Saturday, November 11, 2006

Trust But Verify

In our Cohort 2 staff development session on Thursday we had some very interesting conversations. I thought one discussion in particular was very helpful to me, when in the morning session we discussed the relative merits of allowing students to have more control over what they learn versus making sure they are exposed to a variety of ideas. I think most of us would agree that allowing students to have more of a say in what they learn is empowering, and is more likely to engage them and therefore they are then more likely to be successful learners. I also think that most of us would agree that our students need exposure to lots of different ideas, even topics that don't necessarily appeal to them, at least not initially. That they need to engage the world of ideas around them, not just the specific areas that interest them, and that our passion as teachers can help facilitate their engagement in areas we deem valuable. As with just about everything we discuss, I think there is a balance to be had, it's just somewhat tricky to figure out where that balance is.

There was one point that was raised that I've been thinking about a lot since the discussion. When talking about giving students more choice the issue was raised that students would often (or possibly always) choose whatever choice they perceived to be easier. I'm not sure if I disagreed at the time or not, but I don't think I do agree with this. I think that to the extent this is true, it's because we've trained them to do this. Since very early on in their school careers, we've drilled into them how important grades are. By the time they get to high school, my fear - as we've discussed previously - is that they begin to believe that grades are the goal. That learning becomes subservient to, and sometimes completely overwhelmed by, grades. Therefore, if getting a good grade is so all important, then isn't choosing the easier assignment the logical choice? Instead of condemning them for it, shouldn't we be rejoicing that they've learned their lessons well?

I believe that if we can remove the emphasis on grades and refocus on learning, students more often than not will choose the most interesting and personally relevant assignment, not necessarily the easiest. I know this may be somewhat naive (or possibly "hopelessly naive") on my part, but I think we need to start trusting our students more. I think they are more than capable of making good choices for themselves and - when they do not - that it's our role as teachers to help them make a better choice in the future. That our role needs to be less about making choices and decisions for them, and more about helping them become good decision makers for themselves. Isn't one of our goals that when they leave high school, they are well prepared to move into the "adult" world? If so, shouldn't we give them some practice in making those decisions in the relative safety of high school? After all, that's one of the main arguments we give for our variable schedule, so why do we seem to shy away from it in our classrooms? (As a side note, maybe if we do this a lot fewer of them will move back in with Mom and Dad for most of their 20's.)

As I've stated several times before, I think this is their education, not ours. If that's true - and if we want our students to really and truly believe that - then we are going to have to start trusting them. Yes, the level of trust and freedom will vary depending on age and individual maturity level, just like it already does (or should). And yes we still have the realities of curriculum and mandated testing. But I think that if we truly want them to be self-motivated, life-long, successful learners in the 21st century, we are going to have to give up some of the control and trust them to make more of their own decisions - with our guidance, of course. Trust - but verify. I fear that if we don't, if we insist on adhering to an industrial age schooling model, we risk losing all relevance whatsoever. And, given the learning choices that students are beginning to have in whatever we are going to call this current, post information age, I think we need to keep in mind that we no longer have a captive audience. We need to continue to give students reasons to choose to learn with us - or they will learn without us.

As usual, I'm thinking out loud here so I'd love to hear your thoughts on these ideas. Anything you can add that will help push my thinking along will be greatly appreciated.


  1. I agree Karl. We do need to make a cognitive shift in our teaching deciding whether we want to do the learning, the students, or both of us. I will never forget an administrator asking me if I was completely exhausted at the end of the day. I was confused and asked why. She responded that I seemed to be racing around, answering questions, showing examples, entertaining students--essentially the one-man band in 2nd hour English. It was true. I needed to shift the responsibility of learning to my students.

    Here's my conundrum, though. My seniors embrace it. They understand that their independence is a short 9 months away and they take the lessons, the assignments serious and really stretch to learn. I have many assignments I don't even grade. I have not had one student question my practices. At this level it works.

    With my 9th graders, however. Their immaturity is getting in the way. They do choose the easy road, screw around in class and want to be entertained 24/7...and, if they're not, they'll do it for me! How nice. Jessie and I have stated this frustration and do wonder about maturity level. On days that we studied inductive thinking, they were engaged. When I read to them, modeling reading strategies, and enlicit questions from them, they also seem eager to learn. But, when they are to work independently, work in small groups, or without a tight leash on them, chaos is immediate.

