Friday, July 19, 2013

Going Beyond Standards

Several months ago I wrote about embracing risk-taking in our schools (here, here, and here). Wanting to show my confidence in our teachers and to encourage risk-taking, I talked to teachers about stepping beyond their comfort zones. I attempted to ensure teachers that risks were not just acceptable; they are desirable.

After a couple of initial conversations, I realized one of the largest impediments to risk-taking was—and is—our state standardized tests, the SOLs. Teacher after teacher commented, “I’d like to try something different, but the SOLs.” With so much emphasis placed on SOLs from the federal, state and local governments, school administrators (including me), parents and students, who could blame them for not wanting to diverge from the state’s curriculum?

The teachers’ motives made perfect sense? I don’t want to be the one responsible for a student not passing the SOL/earning their advanced diploma/graduating. Hard to argue with logic like that.

Only a couple of years removed from teaching, I too fell victim to over-emphasis on standardized tests. Now I had to plead to the teachers to do what I said, not what I did. To best move teachers—anyone for that matter—I’ve always found it best to ask questions instead of preach to them. Below are some of the questions I asked:  
1.     Why did you enter teaching? Not so amazingly, none of the teachers said, “So I could teach a prescribed curriculum and my students will ace the SOLs.”
2.     What is it that you want students to get out of your class?
3.     Where’s your passion?
4.     How can you pass that passion on to your students?
5.     What would your students say if you tried something different?
6.     Tell me about some of your most successful lessons and what made them successful.

Most of the teachers seemed to enthusiastically embrace risk-taking and the idea of going beyond the SOLs. I promised to support them. Undoubtedly, failures will occur. I ended each conference with a simple message, “I’m going to support you and I look forward to working with you and seeing the changes.”

Now about those standardized tests...

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Comment Only "Grading"

You burn the midnight oil, staying up late to grade and make thoughtful comments on students’ papers.

After entering the grades into your grade book, you breathe a sigh of relief and feel good about your accomplishment.

When you return the papers to the students, they immediately look at their grades. Some complain. Others act nonchalant. Others immediately begin to compare with their classmates. Most frustratingly, a couple crumple up their papers and throw them away. Few, if any, take the time to read your comments—the comments that you spent hours working on.

So why did you spend hours writing the comments? Because you know feedback ranks as one of the most effective and influential teaching practices (Dweck, Hattie, Marzano, et al).

But did you know ineffective feedback can actually reduce student motivation? Psychologist Edward Deci found that when students feel they are being too closely monitored, they can become disengaged from learning. Furthermore, Deci discovered that learners often interpret feedback as an attempt to control them (grading as a method of control or statements like, “You cannot do that.”) Finally, Deci discovered a third condition of ineffective feedback occurs when it can be used for competition (I did better than you did).  

Comments only grading maximizes the positive effects of feedback by spurring student learning and instilling a growth mindset.  In comments only grading, the teacher provides only comments on student work. By writing comments only, students learn how to improve their work.

For assignments that required a grade, I employed a simple, yet remarkably effective strategy. I returned the assignment with comments, but no grade. I required the students to read my comments and respond to them (either orally or written depending on the situation). Only then would I provide them with the grade. While it took students a while to get used to this system, they soon grew to appreciate the true meaning of my comments/feedback.
Some feedback tips:
1.     comments must be specific
2.     supply information about what the learner is doing
3.     allow students time to read and respond to the comments
4.     allow time for improvement
5.     praise effort NOT intelligence
6.     supply information