The Assessment Network

Sharing assessment & grading strategies that help students learn

Today, as I was reading one of my new favorite books, Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess, I came across a metaphor that I'm sure will stick with me.  It's the metaphor of the torpedo.

In his chapter "Ask and Analyze,"  Burgess shares a story he read in Psycho-Cybernetics by Maxwell Maltz.  Maltz says that humans achieve goals similarly to the way a torpedo finds its mark.  "The torpedo accomplishes its goal by going forward, making errors, and continuously correcting them.  By a series of zigzags it literally gropes its way to the goal."

Burgess goes on to add, "The missile is likely to be off target a far greater percentage of the time than it is on target.  Nevertheless, it arrives and hits its target because of the constant adjustments made based on continual analysis of the feedback provided."

Dave Burgess uses this story about the torpedo to suggest that great teaching is the result of constant adjustments based on feedback and results from the classroom.  However, I couldn't help but think about grading when I read this.

Members of the The Assessment FOR Learning Network probably see the immediate connection between this analogy and the principles of Assessment FOR Learning.  Just like a torpedo, the student is often "off target" as the learning process unfolds.  However, the teacher and the student keep making corrections based on continuous feedback.  In the end, the target is reached.  AFL teachers understand that the feedback is given for the purpose of learning FIRST.  Grading is secondary and should reflect the final outcome - not the journey.  

I couldn't help picturing the torpedo in this story hitting a ship captained by an educator who still holds on to the traditional method of grading in which ALL measurements, ALL feedback, and ALL digressions from the correct path are averaged together to come up with a final grade.  In my mind, I see this angry teacher/captain yelling at the submarine something to this effect:

That's not fair!  Your torpedo can't sink my ship!!!  Most of your torpedo's path was off target.  It's unfair to count that as a hit unless your torpedo was on target for the entire path it took!

Of course, the captain is yelling this as his or her ship slowly sinks into the ocean.  The captain doesn't have to like the path the torpedo took.  It really doesn't matter.  In the end, the torpedo found its mark.  The smartest course of action would be to accept reality and abandon ship.  

The same goes for grading.  Who cares if the student hadn't mastered the concept at some random point along the way?  What we really care about is whether or not the student finally gets it.  Everything that happens along the way is feedback for the teacher and the student to use to ensure the ultimate goal is met.

Have you started thinking about next school year yet?  When you do, give some thought to how you might GRADE LIKE A TORPEDO.

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