Sunday, October 28, 2012

Making a case for change in grading kids

If you are an educator, how do you grade your students?  What is the difference between an A and a C-?  How would you describe an "A" student?  

Grading is a very controversial subject.  Similar to methodology, teachers desire autonomy when deciding how to score their students.  They want to be free to determine what counts for a grade, the weight each assignment will carry, and how each assignment is scored.  Many schools have a "grading policy," yet teachers continue to find a way to make it their own.  

Teachers base student grades on many different factors: number of correct answers, completion of assignments, participation in the activity, effort... the list goes on and on.  The number of graded assignments varies as well.  Some teachers give assignments every day, others only once a week.  Still others will give one assignment for the entire marking period.  

Due date is another key factor in grading student work... every assignment has a due date, and each teacher has a "late policy" for assignments.  Some accept late work for full credit, others take off points for each day it's late, some won't even accept late work. 

What is the point of all of this?  What does a student's grade really mean?  

In our current model, grades serve two purposes: to rate and rank students.  In my previous post, I spoke of the four critical elements of learning.  Our current model of grading makes it very difficult to embrace those elements without contradicting the culture current grading practices have established.  

Collaboration and communication
In our current system, grades are used to rank students.  This need to know "who's number one" creates and nurtures a culture of competition and isolation.  It does not encourage collaboration, even when students are assigned "group work."  In that scenario, students are individually graded.  In cases where groups are graded together, those who want a good grade will often pick up the slack of those not motivated to contribute.

In addition, students are not encouraged to communicate with each other or the teacher in ways that are meaningful to them.  Instead, they are given specific assignments, with clear rubrics, and deadlines to follow.  Stick to the task, follow the directions, provide the correct responses, and you'll get a good grade.  The focus for students becomes centered on the final grade, instead of learning and personal growth.

Critical thinking and problem solving
I spoke about this in a previous post on teaching 21st century skills without technology:
The correct answer... We encourage our students to strive for the correct answer on tests and quizzes, on homework, even in essays and lab reports.  What if we started asking questions that had multiple correct answers?  Or had no answer at all?  Educators need to move away from the step by step approach to problem solving that is engrained in current practices.  We are so fixated on the correct answer (often in the back of the book or in the teacher's edition) that we avoid offering opportunities for our students to find the path to the solution for themselves.  

With a focus on grades in a traditional approach, students are encouraged only to find the correct answer to a problem.  Students are penalized for a failure to find the correct solution, and that failure can ultimately lead to receiving no credit towards advancement or graduation.  Risk taking is frowned upon, and students don't have the luxury of learning from mistakes.  They don't even have the luxury of making mistakes in the first place.

Creativity and Innovation
In a traditional grading model, creativity and innovation fall under attack on two fronts.  As with critical thinking, students are not encouraged to take risks in their learning, and being creative often means adding color to a poster or PowerPoint... We'll call it "safe creativity."  True creativity in learning requires risk, and risk often leads to failure.  In a traditional grading situation, failure on one assignment can spell certain doom for a marking period grade, which could negatively affect a quarterly GPA.  This could eliminate many top colleges and universities as options for post graduation studies.  Most students would not take that risk, nor would many teachers encourage it.

I have had many conversations regarding creativity in the classroom, and many teachers have expressed high levels of interest, but have challenged the notion with the question "how do I grade it?"  This question from teachers takes us back to the earlier conversation regarding finding the correct answer.  In a classroom that embraces creativity, there is often a period of divergent thinking.  Many of us would call this period "thinking out of the box."  When employing divergent thinking, students are encouraged to generate a large quantity of solutions unfettered by evaluative thoughts.  Quantity over quality.  In this situation, there are no correct answers, no restrictions.  You see, divergent thinking does not give us one correct answer... It gives us many possible answers.  

Following a period of divergent thinking and idea generation, there is a period of convergent thinking.  During this time, students begin to evaluate all the possible solutions that were generated, eliminating those that do not work, keeping those that might, until they have arrived at what they believe is the solution.  This might sound like an unnecessarily long, winding path to the answer, but what's critical is the process, not the answer.  The process opens the mind to possible solutions that are often hidden when the focus is on finding the correct response.  But the question of grading this work still remains.  How do you grade divergent thinking in a traditional model?  This question alone will hold teachers back from using creativity and innovation in their classroom.

What if we stopped employing the traditional methods of grading?  What if we eliminated the traditional methods of evaluating students and embraced a mastery model?  