    I am interested to see what others say and would like to research constructivism and developmental readiness.

  2. I agree with both of you. I also struggle with the question of the students' foundations. I find that often regardless of age, students who have a strong foundation of a subject matter have the ability to climb that critical thinking ladder and I can use more constuctivist methods. On the contrary, student who have little to no foundation in a subject seem to have a lot more problems connecting the learning and creating their own thoughts, theories and understanding. Any thoughts on this also?

  3. I agree as well. With math it is very difficult to explore the deeper ocean when some students can't do their basic skills to get them to that deeper level of thinking. I would also be curious to research how other countries (that are more successful with deeper understanding with their students) approach the different teaching styles.

  4. In a perfect world, grades would not exist. Teachers would inspire and motivate students to learn for the sake of learning. Once students mastered specific skills, they could begin practice on another skill set and discover more new ideas to explore. Proof of student learning and mastery would be kept in a portfolio that could replace traditional carnegie units needed for a high school diploma, and everyone would live happily ever after.

    Alas, the perfect world does not exist even though several of us tried to create it ten years ago under the name of Direction 2000. That program ended because the community demanded accountability in assessing student performance, and portfolios were not standard products.

    I think most teachers agree that traditional grades are not the best way to promote student learning, but until we can convince the public to agree with our understanding of how students learn, we are spinning our wheels.

  5. So, Marlys, does this mean that if we could convince our community that traditional grades are not the best way to promote student learning, that you would support that?

  6. Barb and Missy,

    How well do you think we are currently doing at helping students to learn the foundations?

  7. Michele,

    Lots of folks say they are struggling with their 9th graders particularly (and some upperclassmen as well). So what can we do as a staff to address this issue? Or is it unsolvable or not worth solving?

  8. This post caused me to flash back--to my first year of teaching, way back in 1974. At Arapahoe, there were people who were influenced (I assume) by the same ideas that influence you, Karl. Grades corrupt the essence of a student. Students hunger for knowledge, but evil grades stand in the way. Free kids from grades and they will become philosophers, mathematicians, poets, and historians. To free students from the tyrrany of grades, Arapahoe offered the Pass/Fail option for students in the Tuesday/Thursday classes. My own sister (10 years younger than I and a grade school and middle school student during the reforms that rocked education in the late 60's and early 70's) never knew a "grade." Her teachers--directed by the progressives in the school district--eliminated them. All that the kids received on their report cards was Pass or Fail.

    I'm feeling a full-fledged rant coming on. I'll stop myself before I break my keyboard.

    I just want to ask one question: WHY DO YOU SUPPOSE WE RETURNED TO GRADES?

  9. Well Cheryl, I don't want to necessarily encourage a full-fledged rant, but it would be helpful if you could tell us a little bit more (maybe a partial-fledged rant?). Because I don't know why AHS returned to grades for those classes. I have some guesses, but they would only be guesses.

  10. Well, Karl--

    Cheryl and I grew up during the same tumultuous period when every traditional aspect of education was questioned. And as I said in our meeting last Thursday, all of those revolutionary practices disappeared within the next decade. So Cheryl's question must be answered. Why did we return to grades?

    On a philosophical level I believe in learning for the sake of learning--and as someone who is overwhelmed with grading, I would love to rid myself of that albatross. But practically, I know from experience it is human nature to take the shortest route toward completing a task. Just today, I gave a quiz in my AP class students were not prepared for. Monday night I told them to read Chaucer's "Pardoner's Tale" and expect a quiz on Tuesday. Yesterday, students were prepared and we held a meaningful discussion. Tuesday night I told them to read "The Wife of Bath's Tale" for today, but I did not tell them I would give a quiz. I didn't give a quiz to my first period class, so when I passed out a quiz to my fifth hour, they seemed surprised, and unfortunately, many of them had not read the story because they thought we would not have a quiz. Even in an honors class students often don't read unless they expect some sort of evaluation.

