Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Grade Fog Diaries: What's most important

Sometimes the tendency is to focus on what's broken, when what works can model for what is possible. This was illustrated for me when one of my children got a detention for not completing an assignment on time. Many of the students in Music did not know the song that they'd practiced for several weeks.

The academic focus was that the students must know the song fluently. In some classrooms, a punishment would have been meated out, such as copying the song multiple times or writing lines, like "I will do my homework." The former might help a few students, most may have seen it as a punitive measure rather tan a learning tool. The latter work would have no bearing in helping kids acquire the fundamental goal: Learn the song with fluency. Neither approach actually would provide little hope that the  problem would be solved.

The teacher responded by scheduling extra time for students to practice singing, either in place of recess or after school. This was not optional. With parental input, students picked the slot that allowed the child to give up their free time to address a deficit.

Some might question the teacher's action: "How does this teach responsibility?" Take points off their music grade. That will send a clear and strong message. When we take points off for non-academic reasons, we create grade fog. Whether the penalty is 10%, 10 points, 50%, or a Zero for late work, the resulting score ofuscates data on what students know or don't know regarding the learning outcomes. Now before you shoot the messenger, consider that if a consequence is necessary, it can happen through non-graded means. What do students value the most? Personal time.

Traditional consequences may or may not improve responsibility, but it guarantees that:

  1. The teacher does not know what the student understands about the learning focus, because the work remains incomplete.
  2. Or the student was allowed an easy out if he is not allowed to make up the work to show full knowledge.
The music teacher understood that requiring students to serve a "detention" where the focus would be on practicing the song sent the message: 
  • This work is important and will be completed.  
  • Accomplish work by scheduled timelines, or lose personal time to get the tasks done.
Result: Kids learn the important outcomes, and progress.