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a big fan of standardized testing and an even smaller fan of using standardized testing to evaluate teachers.  There is one thing I do like in the new APPR (Annual Professional Performance Review) regulations... HEDI, which stands for Highly effective, Effective, Developing, and Ineffective (not a fan of ineffective... Doesn't really motivate a teacher to explore ways to improve).  This rating scale is used in the evaluation of teachers and principals within the APPR framework.  Used correctly, and without the associated punitive measures, this evaluation method can open a dialogue that could ultimately lead to high levels of personal growth for educators.  What if we used a similar approach to evaluating kids?  What if we eliminated punitive measures to evaluating kids learning and focused instead on open dialogues with each one regarding their personal growth in learning.  Students would be given constructive feedback in addition to the following ratings of progress towards learning goals:
- Highly proficient
- Proficient
- Developing
These ratings, when used with students as a way to open the conversation regarding personal growth, can give teachers and students a common starting point from which to discuss personal progress.  All three invoke positive feelings, focus of moving forward, and encourage learning from failure.  As a matter of fact, I believe failure should be a big part of all three levels, especially if Highly Proficient has no ceiling.    

Moving away from traditional grading could have profound effects on the culture of education in this country, from early elementary all the way to higher education.  The focus would shift from performance and the winner-takes-all mentality to individual growth and the development path of each child.  There would no longer be a need for standardized tests.  Most importantly, students would be in a learning environment driven by individual progress and passion and not by the rating and ranking of each child.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Teaching 21st century skills without technology

"We lived in an electric world. We relied on it for everything. And then the power went out. Everything stopped working. We weren't prepared." 

The NBC show Revolution takes place in a post-apocalyptic dystopian future. In the show, an unknown event disables all technology dependent on electricity on the planet, ranging from iPhones and televisions to engines, appliances, and batteries. People are forced to adapt to a world without functioning technology.

At the recently held Edcamp Toronto, I participated in an excellent discussion on 21st century skills and their importance to the future success of today's students.  The session facilitator asked the question "can you teach 21st century skills without technology?" 

Before answering the question, I think it's time to toss the moniker '21st century skills' and instead refer to them as the four critical elements of learning (the 4 C's):
- collaboration
- communication
- critical thinking and problem solving
- creativity and innovation

In today's classrooms, technology can play an important role in teaching the four critical elements, but is it absolutely necessary?  What would happen if all the lights went out, like they did in Revolution?  Would these skills still be important to our students and their future success?

The four critical elements of learning have never depended on technology, and have been the cornerstones of innovation and success for the past hundred years, if not longer.  They have led to the introduction of game-changing inventions such as the light bulb, the mass-produced automobile, the airplane, the personal computer, even the device I'm using to write this post (Apple's iPad).  In a way, we could say that the four C's ushered in the age of technology.

So what would happen if all the lights went out... Would we avoid teaching the four C's?  Only if we were interested in a guaranteed collapse and disappearance of humanity.  I believe the four critical elements of learning would play an even greater role in the survival of our society. 

Education needs to embrace the four critical elements of learning not as part of technology integration, but as core foci in all areas of the curriculum.  The educational programs currently aligned to state and national standards need to expand beyond preparation for standardized tests and embrace the skills that will continue innovation and growth in all areas of our society.  And I suggest we start without using technology.

Using technology is not an end, but a means to an end.  It is a tool, albeit a powerful one, but only a tool.  In education, we sometimes focus so intensely on the tool, we forget to begin by planning the learning first.  iPads are notorious for this.  I've seen it.  Teachers get so excited about a technology, they choose the tech first, then try to build a lesson around it.  That's why I'm encouraging a different approach.  Let's take technology out of the equation in the beginning and just focus on teaching the four C's.  Then, when the time is right, introduce technology as a tool to assist with the critical elements.

Teach students to collaborate with each other.  Encourage them to work in groups, share ideas, and find solutions together as a team.  Introduce the need for roles within each group, roles based on the strengths of each member.  Let your students define the roles.  Create a learning environment in your classroom that embraces the notion that collaboration is not synonymous with cheating.  And please, get rid of the "desks in rows" classroom set up.

Communication is a skill that is often overlooked, and yet it is vital to sharing ideas and collaborating with others.  There are many ways to communicate, and not all are verbal (my previous post on the arts gives some insight into other forms of communication).  Give your students the opportunity to explore ways to communicate, and encourage them to select and develop the ones that allow the greatest expression of their thoughts and feelings. 

Critical thinking and problem-solving
The correct answer... We encourage our students to strive for the correct answer on tests and quizzes, on homework, even in essays and lab reports.  What if we started asking questions that had multiple correct answers?  Or had no answer at all?  Educators need to move away from the step by step approach to problem solving that is engrained in current practices.  We are so fixated on the correct answer (often in the back of the book or in the teacher's edition) that we avoid offering opportunities for our students to find the path to the solution for themselves. 

I was recently asked to give an example of what I would consider "a good" exam question.  My response was this: "Was Hitler a hero or villain?"  I followed that up with a simple caveat... Students would be allowed to answer the question in any way they saw fit, and they had a week to submit their "product".  Thinking about possible responses, I offered three possible solutions, each by someone well known in our society (Warren Buffett, Pope Benedict, and George Lucas).  Mr. Buffett would submit a glossy paper, complete with well-designed charts and graphs, discussing the economics of pre-war Germany and the effects of Hitler's government of the economic growth of the country.  The Pope, on the other hand, would deliver a moving sermon on the morality of the German war machine.  George Lucas would create Star Wars. 