    The same is true of our 21st Century class. You have been frustrated over the lack of on-line discussion. Members of our cohort are sincerely interested in the ideas you have generated during this program and we discuss these topics frequently in a variey of impromptu settings. However, if one of the reminder pop-ups appears on my screen just as I am shutting down my computer for the day (exhausted and rushing home to walk the dog, fix dinner,run erands and do more school-work) I probably won't blog unless I've specifically been asked to do so.

    So--do I believe in doing away with grades if the community supports such a decision? I need to ponder that question a bit more. But my gut reaction is skeptical. I just don't think the majority of students will learn some of the basic, fundamental skills unless they are motivated through traditional feedback. Now, I would love for you to prove me wrong so let's keep the dialogue going!

  11. Thanks Marlys.

    Ahhh, human nature. This could be a really good discussion - over the next 10 years or so! But for now I'll limit myself to asking yet another question (my parents taught me to stick with my strengths). I agree that our students currently struggle at times with motivation without "the grade" hanging over them. But is that truly because it's human nature, or is it because we've trained them to be that way (I think one of my original points above)? Our students are currently so embedded in the current system that I think it's difficult to separate out their behavior from the system itself. Of course that doesn't necessarily mean that with a different system they would be different, but I don't think you can easily argue that because students currently require a grade for motivation that that is based completely in human nature. I think that is at least somewhat based on them figuring out what works in the current system.

    On another note, from now on you (just you, Marlys) will be graded on your online participation. Notations will be made and will be placed in your permanent record. I will also notify PERA and I assume that the appropriate sanctions will be applied if your participation is not up to snuff. (Just in case it's not clear, this last paragraph is an attempt at humor.)

  12. I definitely agree. I love when my teachers give us enough freedom to learn how we normally would, but unfortunately this is not an ideal world. Learning for the sake of learning is a wonderful ideal, but it simply doesn't work in high school. I love learning, but no force on earth will ever make me care about verifying trigonometric identities. If it weren't for the grade, I would simply never, ever go to trig. But the grade keeps me there day after day. So I suppose one day when I'm offered a million dollars for knowing that sin squared plus cos squared equals one, I will be glad that I'm forced to take trig. As high school students, it is unrealistic to expect us to be fully motivated to learn about topics of someone else's choice. Being well rounded and prepared for the world means that most of us still need to be forced to learn some things. No human on earth is always motivated to learn or work hard. Even you teachers. Imagine that you were still expected to blog every day or teach 4 or 5 classes a day, except they were about how to do dishes or fill out tax forms. Would you still be motivated to participate or teach with passion? This is sometimes how we feel as students. We are herded into a big brick building with 2000 others at an ungodly hour in the morning, and then we are expected to be awake and passionate about conjugate acids and bases. This is where the constructivism comes in. Sometimes it is really nice to be in control of at least a little bit of our education. But at other times, it is too much. Teachers just need to develop a sense of when enough is enough and when to temporarily revert back to the old ways when you told us what to do. We are still students. As much as I would love to believe that everyone my age is mature enough to take control of their own education, it would be a false hope.
    That balance is what we should aim for. Last year I was in Ms. Kakos' class, one of the most constructivist classes. It was all new to us and we all adored it. And now I'm in Mrs. Ferrill's class which is very different, but equally valuable. Kakos let us take the reins and she would only step in when we needed guidance. It worked well and was a great class for sophomore year. Ferrill's style is more traditional, we take notes and she shows us how to do things on the board. But it's equally valuable. Teachers are there for a reason, students may be able to do a lot on our own, but there are things that just need to be taught. I appreciate having a teacher with so much experience that she can pass on to us. So even if we don't always guide our own learning, we are learning new things just as effectively as in last year's class. There is no right way to do all this. Each teacher just needs to be openminded and find what works for each class.

  13. Thanks, Karl and Molly!

    Karl, your response made me laugh out loud; and Molly, you need to enter some of your passionate blogging responses in more writing contests. What about the CLAS contest about "passion"?

  14. Karl,

    It’s hard to reduce the issue of grades to a small rant….I won’t even try. But I’ll answer your question about why Arapahoe dropped the pass/fail option. We dropped it because kids gradually stopped choosing that option. Why? Well, because the pass/fail option wasn’t well-respected by colleges.

