Science, but not science class

“Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.”

Jules Verne

Science class, or any other class, is made up of mistakes that carry a discounted grade and perhaps a discounted sense of self.

The education we sell, the one we wish for for our kids and the one we seek for ourselves, is best achieved by those that can tune out the bell ringing, point deducting, grade norming, and finger pointing.

In order to thrive in the “fail up” sales pitch of modern school culture, you must first have been imbued with high self-esteem, been born to the parents that get it, and been assigned to the teachers that don’t use grades as weapons.

In other words, you have to have won the lottery.

What if work were assessed using rubrics rather than grades? What if your report card were a digest of the type of work you tend to deliver, rather than a derivative numerical abstraction of the same? What if your final mark, if such a thing were necessary, were a measure of your improvement over time, rather than the mean of your performances over time?

What if your work, both the successes and the mistakes, were seen as the thing that leads you little by little to the truth?

Faking Failure

Take risks! Embrace failure! Dare to flop!

I’m not sure where the ethers of risk appetite came from, but I know that they come from a good place. But as long as learning tasks are one-off activities that result in a grade, our calls to take risk are disingenuous. The impact of grades and internal and external pressures lead to a process of hedging (pretending to take risks while still keeping an eye on what students think the teacher really wants) that almost guarantees sub-optimal learning outcomes for our kids.

Over the last several (10+) years, a persistent wind calls for emphasizing process over product. Not a bad idea. But we’re still putting the main focus on the binary question of “What am I going to get out of this? (a grade vs. a judgment of how I do the work).

Rather than focusing on the product vs process (both of which are products…one is graded and one is couched in terms of behaviors or tendencies), what if we begin the whole process with the question, “Why do we do this work in the first place?” Rather than ask what I’m going to get out of it, ask what is the cause of my doing this at all?

Grounding student work in the genesis may prompt students (through careful teacher scaffolding) to consider questions like:

  • Who do I want to be as I enter into this work?
  • How do I hope to respond to situations of difficulty or conflict?
  • What do I hope to learn throughout this process?
  • How do I hope to respond if in the end I don’t succeed?

Those last two questions are very much product oriented, but framed in terms of goals rather than task completion. The difference between framing a learning task as described above versus simply “putting the emphasis on the process” may be subtle, but meaningful. Assessing process imposes externalized teacher expectations (usually in rubric form) applied to future student work. Expectations are compared to execution and the rubric is graded accordingly. This is a FINE way to teach kids about desired learning behaviors.

What if no rubric were applied to the learning process and students rather reflected on the questions above (or yet better questions thought up by someone more insightful than I)? Does the lack of teacher imprimatur still make for evidence of worthwhile learning?

If grades are a necessity at your school, you very well may frame learning around the genesis of the work as described above, but still employ some not-that-unreasonable techniques to ensure that process is examined instead of or alongside the ultimate product. Some ideas:

  • What if every (and I do mean EVERY) assignment that results in a recorded grade allows for multiple permutations before its final version is submitted?
  • What if all one-off learning tasks, graded or ungraded, did not reach to the report card, but rather were used as feedback for future work?

Schools exist that put such prototyping skills into daily practice, but they do stand apart as if they were a different species than the majority of schools out there.

The result for a traditional school would be fewer grades in the gradebook, for sure. But those grades would be grounded in a large quantity of examined (better yet, self-examined!), process-oriented work.

Born to Create: Letting the brain do what the brain is meant to do

In an article in Psychology Today (October 2016 issue), Todd Kashdan brings us this pearl of wisdom:

“Our brains are designed to create, not to hold onto content. It is essential to extract information and file it away into easily retrievable documents.

He recommends keeping electronic diaries and sprinkling notebooks around your spaces (school, home). I love this idea and it puts retained knowledge where it belongs: within reach but not necessarily at the ready. This frees us up to let the brain do what our brain really wants to do.

Let the brain focus on creating new knowledge, not storing old knowledge.

I say this as a person that prides himself on knowing a lot of stuff. But I also recognize that my fondness for knowing things is a form of vanity. I take pride when someone looks at me, a Spanish teacher and running coach, and says, “Why on earth do you know that?”

And to be fair, I believe knowing things makes you an all-around interesting person. But we should be clear with our students and with ourselves that the purpose of education is not to retain knowledge in perpetuity or even for the long term.

The purpose of retaining information is to hold on to it long enough to make connections with other information in the hopes of creating new information from it and in deriving value from both of those learning processes. How does this information apply in this novel circumstance over here? Or perhaps it’s worthwhile to simply ask What does collection of information mean for me?

Either accidentally or deliberately, we communicate to children that the purpose of memorization is permanent storage and immediate retrieval. I do hope that we rethink this. It’s still A-OK to quiz students to confirm short-term retention, but we’d be doing them a great service in saying, “All right, folks. As soon as you can find some worthwhile reason for learning this information, I encourage you to let it go and move on to novel information with greater utility.”

“And I hope you look forward to that wonderful feeling you get when, in the middle of a conversation in some far-off future, your eyebrows pop off your forehead and you shout, ‘Oh yeah! I remember learning that somewhere!'”

It’s time to consider backward design…your students already have.

Recently I attended a training on Understanding by Design (UbD). Otherwise known as Backward Design, this curriculum design methodology popularized by Jay McTighe and the late Grant Wiggins encourages the designer to plan with the end in mind, seeking clarity of purpose above all things. The intent is that by declaring purpose (“what will learners take away from this experience?”), assessment and activity design become much more focused, resulting in the abandonment of less important activities and content. Speaking personally, the practice of UbD, in conjunction with my work with educational consultant Greg Duncan and my colleagues in PLC, has transformed how I plan, how I teach, and how I communicate with students regarding their growth as language learners.

End of infomercial.

My writing today is prompted not by my belief in the effectiveness of backward design; rather, by a comment made by a colleague during today’s training. A Grade Chair and music teacher in the training said, “Kids walk into my class thinking with the end in mind all the time. They say ‘Why do we need to learn this anyway?'”

Why do we need to learn this anyway?

A teacher’s reaction to this question is most often rage, frustration, or anaphalaxis. It seems to us like the knee-jerk reaction of an ill-informed and petulant child. In reality, kids are asking themselves the very question that we should be asking: “why are we doing this in the first place?”

It can be a sobering moment when someone you previously considered “under your wing” is actually way ahead of you in the thought process. While kids aren’t really thinking about backward design when they ask the dreaded question, they are thinking economicallyHow will I benefit from the lesson you’re about to put me through?

Economist Thomas Sowell would put it like this: My time is a finite resource that has alternative uses. Why am I using it like this?

And while our first reaction may be to buck up and throw a flag (“Disrespectful remark…five yards, loss of down!”), we should instead join them in their thinking. Why am I teaching this lesson? How does it figure into the unit of instruction? What skills or capacities should kids expect to gain from this experience?

I’ve heard kids ask me “why do we need to learn this?” for years. But I wasn’t listening. I didn’t realize that they were asking the question that, until recent years, I never thought to ask myself.

That’s something I should think about.

Why are “bloopers” celebrated while “mistakes” are feared?

Near the end of every student video project is the bloopers real. It’s, by the look on their faces when the project ends and the bloopers begin, they’re favorite part of the project by far.

How strange that in a video project mistakes are captured and unnecessarily added to the end, while in 99% of school life mistakes are feared, avoided, hidden, covered over, judged, or even punished.

What can we do about that?