Over the course of the past week, I’ve been wrestling with one simple question: Are the grading practices in our schools too far gone to be fixed?
My thinking started when Dean Shareski challenged me to make self-assessment a larger part of the work that I do in my classroom. It was pushed further by a candid confession from one of my students that her determination to “do well” distracts her from actually learning anything.
The intellectual challenge continued for me when I stumbled across this remarkable Cale Birk piece which argues that schools need to be places where students are inspired to try instead of where students spend their time cowering in fear of failure.
Call me Polyanna, but I want students to try the things they would not normally try. To do things that they would normally not think that they could do.
And the only way to get them to do those things is to build the belief that they CAN do it, to help them scaffold the task so they have the appropriate level of challenge, and to build their resiliency skills so when they are confronted with the inevitable challenges that will come they choose to persevere.
In short, I want them to approach their courses at school as though they cannot fail as opposed to thinking they might fail and that failure is good for them.
What Cale is hinting at is that we need to create buildings that take a mastery — instead of performance — orientation to learning outcomes, an idea that the Mindshift blog tackled this week.
The difference between mastery and performance orientiations to learning, according to Mindshift, is the difference between the kind of learning that kids do in summer camps and the kind of learning that they do in today’s high-stakes classrooms.
In summer camps, students learn for the sake of learning. Every day is a new adventure — an opportunity to explore and to think and to experiment and to tinker without ever having to worry about whether or not YOUR tinkering is the RIGHT tinkering.
In too many of today’s high-stakes classrooms, students learn because they are afraid of the consequences of not making an A. They’ve been told for too long by too many important people in their lives that grades – on report cards, on standardized tests, on college entrance exams — matter more than exploring and experimenting.
The consequences of creating learning environments that emphasize performance over mastery couldn’t be more clear according to this research report cited in the Mindshift bit. Performance-driven cultures lead to higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of determination in the face of difficult circumstances.
In other words, when the going gets tough in performance-driven environments, students stop moving forward because they know that if they get “the wrong answer” (read: the answer the teacher is expecting), their average is screwed.
Better to ask a thousand questions than to take an intellectual risk. Risks aren’t worth taking when the stakes are so stinking high.
On the other hand, learning environments that emphasize mastery INSTEAD of performance encourage kids to be intellectually innovative. Ideas matter more than scores — and when ideas matter more than scores, engagement levels and motivation rise.
In the words of Rick Stiggins, hitting targets isn’t half as important as being willing to continue shooting in mastery-driven learning environments.
If this is all true — and it certainly resonates with everything that I know about teaching and learning after 18 years in the classroom and after 3 years of being a dad — then WHY are we still pushing for #edpolicies and #edpractices that put so much emphasis on performance over mastery?
And more importantly, what steps do we need to start taking — both as a profession and as communities who care about getting education right — to make mastery a more important part of the work that we do with our students?
Good questions, huh?
Wish I had some meaningful answers.
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Original Image Credit: Aiming for the Gold by Joe Hagan
Licensed Creative Commons Attribution on May 19, 2012