Sea World Trainer 1: "I am so tired of these seals. They always want a fish every time they do anything!"
Sea World Trainer 2: "Tell me about it. It's like they don't understand how important the show is. They only care about getting fish!"
The other day I was talking with Jamie Garst, a Chemistry/IB Biology teacher at Salem High School. He mentioned that he recently decided to use Smart Pals (a plastic sleeve that allows an ordinary piece of paper to be used like a small dry erase boards) as a way to review in his classroom. (See previous post on using white boards to review) This was his first experience doing this with his students. As he was instructing them on what to do he told them that they would also need a blank sheet of paper. As he started to tell them the reason why, the kids said, "We know - it's to keep track of what we don't know." This was the first time Jamie had done this with his students. Therefore, their knowledge of what to do is evidence of the fact that someone had trained them. It's not natural for students to get out paper to assess their understanding. These kids had been trained by another teacher or other teachers in the school.
As educators, what do we want students to do?
We want them to learn for the sake of learning.
We want them to work hard because it's the right thing to do and because it leads to learning.
We want them to be internally motivated to do their best.
We want them to care more about learning than they do grades.
I think you'd be hard pressed to find a teacher who wouldn't agree that he or she wants those previous statements to be true for his or her students. However, we train them quite differently.
We train students to learn for the sake of getting a grade.
We train them to work hard or else they'll get a bad grade and because it leads to good grades.
We train them to be externally motivated by grades.
We train them to care more about grades than learning.
Think about it for a moment. The typical classroom at any grade level is not all that different from the seal show at Sea World. The student does the work; he gets a grade or points. The seal does the trick; he gets a fish. The student doesn't do the work; he doesn't get the grade or the points. The seal doesn't do the trick; he doesn't get the fish.
Have you ever assigned something and had students say, "Is this graded?" Have you ever felt like your students wouldn't work as hard if they weren't getting a grade? Have students ever complained that you weren't grading them after they put effort into an assignment or activity? Does it ever seem like all the students (and parents) care about is the grade on the report card or transcript?
Look back at the start of this post. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for the Sea World trainer to complain about the seal always wanting a fish for the tricks it does? Why is it not just as ridiculous for an educator to complain about a student always wanting to know if something is graded or about a student being motivated by grades rather than learning?
Perhaps the answer is because unlike the seal, the student is capable of rational and logical thought processes and should, therefore, know better. However, think about how students have been conditioned from day 1 in school. Do the work - get a reward. Now consider that this has been the case for generations. Is it any wonder that our students tend to be more externally than internally motivated? Is it any wonder that they tend to focus so much on grades and lose sight of the bigger picture of learning?
So what can be done about this? Is it possible to change years of conditioning to get to what we really want from students? Of course, if all teachers in the educational system made a change then we could definitely alter the situation; however, that's probably (definitely) a bit of a stretch. So can students be trained to be more internally motivated and to look at grades differently?
The story of Jamie and his students tells me that the answer is "yes". From my experience, the typical student expectation of a review activity is that the teacher will tell the student everything he or she needs to know - or ask all the questions he or she will eventually be asked - and then the student goes home and studies everything that will be on the test. (Or in some cases, doesn't study at all.) However, what Jamie found out was that his students were being conditioned to expect something different. They now expected that when a review was finished each student would leave class with a personalized list of what that student had not yet mastered. This personalized list would become the student's unique study guide. What Jamie experienced is an example of the fact that student expectations can be changed.
So what if teachers in your building stopped practicing AFG? AFG is Assessment FOR Grading. AFG is what I did very intentionally as a new teacher. I assigned lots of graded assignments so that I could have lots of grades in my grade book. The main purpose of my assignments and my assessments was to get grades in the grade book which could then average together to get a final summative grade. I used points as rewards and withheld points as a consequence. This use of AFG would naturally lead to my students thinking that everything they did had to be graded. I was training my seals - I mean, students - to work hard for the fish - I mean, grade.
AFL is so different. AFL is about assessing and assigning to gain feedback. It's about teachers and students using that feedback to guide learning. The whole point of the assessments and assignments is learning - thus the name, Assessment FOR Learning. This site is full of resources and ideas for applying AFL principles to the classroom.
I think that we can train kids to think differently about grades. It will take effort and a lot of change on our part. It will take great consistency, but it can be done. Until we truly begin applying AFL principles with this goal in mind, does it make sense for us to complain that students react exactly as we have trained them to react?
The best part of this is that if we alter their view of grades, we will ultimately increase their level of learning.
Great post. I hope that more people will read your post and reflect on how we demotivate students from doing what we want them to do. Alfie Kohn proposes moving away from grading systems all together in this insightful article and I think everyone should read Pink's Drive which is all about intrinsic motivation and how the carrots and sticks (or grades and scores) don't work at work and in school.
Great post! We need to be very careful of the language we use with our students... it says a lot about what we value and expect them to internalize as learners.