    And why didn’t colleges (bastions of idealism—and the source, I’m sure, of all “constructivist” theories) respect the option? Because when a kid knows that his grade will be PASS if he scores a 60% or 70% or 80% or 90% or 100%, only the lazy kids—those who planned to do just enough to get a 60% or a 70% selected that option. No one—not the teachers, not the students, not the colleges—believed that a student chose Pass/Fail because he was in love with learning, because he wanted to soar, because he wanted to challenge himself, because he was finally free of the tyranny of a grade. No, he chose the option because he didn’t want to finish his homework. He didn’t want to read. He didn’t want to write. He wanted a credit.

    I don’t remember being impressed by a single kid who opted out. I recall nothing interesting or creative about their contributions to my Tuesday/Thursday classes. The pass/fail students were invariably lackadaisical in their approach to learning.

    I suppose the original intent of the no-grades option was to encourage students to explore new subjects without endangering their grade point averages. But for some reason the theory—as with so many other 1960’s theories—soured when brought into the real world.

    When I first began teaching, the buzz words in education were RELEVANT and INDIVIDUALIZATION. I remember that we taught contemporary, “popular” novels such as Gordon Parks’ The Learning Tree. I don’t think we taught Shakespeare. The kids just weren’t interested in Shakespeare. It wasn’t relevant. Instead of Socratic Seminars, we had “rap sessions” where the kids sat in a circle and emoted and “related” to the literature we were reading.

    Oh, Oh. The full-fledged rant is coming on again. Time to stop.

  15. Thanks Cheryl.

    An observation about my original post and then some musings on Pass/Fail.

    First, the observation. My original post was about trying to give students more control - and responsibility - over their own learning. When I mentioned grades, I said "I believe that if we can remove the emphasis on grades and refocus on learning, students more often than not will choose the most interesting and personally relevant assignment." Nowhere did I suggest eliminating grades - that suggestion was contributed by Marlys. While eliminating grades is certainly one way to remove the emphasis on grades, I think there are also many others. We've talked a lot in both cohort 1 and cohort 2 after our discussions with Tony Winger about restructuring our grades to provide better feedback to students. So removing the emphasis on grades could also mean things like changing the way we report out grades to provide better feedback, or looking at zeroes and accepting late work for important assignments and only lowering their "responsibility" grade, or having separate grades for for the academic content and responsibility/citizenship, or eliminating the focus on GPA, or simply having lots and lots of discussions with our students about the purpose of school/learning, or many, many other possibilities. I don't think there is one magic bullet that will accomplish this, but I think if we attack the problem in multiple ways we may have some success in refocusing our students on the learning.

    Now, some musings on Pass/Fail. Let me state up front that I am not trying to second guess how AHS implemented Pass/Fail back in the seventies - I wasn't here and I don't know all the thoughts and discussions that went into it. Let me also state that I'm not proposing we implement Pass/Fail now. I'm just trying to think through how I might try to implement Pass/Fail if I was tasked with doing that.

    First, a little bit of personal history. The college I went to had Pass/Fail grading for freshmen year, so I have a little bit of personal knowledge of this. The stated intention was to reduce stress for freshmen and - surprise - to try to get them to focus more on the learning and less on the grade. I don't have any hard data on how well the college felt that worked, only my own anecdotal data. My anecdotal data suggests mixed results. I think it did reduce stress for freshmen and did help them focus more on what they were learning and less on the grade (based on my circle of friends, anyway). But it was hamstrung by several factors. Everyone knew that after freshmen year we would go back to having grades and everyone had been well trained in K-12 to focus on grades. As a result, the college had a process in place where students could find out what their grade "would be" if we weren't on pass fail. So, naturally, many students took advantage of that option to know how they were "really" doing. I think all of that contributed to undermining the stated purposes somewhat, but I don't think it was a total waste.