While this example may seem a bit of a stretch, the message is clear: when given the opportunity to explore a question or problem on their own terms, students will take ownership over their responses.  All three of the responses are valid, and reflect the individual interests and passions of each person responding.  This is very different from our current assessment model that depends on a standardized, one-size-fits-all testing.

Creativity and Innovation
Creativity and innovation are two of the most sought-after skills in the world.  According to an IBM study completed in 2010, CEOs around the world indicated that creativity, as opposed to rigor, discipline, integrity, and vision, was the most important skill in business, and critical to navigating an increasingly complex world.  Yet, according to Achieve, Inc., “college and career ready refers to the content knowledge and skills high school graduates must possess in English and mathematics – including, but not limited to, reading, writing, communications, teamwork, critical thinking and problem solving – to be successful in any and all future endeavors.”

Where's creativity in this definition?  Achieve, Inc. helped bring the term "college and career ready" into the conversation surrounding education, and left out creativity.  Why is that?  I believe it's because they do not understand creativity, or how to assess it.  Or they do understand it, and continue to ignore its value. 

Creativity is more than just the arts.  It is a different way of thinking.  Sir Ken Robinson defines creativity as "the process of having original ideas that have value."  Think of it as "applied imagination."  All human beings are born creative.  The trick is to help kids develop and nurture their creativity, instead of sterilizing it.  We need more than just art class, and arts and crafts time is not the answer.  Kids need to develop their ability to express themselves in creative ways, explore the world without boundaries, and solve problems using divergent thinking, instead of the back of the book or the answer key.

The lights are going out in our schools. As budgets are cut and a school's ability to invest in computers, iPads, and other devices diminishes, can we ignore the need to teach these skills because we don't have the tools?  Or do we need to concentrate on the skills, and use whatever tools we have available?

Monday, October 1, 2012

Art Education and Why We Need to Save the Arts in Schools

Many who think of art education think of art classes... you know, classes of students in paint-covered smocks creating colorful works for parents to hang proudly on the refrigerator.  This common misconception is one of the many reasons why the arts are being cut from schools across the country.  Many politicians and school district leaders see the arts as an extra, an add-on that requires considerable resources and, in their eyes, does not help students on any standardized test.  And they are correct.  

The arts can put an incredible strain on already stretched budgets.  Materials for one painting class could easily exceed the budget of an entire math department.  And it's true, art education will not help students on standardized tests (unless test designers start adding creative problem-solving to the test or allow students to draw, paint, sing, or dance their responses).  If leaders continue to use budgets and test results to determine a program's viability, then the arts are doomed in public education.

If budget woes and test results are the reasons to remove the arts, let me offer a reason to not only keep the arts, but to also integrate them into all parts of the curriculum.  In a word, the reason is creativity.  All kids are born creative.  And that creativity is not limited to times when they have a paint brush in their hand or a kazoo in their mouth.  Kids are creative in many aspects of their lives.  And yet, when they enter a formal education setting, creativity is often left for arts and crafts time or art class.  Art education is so much more.

In addition to supporting art education, we need to start integrating art into all aspects of the curriculum.  Many teachers know that kids need 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creative problem solving).  Unfortunately, because those skills are not tested, they are not valued, and are left out of the curriculum in exchange for test prep.  We need to put them back in, and we can do that through art integration.  

All four of the 21st century skills can be taught when art is integrated into the curriculum.  Visual and performing arts are forms of communication, where artists convey ideas and emotions through their work.  Many artists collaborate with others, blending different genres, disciplines, or mediums together to engage the audience in a new experience.  Although most common in music, examples of collaboration are found throughout the art world.  Critical thinking can be expanded in the curriculum through analysis of art in a historical context, symmetry in nature in a science classroom, even finding connections between the literature and the visual and performing arts of particular periods of time or geographical locations.  

The final 21st century skill is creative problem solving, and it will play a critical role in the success of children around the world as they prepare to join the global community.  Creative problem solving is the process of using divergent thinking to more clearly define the problem and generate many possible solutions.  This process requires large amounts of original thought unfettered by the constraints of perceived reality.  Many define it simply as 'thinking out of the box.'  Regardless of what you call it, one thing is clear... You need creativity.  This is where art integration, as well as art education, can help to unlock the creativity trapped inside each child.

The question now is, how do we do this?  And where do we begin?  I think I'll leave that for a future post...  But I think I can give you a preview...

Sir Ken Robinson once said: "if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."  As educators, we need to be willing to take risks and give our students a safe and nurturing place to explore their own creativity without the fear of failure.