Monday, March 10, 2014

Grades Gotta Go! (Part 3: "All Kids Learn the Same Content in the Same Way at the Same Time - Um, No!")

Another major problem with most grading systems is that they perpetuate the obvious myth that all students learn in the same way at the same time. Clearly, this ridiculous, factory-model perspective is at the heart of many educational ills, but in the next few posts I will focus on the part grades play in exasperating this problem. In particular, I will address concerns associated with re-do/re-take policies, grading homework/practice, and penalties for late work.

Before getting into specifics, though, let’s just deal up front with the absurdity of this paradigm that serves as a driving force behind most of our grading practices.  

It is pretty crazy when we consider what we do to children in our current educational system without even questioning some of the inherent assumptions. One of the assumptions is that if a teacher teaches something, then that automatically equates to a student learning something. Therefore, we (teachers) "cover" an enormous amount of material in our classes. Then, we hold students accountable for knowing, understanding and applying that material (all of it!) right away. To take matters worse, in many cases, students have only a passive encounter with the curriculum.

Some will contend that doing anything different equates with lowering expectations. "It worked for us when we were in school. It should be the same for students now. We didn't get second chances or do-overs. Kids these days are becoming so irresponsible. Besides, the 'real world' doesn't allow 'do-overs'!" The argument goes something like that, and I have heard it way too many times.

The most significant flaw in this argument is that it just isn't true. There are tons of facts and concepts that you "learned" in your K-12 education that I am quite certain you don't know now. Don't believe me? Take a few minutes sometime and Google the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), or curriculum standards for your state if you are not in Texas, for any grade level and see how many of them you know today. I just did this with the 5th grade TEKS in Language Arts and Social Studies. Prepare to be humbled.

The point is that while your teachers most likely explicitly "taught" all of that material, we cannot assume that much learning took place. (That is not a knock on any of your teachers by the way. The same is true for the classes I taught.) It is simply unreasonable to expect humans to master all content when it is initially introduced. Students of all ages need time to review, rehearse, manipulate, analyze, synthesize, and organize information. None of these things can be rushed.

Moreover, the totally insane idea is to expect all people to advance through new knowledge at the same pace. All it takes is a parent of only two children to tell you that kids learn and develop differently! We readily admit this differentiation exists, but our practices betray us.

So, the traditional cycle of repeatedly and quickly presenting lessons, assigning homework about those lessons, testing on those lessons, grading students based on their achievement on the tests over the lessons, then moving on to other lessons so that we can "get through the curriculum" is an approach that has been shown to be sorely deficient.

It is also false that most of the "real world" does not allow for making corrections or re-doing activities. At least, not in my real world. I recently listed all the jobs that I could recall having in my life. There were about 15 of them, including YMCA membership clerk, fast food cook, grocery bagger, bus driver, youth minister, and teacher, to name a few. I realized that there is one thing all the jobs had in common: I frequently made mistakes and constantly had to learn from my failures. Over and over and over. It is no different in my current position as a school administrator.

In fact, mistake-making and continuous improvement upon initially poor performance are not only practices that I was, and am, not fired, reprimanded or punished for, but they are valuable to my growth as a contributor to the organization. See, my real world has no resemblance to the “real world” for which many teachers fear we are not preparing students.

Furthermore, it is most ironic to hear the argument against re-dos and corrections come from public school educators who are in a profession that makes it extremely difficult to get rid of teachers who perform poorly year after year, much less one time. If teachers in the real world fail to meet expectations, then they do not lose their jobs. They may receive extra training, resources, or time. They may be placed in a professional learning community. They may be put on a growth plan. They may have additional people provide them with feedback. The list goes on and on, and the objective in all these cases is to provide the employee with a way to recover from the loss or failure.

Is it hypocritical to refuse the same opportunities to young people still in their development?

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