Monday, April 26, 2010

There is much talk of how schools need to change from the sit and get method of teaching, to encouraging students to think for themselves. What a wonderful concept, in theory.

Too often, students come with the attitude of tell what I need to know, tell me how you want me to give it back to you, and I will reproduce your thoughts on paper, and BINGO, I win my 'A'. They are programmed to spew back facts and ideas fed to them without actually creating or investigating on their own.

When given a problem to solve, students stare blankly at the paper, afraid or unable to attempt to think for themselves. They want THE ANSWER. They don't like the thought that there might not be a right answer.

How have we programmed them this way or did they come to school with that mentality?

And now... how do we reprogram them to want to think for themselves?

I think one of the best ways to improve education and promote independent thinking is to do away with our current system of grading students. Students and parents are motivated by the almighty 'A' with little regard for what the 'A' actually means in terms of student achievement and learning progress. Other students seem so intimidated by grades they almost refuse to try, so certain they will never achieve that illusive 'A' they simply quit before they try, like taking the 0 for doing nothing is better than accepting a 'C' for working hard but not making the ultimate 'A' mark.

Teachers often feel pressure to give high grades so parents aren't complaining. Students also put their fair share of grade pressure on teachers. Participation in sports is often dependent on grades. But each teacher 'grades' their own way. Some give extra credit to boost scores. Some weight homework heavily, others rely on summative assessments for their primary source of reporting grades. Some give participation grades; others base grades solely on achieving mastery of the content. Some teacher allow retakes; others do not. Some average retake scores with the original; some let the higher score stand. Grades often mean nothing comparatively from course to course, teacher to teacher, school to school.

Without grades, school could actually be about learning, experiencing, and growing, instead of the letter that gets published on the report card. Students would not be intimidated by the threat of failure or not measuring up. Teachers could design lessons to spark enthusiasm and encourage risk taking instead of ones that are easily assessed on a 4 point scale. Students would move onto more difficult material when they were ready not when they sat their 9 months in a class, earned their percentage and were rotely moved along the conveyor belt of school. Learning would be fluid and flexible.

Would it work? Who knows.... but they way we are doing things now certainly isn't meeting the needs of all learners, or even preparing a vast percentage of students for college or life beyond high school. Perhaps it is time for something new!


Anonymous said...

I agree, but the flip side of this is accountability. Without some form of grading, many students wouldn't bother to do any work at all. We need leverage over the kids.

bill01370 said...

My school no longer uses letter grades, having switched to a standards-based assessment system built on a "mastered - developing - needs attention - no basis for assessment" scale. I find that it is working out really well, and in fact the kids have a better sense of what they do well and where they need to improve than they did with grades. Parents have been supportive.
Motivating students to work is, to my mind, a separate-if-related question. External motivation (such as letter grades), as I understand, works successfully with relatively low-level thinking tasks, but can actually suppress internal motivation and result in worse results long term with higher-level thinking tasks.

cossondra said...

Do you think grades really give us 'leverage' with our students? If we shifted the paradigm of school to focus on learning instead of the grade, would we need leverage?

cossondra said...

Bill said, " External motivation (such as letter grades), as I understand, works successfully with relatively low-level thinking tasks, but can actually suppress internal motivation and result in worse results long term with higher-level thinking tasks. "

I agree! I think when we want kids to think outside the box, to try new skills, try applying them to new situations, the intimidation of failing is too much pressure. They are so certain they will be unsuccessful, and their 'grade' will suffer, they simply give up before they start.

I would love to try a standards based assessment system. I am not sure how the logistics would work with a large number of students, but I can see how this would be more meaningful for students and parents. How is the information used ultimately? If a child is not considered 'mastered' do they progress to the next grade? What remediation process is there? What if a child is 'mastered' in one subject but not in another?