→ Responsibility vs. Compliance

I've written about homework before, and it's a topic I consider often.

Over at The Teacher and the Admin, the two authors have written several posts lately on the this very topic. In one post, Gary Armida decries what he sees as the false notion that homework is necessary for students to learn responsibility.

We now give more work to kids than ever before. That “more” isn’t developing responsibility. That “more” is developing compliance.

I think the distinction between "responsibility" and "compliance" is a key one in schools today, and applies to more topics than just homework. How often do we teachers reward compliance over genuine learning?

→ "Ten Ways to Leverage Student Choice in Your Classroom"

The longer I teacher, the more I look for ways to empower my students to make choices the direct the class. I enjoyed this list of simple strategies for giving students more choice in the classroom, while still respecting the role of the teacer:

When we incorporate choice, students own the learning process. We honor their agency and empower them to become the life-long learners we want them to be. At some point, they will leave the classroom and they won’t have a guide right there by their side. They will have to take charge and make decisions about their own learning. This is why student choice is so critical.

→ "5 Dumb Things I Used to Think About School"

This is a thoughtful post, but I really liked the point the author makes about deadlines and late work (a topic I've mentioned before):

“Deadlines in schools are for adults. We adults have so many things to do by a certain time that we need deadlines. The fact is, there are very few drop-dead deadlines in life, and most things in life can be handed in late. May there be a monetary penalty? Yes, and that is the lame rationale for paying students with lower grades for late work, because again, grades are currency, not feedback.”

→ "Why I Threw Away My Rubrics"

Professor Jennifer Hurley writes about her struggles with rubrics, and why she's ditched them (emphasis mine):

The real reason I think we’re attracted to rubrics is because we like the simplicity and efficiency of them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could make giving feedback into a scientific process? That would be so efficient and so less fraught with uncertainty! But why are we so afraid to admit that the evaluation of writing is subjective and depends much upon the individual reader? I think it comes back to grades. We’re frightened that if we admit that good writing is sometimes a matter of opinion, then we are no longer the authority, and we no longer can defend our grades.

I've struggled with rubrics myself, for exactly this reason–good work, especially complex work like writing or a presentation, is impossible to quantify into any manageable number of categories. Too often, I think in my head, "This is a B+ paper," and then I look to reconcile the rubric with that grade. Yes, the rubric does sometimes keep me on track while grading, making sure I look at each different area and don't forget to give credit where it's due. When the rubric isn't tied directly to the grade, it's slightly more useful, but only slightly.

→ "The Emotional Weight of Being Graded, for Better or Worse"

Yet another good post about the impact of grading, this time from the always thoughtful KQED MindShift blog. (As always, emphasis mine.)

The trouble with these extreme emotional reactions to grades is that students’ knowledge of a subject is tied to their experience of the grade, says Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California. Powerful emotions attached to grades drown children’s inherent interest in any given subject.

“Whether the grade is good or bad, you’re taking the student away from focusing on intrinsic interest and tying their experience to grades,” Immordino-Yang explained. Under such circumstances, genuine interest in learning for its own sake wilts. “Grades can be an impetus to work, and can be really satisfying,” she said. “But when emotions about the grade swamp students’ emotions about a subject, that’s a problem.”

I've certainly seen this in my own classroom. Now matter how much I try to preface an assignment with comments like, "Don't worry about the grade," their emotional reaction trumps everything else. I've tried to do small things in my classroom to reduce that focus on the grade, but so long as grades are the primary source of feedback in the school, there's not much I can do.

“Your Hand’s Not Raised? Too Bad: I’m Calling on You Anyway”

I first came across this article by Alfie Kohn on the practice of cold-calling students last year, and I felt embarrassed that I had never really questioned this aspect of my own pedagogy.

Should teachers call on students who haven’t indicated they want to talk and, in fact, have tacitly indicated they don’t want to talk?

I’ve never been too much of a jerk in the classroom, but I’ve certainly used cold-calling on students whose hands are not raised as a way to keep them “on their toes” or even to shame those who were very visibly not engaged. So what’s the alternative? Mr. Kohn suggests:

What we need to develop — with students, not just for them — is a model of discussion that encourages everyone to speak up when they’re ready without forcing anyone to do so, and that supports the community in becoming self-governing rather than giving one person in the room the sole authority to decide who talks when.

I have not successfully created this kind of atmosphere, but it sounds like a goal worth working towards. I do think there's a way to build a rapport with my students such that I can call on them in a way that is still respectful, as part of a "self-governing community" like he describes.

The closing statement from Mr. Kohn sums it all up quite nicely:

But the general rule is that treating students with respect — which means we neither compel them to speak nor determine unilaterally who gets to do so — is ethically appropriate, educationally beneficial, and practically realistic . . . as long as we’re willing to give up some control.

“When Grading Harms Student Learning”

Another good post about grades and their impact in the classroom.

His take on giving a student a zero:

Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance. Instead of zeros, we should enter incompletes, and use these moments to correct behavioral errors and mistakes. Often, one zero can mathematically destroy a student’s grade and pollute an overall metric that should reflect student learning. Here, grading is getting in the way of truly helping a student, as well as showing what that student really knows.

→ "Reading is no way to learn"

Attention-grabbing headline aside, there's some good insight in this piece from Roger Schank.

No learning takes place without conversation.

And:

Every year I would ask my students on the first day of class at Yale and Northwestern if they could pass the tests they took last year, right now. No one ever thought they could. They studied. They listened. They memorized. And then they forgot. We don’t learn by reading nor do we learn by listening.

→ "Late Work"

I long ago decided that penalizing late work was not helping the students achieve any of the learning goals for my course. I want them to learn how to read Latin or write a compelling essay. Generally speaking, if it takes a student an extra day or two to accomplish that, that's preferable to me giving them a zero and then them not doing it all.

Plenty of teachers do not see things the same way, and enforce strict penalties for assignments that are submitted even minutes late. Whenever I ask teachers about these policies, the response is usually some form of, "We need to teach them a lesson?"

At a teaching blog run by Instructure (full disclosure: my school uses the Canvas LMS owned by Instructure), Sean Morris asks many of the same questions that I do, and tries to follow them to their logical conclusion.

What is the classroom meant to be? Should it be a microcosm of an unforgiving world? Should it be a retreat from that world? Should it be some kind of safe synergy of novelty, rigor, and relevant experience? And if it is this last, what “rules” must we establish in the classroom to keep our pedagogy intact?

→ "The Growth Mindset : Telling Penguins to Flap Harder?"

When I read psychologist Carol Dweck's now famous book Mindset, much of it rang true to me personally. I could certainly see myself in many of her examples of a fixed mindset, and I've written about that before. And teaching our students to be more receptive to challenges is, in my mind, a valid goal.

As Dweck's book has become more popular, so too have critiques against those with an overly-simplified takeaway for schools from her research, namely the idea that "grit" (hard work and perseverance) and a mindset that sees failures as positive are all students need to find success in school. I've been dismayed in my own position by teachers who use the phrase "growth mindset" as a cover for claiming that students simply need to work harder. There's a subtlety to Dweck's claims that seems to be getting lost.

I think "Disappointed Idealist" does a good job expressing some of my own concerns about those who are using the growth mindset in a way that harms students.

For all the reasons above, some children will be penguins in an education system which values flight as the ultimate goal. And when they flap their wings as hard as they can, repeatedly, and still fail to take off, they are then hit with a double whammy: firstly they’ve failed to fly, and secondly they’re being told that the only reason that they’ve failed is because they’re not trying hard enough.