    Now, looking back at the way AHS implemented Pass/Fail, I think there are some things I would've questioned. First, it sounds like it really wasn't pass/fail across the board, but that students could choose to get a grade or to go pass/fail. If that's accurate, I think that skews the entire process right there due to adverse selection principles. Second, if it was also just limited to Tuesday/Thursday classes, then I think that undermined the entire process by making those classes appear less "academic" or "important". Third, it sounds like Pass/Fail was still based on a traditional points system with 60% designated as "passing." I think that is another example of trying to graft a new strategy onto a system that it's not compatible with. Students are so embedded in a system that rewards points that simply slapping pass/fail on top of it isn't going to change the focus. And if 60% was really what was required to pass, then I would argue again that students were simply making the logical choice to put the bare minimum effort into those classes to get the P, and putting more effort into classes where they could get the A or B. Again, it puts the focus on the grade, not the learning, especially if the all-important GPA's were still present.

    So, if I were going to try to implement a Pass/Fail system, I think it would require a lot of thought and need to be designed as a completely new system, not grafted onto the old system. I certainly haven't devoted the time to thinking about this that I would if truly tasked with implementing this, but here are some initial thoughts (subject to revision should I ever have to really think about or defend this, in which case I would devote the necessary time to it).

    First, I would think it would have to be all classes and all students, not just some classes and some students. Second, I think it would have to be based on something other than "points." Third, I think the criteria for "passing" would certainly be something very different than "60%," something more along the lines of demonstrated proficiency in the essential learnings for the course. Fourth, I think it would need to be combined with a very different schema for assessment of and feedback to students. There are probably several other key factors, but I think those four would be a good starting point.

    These are just some thoughts, but I'm sure "I am not bound to please thee with my answers." :-)

  16. Molly, thanks as always for your thoughtful comments.

    I agree that there is no one right way to teach, and that multiple approaches are key. I also agree that it's not an ideal world, but I would disagree that it can't work in high school. It maybe can't work in it's purest form, but I think we can get much closer to it than we currently are. I think both your trig example and your example about teaching about how to do dishes actually help prove the point to some degree. If we can't justify why we are teaching these things, then why are we teaching these things? And I also think that we are so used to "the system" as it currently is that sometimes it's difficult to imagine how it could be different. But many of the great breakthroughs in the history of the human race have been brought about by those that imagined something different, by those that refused to accept the status quo and asked why things can't be better. "There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?"

    And, just because I can't help myself, let me focus on trig and trig identities for a moment. I'm thinking your million dollar payday for that probably isn't going to come anytime soon. I think trig is very valuable for a small number of people, but there are many other math classes that would be better for most students. (Probability and statistics comes to mind - I think those concepts are critical to be an informed citizen in this data-driven age). These classes would certainly include some trig concepts in them, but probably not trig identities.

    And here's the bigger problem. Soon all students who want to go to a state college or university in Colorado will have to take and pass trig and pre-calc (because the Colorado Commission on Higher Education is mandating four years of math, algebra and above for admission to Colorado colleges). And there is even some semi-serious discussion of then making that a graduation requirement for AHS. So, look around at your fellow students and tell me that all of them need to - and would be successful at - taking trig/pre-calc just so that they can attend college (much less if they have to do it just to graduate high school). This is what I'll call "false rigor" for lack of a better term. That simply requiring students to take more and harder classes will magically improve our educational system, without addressing the underlying causes for why students aren't being successful. (I would not-so-modestly propose that we do not impose any requirements on students that both teachers and state/federal legislators can't demonstrate proficiency in - whether that be CSAP, ACT, NCLB or specific classes like trig/pre-calc). I believe we need to look both at what we can do to help students be successful learners, and at the skills they will need to be successful in the 21st century (which are not necessarily the same as the ones they needed to be successful in the 20th century). And I think trying to shift the focus from grades to learning - and trying to give students more control over and responsibility for their own learning - is a good place to start.

  17. Not to derail the conversation, but I did want to respond to the idea that our students will rise to the occasion when given the choice or choices concerning their education.

    Case in point is my Comprehensive English class (also known as Basic Skills Juniors). When given the choice to select three words to give to the rest of the class after reading aloud a section of Fallen Angels, every student, all twenty seven, selected higher level words for the rest of us to write down. It was impressive, to say the least. After we collected all of these words, each student used them in a creative response to the novel.

  18. Ooooh! I love the conversation!