Monday, June 30, 2014

The Power of Not Yet

“You haven’t taught until they have learned.”  Sage advice from legendary basketball coach John Wooden, who credits his time as an English teacher with shaping his coaching philosophy.

For the first five or so years of my teaching career, students had one shot to demonstrate their mastery of subject. If a student failed to complete an assignment, the “logical” consequence was a zero. If an extremely capable student earned a C or below because of a lack of effort, then that’s the mark that went into my grade book. Or so I reasoned.

My thinking and my grading system were seriously flawed. If the students couldn’t demonstrate their learning, had I really taught them?

Assigning students zeroes or unsatisfactory grades doesn’t teach responsibility; rather it teaches students that they don’t have to do the assignment. If it’s worth assigning a grade, students—and teachers—must see the value in ensuring that each student does his/her best on that assignment. As educators we must constantly communicate that we see the potential of each and every student and hold them to high expectations.

Here’s where NOT YET comes in to play. No longer would I let students off the hook by giving them a zero or a grade below C. No longer would I accept less than a student’s best effort.

I’ve previously written about why zeroes make no sense, so here I’ll focus on the not yets for students who turn in work that doesn’t reflect their abilities.

How did Not Yets Work?
Simply, D’s and F’s were removed from my grading; instead students would receive a “not yet” or “work in progress.” Students would no longer be punished for not achieving mastery; rather feedback was provided and students were given an opportunity to relearn and demonstrate their knowledge and skills again.

Some students scoffed at the idea, “C’mon, just give me the D.”

I held firm, “I believe in you. I know what you’re capable of and this isn’t it.” Again a Wooden quote epitomized my new philosophy, “Success is the peace of mind which is a direct result of the self-satisfaction in knowing that you have made the effort to become the best of which you are capable.”

By providing students with meaningful feedback and giving them the opportunity to improve, they seized the opportunity to learn from their errors and approached the assignment in new ways with more effort. Instead of allowing less than their best, students were provided with the opportunity to reflect and adjust so they can learn from the situation and meet the learning objective.

Yes, it meant more work for me, but was I really teaching if they hadn’t learned it? 

My Journey to Standards-Based Grading

I’ll be honest; I came upon standards-based grading totally by accident.  

I had become increasingly frustrated with my students’ attitudes toward learning and grades. Many of my “top” students were motivated more by “What do I have to do to earn an A?” than “What do I have to learn?” My less motivated students were too quick to accept less than their best. They were perfectly satisfied to earn C’s or D’s. It was the latter that spurred me to make changes to how I taught and how I assessed.

My three original reasons for adopting standards-based grading:
  1. Students avoided work because they didn't feel they'd be successful. 
  2. Too many students were not completing their work. 
  3. Many students were turning in work that was far below their potential.

high school career. But over the years far too many students were not completing their work. Many turned in work that was far below expectations and often extremely below grade level. Challenging assignments were met with trepidation; if the assignment was difficult, many students either simply didn’t do it or their efforts were minimal.

In conversations with other freshman teachers, we lamented that in middle school many students had the option to not turn in assignments, and at the end of the semester or year, they were given opportunities to raise their grades. These ranged from extra credit to fluff assignments to being allowed to turn in work that was assigned months ago. (Disclaimer: I know it’s easy for high school teachers to blame middle school teachers and for middle school teachers to blame elementary teachers. I also know many high school teachers have the same ineffective policies, but the point here is that if we’re going to prepare our students for college and life, we must do better.)

I pledged to myself and to my students and their families that I was no longer going to let students off the hook. I believed in their abilities and I was going to hold them accountable. They would leave my class with a newfound confidence in themselves. They’d be better prepared for life and along the way they were going to have fun learning about history.

On the first day of school, I explained my new learning and grading to all of my students. I explained that redos, retakes and revisions would be allowed (for more on redos and retakes: here and here). I went on to say I would never assign a grade less than a C, instead students would receive a “not yet” or “work in progress.” Practice assignments, including most homework, and formative assessment activities wouldn’t be graded. In addition, students would be given freedom to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways.

My standards-based grading goals were simple:
  1.  By attaching learning goals to each assignment and activity students were more likely to challenge themselves.
  2.  Instead of emphasizing grading, I’d be providing more feedback
  3. As author Ken O’Connor suggests, I wanted to be confident that the grades the student in my class received were accurate, meaningful and supportive of learning.
  4.  I wanted to remove subjectivity from grading.
  5.  I was no longer going to grade behaviors by punishing students for late work or work that wasn’t turned in.
  6. I'd make greater use of differentiation, flexible grouping, pre-assessments, and redos and retakes. All were intended to increase student motivation, reflection and increase intrinsic motivation

By no stretch of the imagination was the process easy or flawless. During the first year, I struggled to “compute” grades, the administration admonished me for giving incompletes on report cards, and several students and parents complained. Student grades provided a more accurate snapshot of student learning, but more importantly more students became motivated to learn and pushed themselves. Instead of avoiding challenges and withdrawing from tasks, they became risk takers; their efforts increased. They became more analytical, reflective and persistent. They established their own goals and strove to achieve them.

So while I stumbled upon standards-based grading accidentally, my journey had begun. I haven’t looked back since.