through this process with me. In doing so, the student demonstrated an extremely advanced level of understanding of the concept being discussed. He had made a minor calculation error and thus ended up with the wrong "correct" answer so the teacher had given him part marks. Sounds fair, the student was given marks for process but lost marks for an incorrect answer (again, a very common practice).

Now here is my problem with this "common experience". The teacher lost that student and the teachable opportunity was killed. Let me offer an alternative scenario. Give the students the question or series of questions. Facilitate their struggles by asking questions rather than giving answers. Let them make the "mistakes". Point out fact to them i.e. "your process is sound but their is a calculation error on your page". Empower them i.e. "what did you discover whilst looking for your error?" "Share it with a classmate/class". Make note of this student's experience in an assessment log. Use this note in your communication with his/her parent.

The end result of the summative test with a mark of 14/16 (which is a pretty strong mark) was that this student felt slighted and all he took from the experience was that he had been "punished" for his miscalculation. The test was then filed in his binder (best case scenario) or more likely stuffed in his desk or in the garbage (worse case scenario). The student is more than likely going to eliminate the test experience from his mathematical schema to allow for the next cram session.

The end result of the facilitated math experience is that the student will have had his mastery needs met because he was able to fix a miscalculation, he was able to share his fix and feel safe about making mistakes and learning from them. This student is more likely to embed the concept into his mathematical schema. When the teacher communicates with the parent, the student's progress is reported rather than a comparison to a benchmark.

FACT: Students do not need marks to be motivated. Most of the best work I have ever seen came from students who were not worried about evaluative handcuffs.

Example #1 (I was made aware of this example by Dave Truss who is an administrative colleague of mine. The example is far to powerful to simply link to it and hope that you feel inclined to follow the link and thus I embed it here):

The assignment was as follows:

"Pick an issue in the school and then create a video that promotes awareness of the problem and/or a solution to the problem"

This assignment was given to the advisory classes at the Middle School that I used to teach at. The predominant mandate of advisory is to ensure that all students feel connected to an adult in the school who's relationship is devoid of the constraints evaluation places on said relationship. In other words, everything that they do in advisory is NOT for marks but rather for learning.

Here is the result of my ex-teaching partner's class. Wow!

Example #2:

In my last year of classroom teaching, I had become frustrated with the concept of marks as an evaluative tool. So I did the obligatory marks collection in May and then cut marks off for all of June. I told the students this. I then approached my teaching team with an idea. At our middle school we teach in teams. In our case three teachers shared 90 students. We told the students that they were going to write, illustrate and publish children's books for the kindergarten classes at the schools that fed into our middle school. We told them that they would have to apply for one of three positions, illustrator, writer/editor, and publisher/editor. We then took these application and created teams of 10-12 students. For the first week, all the artists worked with the teacher on our team who happened to be a graphic artist. The writers worked with the other teacher on our team, and I took the publishers. We all looked at children's books that we all loved. We determined what made them so good and created brainstorm lists that turned into guiding criteria. For the next two and half weeks, the teams of 10-12 students worked on creating their storyboards, drafts, and then finally published product.

The end result was that we had 8 fully illustrated stories. The storyboards ranged from action adventure to anti-bullying morality. The students then took these books to the kindergarten classes and read them. The writing, illustrating and publishing process was so intense that it dominated our curriculum for most of June and yet it was the students who drove this project. I have never seen students work so hard as they did on these books. Not a single mark was given out. Not a single answer was given. Our teaching team was truly along for the ride. We were a resource and we were guides. Nothing more. It was the best teaching experience that I have had.

So as I sit here up to my neck in report cards and growth plans, I pang for the days of learning for the sake of learning. I proclaim that my futilitarian state can be rebuked by those who teach children to learn not to jump through hoops. It is my goal to help my staff work within our innately competitive system to empower students to learn because it is there to learn. Marks be gone.....well as much as we are allowed to by law.

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