Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cleaning the Counters: Changing our Habits to Improve their Habits

When she was about nine months old, my springer spaniel Stella had an issue with counters. Nothing made of paper was safe—paper towels, tissues, cardboard, lists, mail…anything paper. Somehow, she managed to leap, reach, climb or crawl onto any surface where we had paper stuff. And then she would destroy said paper stuff.
It was a problem.
Bad Stella! 
We yelled at her (a lot), we growled at her (training book #1), we rewarded her when she was being good (training book #2), and we tried to wait out the phase (Internet research). But nothing worked: when there was paper stuff on the counters, Stella found a way to get it and destroy it.
Clearly there was something wrong with her, so we hired a trainer.
After spending 15 minutes with us, the trainer solved all of our problems: clean your counters, she said.
It worked. When we stopped leaving paper stuff all over our counters, Stella stopped destroying paper stuff. And she stopped looking for it. So after about 6 months, when we slowly reintroduced necessary products to the counters, she left them alone. Problem solved. We changed her habits by changing our behavior.
When we began the switch to standards-based grading in our classroom, it didn’t work so well. Because we had stopped grading practice, many students didn’t do it. Because we didn’t take points off for late work, more and more students began to turn their work in late. Because we allowed retakes, some students stopped trying as hard the first time around.
It was a problem.
We yelled at them. We lectured them. We called their parents. We gave them the disappointed parent look. But nothing worked. Because we had no way to hold them accountable with grades, they stopped being responsible.
Clearly there was something wrong with them. Clearly standards-based grading wouldn’t work because kids are not responsible enough or mature enough to make it work.
Clearly we were wrong.
When changing grading policies, we cannot change student habits without significantly changing our own behavior and habits. This does not mean that we ignore bad (or ineffective) student habits; it means that we first address our own behaviors in order to train them to build the habits we want.

Here are three of the most common complaints we hear when teachers begin the move to SBL...and ones we said ourselves a few years ago:

  • “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.”
  • “If I don’t take points off, they won’t turn it in on time.”
  • “If I allow retakes, they won’t try hard the first time.”

All of this is absolutely true...if we don’t change how we think about grading. In SBL, grades communicate where a student is in relation to an established learning target or set of targets. They are not used to motivate, to punish, to reward, or to threaten. But the traditional system--the one we are all used to--is a system of compensation: we “pay” them to do work. Every time we grade something, we pay them with a grade, and in most classes, they get paid for everything. We sometimes give them extra pay for extra work, and we even more often dock their pay for poor work, late work, or a variety of other more arbitrary reasons. Students are used to this system, so if we suddenly shift our philosophy and the purpose of grades without retraining them and without changing how we design learning, of course they will stop doing work.

How do we retrain? Build new habits by cleaning the counters.
  • Start by changing how you define work. Do not separate work into classwork  and homework. Work is work, and when students start seeing that your class is a place where they come to do work--and when you provide them the time, resources, and guidance to do that work--they will build that habit.  By doing the majority of work in class early on, you can ensure that it gets done, which builds the expectation that your class is a place where work is expected.
  • Make the work relevant and respectful. This doesn’t mean pandering to teenage interests (you don't need to connect photosynthesis to snowboarding or Candy Crush). It means showing students the relationship between their work and their learning. Establish clear purpose for every assignment; show them how this work will help them reach the learning target. Provide immediate feedback by using their work to design the next steps; when students see that the work they do determines what they do next, the work becomes relevant. This helps build good habits.
  • Don’t allow students to opt out of important work.  Do what you need to do to change how you use class time or how you structure learning. Learning needs to be your number one goal--teaching accountability and responsibility is secondary (and will be a byproduct of making learning the center of your class)--so don’t allow students’ immaturity to dictate their learning (thank you, Rick Wormeli). If a student doesn’t hand in an assignment that is essential for their learning and your understanding of their learning, then sit them down at the beginning of the next class and make them do it; whatever they can do in that time will provide you some evidence of their current level of achievement. When not doing an assignment isn’t an option, students will begin doing the assignments on time. Since they know they will have to do it anyway, they learn that it’s just easier to do it on time the first time, and so they will build that habit.

Good habits lead to good learning.
Making these changes early in the year does not let kids off the hook or discourage responsibility. In fact, it does the opposite. When students believe that their work is valued for its relationship to their learning (and not as an arbitrary way to collect or lose points), we are holding them accountable to a much higher standard--a standard of learning, not of compliance. And  it’s habits of learning that we want to encourage. Habits (both ours and our students') take time to form, and take even more time to revise. It will take time for all of us to change our thinking, change our behaviors, and build new, more effective habits.

So in the meantime, we can continue to complain, yell, growl, punish, and loudly lament the state of our youth and the impossibility of changing our grading policies. Or, we can clean our counters, and start building true habits of learning.