Monday, April 14, 2014

Grades Gotta Go! (Part 5: "Holding Students Accountable")

I could continue writing posts about what is wrong with grading policies and practices because of just how destructive they can be. However, I think even in the few posts I have written in this series, it is obvious that the problems caused by traditional grading methods are deep and serious. Still, the videos below are two more compelling demonstrations of the negative effects that poor grading techniques have caused in our school system. Every teacher can relate.

It is only part of the case to identify the harmful practices that need to change. The other part of the case is to then provide solutions. So, let's start heading that direction.

But first, here are a few more articles that do a great job of spelling out some of the harm done by grading along with what can be done about it:

To me, I believe the whole issue of how you "fix" a broken grading system centers on the question of accountability. More than anything else I hear from teachers is the need to have a grading policy that "holds kids accountable." They seem to fear that a change in grading policy automatically means less accountability. 

Whether that is true or not depends on one's view of accountability. The main consideration, in my opinion, is to and for what we want to hold students accountable

Let's make this very simple. If we break down the word, then we realize that accountability is the "ability to give an account." Grading practices are usually not helpful in terms of providing any type of long-term motivation for non-academic factors, such as organization, participation, punctuality, attitude, and effort. These items are definitely worth our time to provide guidance, correction, and support, but they are best left outside of a grading system. If you are wanting to hold students accountable to these types of activities, then please don't skew all your data by using grades to accomplish that goal.

What we actually want students to be able to give an account for is their LEARNING!
The only way to know how accountable a student is in his or her learning is to first know the standard, or target, in the first place. Therefore, a prerequisite to an effective grading system is a clear learning target! Then, and only then, can a student be held accountable to their level of mastery according to where they are in relation to the expected or desired objective.

If we agree that learning is the thing for which we want to hold students accountable, then it becomes apparent that grades, as we know them, gotta go! What becomes just as clear is that we need to replace them with an effective feedback process, which is what we will look at next time.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Don't you love those chocolate Easter bunnies!?! (Fair Product Feature: Chocolate)

My wife just returned from the grocery store with our first Fair Trade chocolate purchase. I had asked her to look for Divine Chocolate, but she could only find Green & Black's candy bars at HEB. (At least at that particular location on this particular day.) I asked her to get me a milk chocolate one, and here it is. (Side note: My wife is extraordinarily wonderful!)

I figure with the massive chocolate buying holiday of Easter coming soon, I would learn a little more about the chocolate industry's relationship to slave labor around the world. Now that I introduced this topic in my previous post, what do I practically do with this new information?

To be honest, the first thing I will probably do is just buy less chocolate. Period. Regardless of where the cocoa beans are harvested or how it is produced, less chocolate would be a generally good move to counter some of my other unhealthy eating habits that are beginning to take a toll on me.

But, as promised in my last post on this issue, here are ideas I am considering as I try to fight human trafficking and slavery while caving to the desires of my sweet tooth at the same time.

1. Honestly assess what it will mean to my checkbook. Below are the price comparisons my wife found at the store today. (Click on the company's names below and you will go to their human rights ethical production ratings from Free2Work.) Hershey's is able to sell their chocolate for about 1/3 of the price of fair trade chocolate producers. As you can see, the cost of maintaining and monitoring ethical supply chains, fair wages, and safe working conditions, free of child labor, are passed on to the consumer. That is you and me. Contrary to some people's thinking, we (the consumers) matter greatly in this process!

Green & Black's - $0.85 per ounce
Ghirardelli$0.63 per ounce
Dove$0.53 per ounce
Hershey's$0.30 per ounce

2. Actively look for brands that are doing the BEST of ethical treatment of farmers and workers. Here are a few. (Keep in mind that I am new to this and there may be many others.)

3. Send notes to companies who have historically been some of the WORST human rights' violators in the industry. Made in a Free World makes this easy to do with just a couple clicks of your mouse. This one hurts because these are some of my favorites.

4. Keep learning. Due to different standards and numerous organizations associated with Fair Trade, this subject is already complicated to begin with. What makes it worse is how secretive and even deceptive some companies are when it comes to their business practices. For example, some of the bigger companies in this industry may "spin" things to appear generous, ethical, and compassionate. It is becoming popular for companies to make donations toward causes or public announcements about efforts to clean their supply chains by 2020 (or whatever year they pick). 

The good news is that companies are feeling the pressure to even take these steps, whether they are genuine or not. That means public perception about these issues is growing and businesses are starting to consider their "image" in a social justice way like never before. The bad news is that "lip service" might take the place of real action for the sake of profit in the short-term. With all this in mind, I will just have to continue to do my research.

5. Encourage my church-attending friends and pastors to be conscious of the brands they use to fill Easter eggs and baskets this year. I hope that many of them will consider the companies like those mentioned in #2 above.

This may be one more reason why we should take a step back and seriously look at our "Christian" Easter celebrations. I am not going to be that old, crotchety guy that gets on a soapbox, but I can't help but wonder how many distractions we have introduced as we mix Good Friday and Resurrection with hidden eggs and magic bunnies. (Yes, I am hypocrite. My daughter will probably go to an Easter egg hunt this year like she has in the past. I may be having a personal crisis of conscience. Well, maybe more on that at another time. For now, let's just focus on ending child slave labor.)

