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Part 2 - What we WANT students to do v. What we TRAIN students to do

This post is a follow-up to an earlier post. It will make the most sense if read in that context.

After reading over my recent post entitled What we WANT students to do v. What we TRAIN students to do, I began to hear in my mind (yes, I sometimes hear voices) questions that some people might have as a result of what I had to say.

The more I think about and experience AFL, the more I feel that I am challenging many of the norms of teaching. In fact, I often end up wishing I could go back to the classroom and do things differently. While I feel I was a very good classroom teacher, much of what I did and many of my practices were:

1. examples of what my favorite teachers had done, and/or

2. examples of the conventional wisdom of education.

Very few of my own teaching practices came about as a result of an overall educational philosophy. I am convinced that AFL is a sufficiently large and all-encompassing enough philosophy as to be worthy of being used by teachers to govern how they teach and create lessons.

As I learn more about AFL, therefore, I continue to find new challenges to the merit of the practices that many of my favorite teachers used and/or that are the conventional wisdom of teaching. Since I know I am not the only one out here whose practices developed from a combination of these 2 factors, I know that posts such as the one I recently made end up raising questions in the minds of many teachers. They are questions worth asking and worthy of answers. Here are some attempts to answer some of those theoretical questions:

1. You talk about internal v. external motivation, but isn't it human nature to be motivated by rewards? Are you saying we should completely change human nature and remove external motivations from our classrooms? Isn't that unrealistic?

I firmly believe that there is a role for external motivation in all aspects of life. As a believer in capitalism, I know that people are naturally motivated by their own good, and I have no problem with this. The Pilgrims learned a long time ago what happens when there is no incentive to work, and the same holds true today. The problem that I perceive lies in the overuse of rewards - in particular the overuse of grades as a reward. I would recommend reading Whale Done by Ken Blanchard. It compares the methods used by Shamu's Sea World trainers to family and business life - which parallel nicely with the classroom. Even when training animals to do tricks, multiple rewards are used. The trainers don't want Shamu to learn that fish are the only acceptable reward for a job well done. When grades are used as the sole or primary motivator in the classroom then the grade begins to become more important than the learning.

2. Are you saying we shouldn't give grades at all?

I am absolutely not saying that we should not give grades. What I am saying is that grades should not be used rewards - ex. do this and get a good grade. There's no reason to turn the whole world on its head by getting rid of grades. Perhaps there might be an idealistic benefit to it, but it's an unrealistic goal that doesn't seem worthy of my time. Grades are a part of schooling. They are not all bad. They should be used - PROPERLY.

3. So what's the proper way to use grades?

Grades should not be used as rewards. The way I see it, grades should be used for 3 main reasons:

1. To communicate how well a student is mastering content/skills so that the student can guide his or her learning.

2. To communicate how well students are mastering content/skills so that the teacher can guide his or her teaching.

3. To summatively communicate the students' final level of mastery.

When I first started teaching I did what my favorite teachers - and what the conventional wisdom of teaching - told me to do. I gave lots of grades so that no one assignment hurt my students.

Today, I would say that giving lots of grades is a good thing IF AND ONLY IF the grades are used for the first 2 reasons listed above. The problem with my grading was that all the grades went into the grade book. I rarely - if ever - used the feedback I received from the grades to guide my teaching. And I hardly ever attempted to train my students to view their grades as feedback that could help them guide their learning. These grades were simply used to average together and get a final grade.

The problem with that is that if I had been honest with myself I would have realized that many - if not most - of the grades in my grade book didn't reflect mastery. They were "practice" assignments or assignments whose outcome was negated by a later similar assignment. Therefore, there was no guarantee that the summative grade to which they averaged was representative of mastery.

This is why I am so thankful for AFL. It's much more than just another professional development effort that my school/system is undertaking. Instead, it is a philosophy that, when truly adopted, turns much of the conventional wisdom on its ear. It is a philosophy that, when applied to a classroom, will lead to teachers being more aware of student needs, students being more likely to take ownership of their progress, and grades that better reflect what they are meant to reflect - mastery.

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on February 1, 2011 at 12:20pm

I don't have all the answers to the question of homework and I'm sure that there could be many AFL-acceptable answers.  A lot would depend on the nature of the class and the nature of the homework assignments.  If the HW was essentially practice, then I think it's hard to justify grading it much at all - let alone have it count for a set percentage.  If practice assignments count for 10 or 20% of a grade, then what the teacher is saying is that regardless of how well the student masters the content, the grade will also be determined by how well they practiced.


On the other hand, there are certain types of classes where doing the practice is the content.  In these cases practice assignments should be graded.  Also, there are types of assignments that demonstrate mastery but must also be done at home - ex. a research paper.


I think the best thing that can be done with HW is to somehow assess it with the students (which could mean a grade) so that they can use the feedback to guide their learning.  However, the assessed or graded score doesn't have to be averaged into a final grade.  Things can be graded without impacting the grade.

Comment by Joseph Quinlan on January 31, 2011 at 11:06pm
Scott,  I don't know if you would agree with this practice or not, but generally, I only record homework grades when the vast majority of my students have achieved a semblance of mastery.  If too many of them do poorly on the homework assignment, then I reteach it and assign a different practice page.  I also only count homework as up to 20% of their overall grade, with tests and other alternative assessments making up the remaining 80%.

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