This article first appeared at KQED San Francisco’s MindShift blog (12/6/11). Ed Allen, Becky Bair and Patti Grayson write for PLP’s Voices from the Learning Revolution group blog.
By Tina Barseghian, MindShift
In the discussion over learning styles and measuring achievements, it’s important to take into account what educators see first-hand in class. To get a sense of their perspective on the subjects, I asked educators who are part of the Powerful Learning Practice to weigh in on what they’ve observed in their classrooms. Here’s what they say.
PATTI GRAYSON: Elementary teacher at Virginia’s Hampton Roads Academy.
Educators should take note. Making some simple changes in the way we talk to students can have a significant impact. We should never underestimate the potential of a child based on test scores, and should be wary of how grading can impact a child’s image of themselves. We owe it to our students to give every child the encouragement and opportunity to learn.
The word achievement is often thrown around as the ultimate, if undefined, goal.
As a 4th grade teacher, I see students making judgments about what they are and aren’t “good at” every day. At 9 and 10 years old, students are very sensitive to this, and one poor grade can convince them that they are not good at a particular skill or subject. This mindset is very difficult to reverse.
Grading has a very strong impact on these perceptions. If they receive A’s in Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies and a B in English, suddenly English becomes that subject they know they are not good at. With this determination comes damaged self-confidence, increased anxiety over assignments and tests, and a lifelong self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bolstering a child’s confidence is key. They need to believe that with hard work and perseverance they CAN learn – and not just in certain ways or in certain areas. Teachers often see students with lower IQs performing above their potential, and even above students with higher aptitude.
The New York Magazine article How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise by Po Bronson includes some discussion of the study by psychologist Carol Dweck, where she studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. The results of her series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders is astounding. Random groups of children were either praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) or for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”). The children who believed it was effort, not innate gifts, that made the positive difference in their learning success achieved more and were more willing to take on difficult challenges.
BECKY BAIR: intermediate grades in Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown Area School District.
The debate surrounding recognition for achievement, identification of learning styles, effort, and multiple intelligences certainly sparks a great deal of interest and discussion. Just like any other topic in education these days you can probably find research that refutes or supports the side that you would like to take.
What worries me is that within all of this conversation, we’re still not talking about the ridiculous amount of time schools spend focusing on student weaknesses. Do we gain anything when we make students feel that they are less smart if they don’t make a certain grade? Or when we set them up for failure in certain classes because we’ve decided in advance that this child or that child “doesn’t do well” in math or science or language? Or when we constantly force kids into learning situations that emphasize only what they have done wrong?
Here are some messages I see students getting all the time:
– Didn’t pass the test? Let’s have you do more test prep instead of learning skills that you can actually apply as you get older.
– Can’t read enough words per minute? We’ll pull you out of a less important subject like history or science and give you an additional reading class.
– Not grasping a particular skill in a core subject? Let’s prohibit you from taking electives that might spark your interest. We’ll put you in remediation classes instead.
– Not sure how to decode longer words? Let’s put you with a different teacher and you can practice this skill in isolation. We won’t worry about connecting it to real content where you might see its value.
Perhaps this discussion needs to be about more than whether we’re doing our students a disservice by patting them on the back or identifying their preferred learning style. Maybe we should really be thinking about how our students’ educational experiences prepare them for real life after school. In real life there are days when we adults feel really great and smart, and there are those days where we feel like we don’t have a clue. What differentiates kids from adults, hopefully, is that adults understand those blue days are not lasting and we have the power to change them.
Maybe this discussion should be more about exposure. Let’s give our kids the chance to try lots of things so they’ll discover what they’re great at and can start thinking about a career path and how to be a successful adult. And let’s not be afraid to put our kids in situations where they fail and try and maybe fail again, so they can see that failure is not the end of the world but an inevitable and valuable experience â€” another opportunity to learn and grow.
ED ALLEN: administrator and drama teacher at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Philadelphia.
I have had the good fortune during years of teaching the performing arts to watch students learn by experiencing the struggles of putting together a show â€” the failures and uncertainties and ultimately the triumphs of a successful performance. There is no tracking, no extrinsic rewards, no talk of learning styles. Just the work and the learning.
In the current educational climate, the word achievement is often thrown around as the ultimate if undefined goal. We understand, of course, that for those who’ve positioned themselves to hold educators “accountable,” it means success on tests. It is rare that learning is discussed.
When we measure everyone’s achievement by high-stakes tests, we are strengthening the fixed mindsets of not just our students, but of everyone who works in education and everyone who discusses or wants to fix education. Society loves small digestible bits of data with which they can pass judgments on students, teachers, parents, and schools.
It is far more challenging to really find ways to assess the journey of learning rather than relying on a summary “outcome” or grade. But isn’t it worth it? If we want our students to truly learn, shouldn’t we lead by our willingness to truly learn as well?
As I direct our high school musical show, I’m watching Carol Dweck’s concept of “growth mindset” in action. Kids were singing and dancing, working on the process. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, and they know they are not receiving a grade. They know that mistakes are welcome and expected.
Next time you can, stop in to watch a show practice, a choir practice, a band rehearsal, or an art class. Watch what happens. Watch the kids. Then think about how the pedagogy that you witness in these settings might work very well in any discipline. And feel free to sing, dance, play, or paint along!
How do YOU define achievement?
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Last year I worked with our 4th grade classes to re-design their California history project. IN the past the capstone of this year-long unit has been for each student to independently design a game that portrayed some aspect of California history and then present/play it with the class. Not bad. The students were graded on the imagination and effectiveness of the game.
Last year we put together a trimester-long collaborative program based around California during the crucial and volatile period of 1850-1870. The students came up with a series of high-level and provocative questions to ask; they worked in groups to research the issues; the groups morphed and re-organized with research being passed from group to group for comment and refinement. In the end, the assessment was based not only on how well each student learned and presented their own material, but on how well they had learned the entire scope of material and on how well they had worked in their various groups.
In the words of one 4th grader: “We got to collaborate (yes, he learned that word in the process) with others because that is the way the real world works”. So we defined achievement in this case by the ability of the students and teachers to adopt a new way of learning, as well as clear outcomes that the students learned more in the process.
In our next In-Service our MS teachers will be focusing on assessment. We did away with term ending exams in 7th grade a year ago and now are going to try and understand what we should be assessing. Part of this time will be spent on understanding formative versus summative versus self-reflection/metacognitive assessment. Actually, what I am hoping is that we will blow through this part of the discussion and move into exploring how we (and our students) assess creativity.
I teach in the performing arts – a pass/fail course in the high school and a club in the middle school – and I know exactly what you’re taking about. Kids work to learn their parts because it’s fun and because they want to sound good on stage. Some work harder to improve their technique than others, and I see this as healthy – an implicit goal-setting that lets each kid set the bar at the level that works for her life.
Meanwhile, our middle school, having dropped the use of letter grades three years, is now lookIng at dropping the standards-based cumulative assessments we’ve been reporting in progress reports that get sent home. Too many families try to convert them to grades and we are still getting some of the deleterious effects. We want to focus on long and detailed narrative comments instead.
Bill, thank you for your comment. It is great to hear the shift that your district is making in assessment. And as a performing arts teacher, you know that the arts have been assessing authentically for years! And thank you for keeping the arts alive in your school.