Monday, April 7, 2014

Grades Gotta Go! (Part 4: "Purpose-Driven Grading")

The next issue with most grading systems is mis-using grades to achieve the wrong purpose. As you can tell, these issues with grading are all interrelated. The focus of today's topic deals directly with the question of why we use grades at all. What I find is that the purposes of grades tend to fall into one of two categories:

Produce a behavior (compliance) 


Reflect mastery/provide feedback (learning)

Many teachers argue that grades should actually do both of the above, especially depending on the age of the learner. Commonly, some teachers and parents will suggest that students need grades to help them gain the value of learning until they later develop the intrinsic motivation to appreciate it on their own without these extrinsic "prompts" (grades).

First of all, this mindset plainly ignores what we know about motivation. It, yet again, is also one of the areas where many people would see the obvious fallacy in this position if they would just step outside of the world of institutional education for a moment. Let's imagine a parent saying, "I am trying to get my child to learn the value of eating healthy snacks instead of candy by repeatedly giving them pieces of chocolate.", or "We would like to get the employees in our company to see the value of the work they do just for the sake of the creativity and joy it provides them, so we will start paying bonuses for new ideas until they appreciate that it isn't about the financial gain of designing new products." 

As absurd as this reasoning sounds, it is the same with grading policies. To be blunt, the idea of making people dependent upon a device to prove that it will help people get to a place where they can function better without that very device is just as dumb as it sounds. And that is coming from a person who used to apply that silly mindset wholeheartedly in my former teaching days.

Secondly, there is no evidence to show it motivates learning even inside the public school system. Kindergartners in public schools and children in Montessori schools (or similar systems) demonstrate an enormous enthusiasm for learning without the "reward" or "punishment" of a grade being constantly put before them. This reality is so apparent, in fact, that my school district has a "backpack vision" (picture a child with a backpack on walking into school for the first time): We want students to exit (graduate) our system with the same passion for learning that they had when they entered our system, without economics determining success. The axiom at work here is that children naturally WANT to learn before they ever encounter a grading system! 

Are we going to say that they are mature enough to understand the intrinsic value or "deeper appreciation" of learning at age 5 more than middle school or high school students? The entire line of reasoning here defies any sense of what is developmentally appropriate.

Here's the catch, though. The biggest problem with this misconception about grading is that it does indeed APPEAR to work. Of course, if you ratchet up the short-term external consequences (positive or negative) - and that is what grades are, consequences, then you will naturally see an increase in short-term compliance. This is why so many people think it is justified to use grades to produce a behavior, whether it be completing homework, turning things in on time, having an organized binder, coming to class prepared, getting a form signed by parents, attempting bonus problems, etc. (the list is endless of what we "bribe" kids to do).

Truth be told, there are appropriate times for extrinsic motivation. The problem with using grades in this way is that it could, in fact, actually have a detrimental, inverse effect on learning. And that is NOT okay!

At this point, it doesn't require a lot of studies (although they have been done) to prove this point. Every teacher already knows this is true because every teacher has heard these famous words asked by more than one student: "Is this for a grade?" Why do they care to know? Because if it's not, then why bother doing it? The value of learning doesn't even cross the student's mind when immersed in a grading culture. Sadly, I am worried that it doesn't cross many teachers' minds either.

Daniel Pink presents some interesting findings about motivation and performance in this video (if you can't view the video above). What connections can be made between his comments and our current grading policies?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Happy Easter Choco-holics!

Like me, you might be surprised to know that except for Halloween, Americans actually purchase and consume more chocolate on Easter than any other holiday, including Valentine's Day and Christmas! 

With the celebration of Easter and Passover, there will be A LOT OF EATING CHOCOLATE going on, which brings us to a tragic irony. The Passover that so many people will celebrate in remembrance of the Jewish deliverance from slavery in Egypt under an oppressive Pharaoh will be held in conjunction with more people eating candy made available to us by the hands of forced child labor.

For information and videos from the full CNN series about the relationship between chocolate and child labor, go here. To check out a recent documentary video, click on this link.

In keeping with my "baby steps" theme, next week I will post simple ways to take action to make this Easter season more about freedom and still treat your sweet tooth.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Jesus Manifesto (Book Review)

Jesus Manifesto (Thomas Nelson, 2010), written by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola is an exceptional book. I could bring up little details here and there that make this book great, but I will just sum it up by saying that this book contains the information I would want passed on to my children. That is about the best endorsement I could give any book!

The section on "The Two Trees" is especially enlightening, one of those "worth the price of the book" pieces of writing. The authors point out that Christians go astray when we try to live by the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil instead of the Tree of Life as God intended.

The following three statements from different parts of the book combine to form what I see as the whole point of the book. "The center and circumference of the Christian life is none other than the person of Christ" (p. 1 - opening line). "In all religions and philosophies of the world, a follower can follow the teachings of its founder without having a relationship with that founder. But not so with Jesus Christ" (p. 82). "What the Father was to Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ is to you. He's your indwelling Lord" (p. 128).

I recommend this book for anyone exploring Christianity. It is filled with great quotes and insights. More importantly, it gets to the heart of the issue and distinguishes following Jesus from the Christian religion. Religion is not the aim. Jesus brings abundant life, and religion cannot compare with that.