Thursday, September 17, 2015

Newsflash: SBG Does Not Improve Student Learning

Standards-based grading isn’t the answer. It will not boost our students’ achievement. It will not increase our students’ engagement. It will not raise the rigor of our classrooms.

But standards-based learning (SBL) will do all of these things.

SBG without SBL won't work. These terms and initials are often used interchangeably, but the distinction is critical. We would like to argue here that schools and teachers must understand and embrace changes in learning before attempting changes in grading. We must transform our instructional practices if we want our grading practices to reflect learning.

While mandating changes in grading can force teachers to make changes more quickly, these changes will not produce the desired results if teachers continue to approach class in the same way we always have. Here are some examples of what can happen when teachers move to SBG before fully understanding SBL:
  • SBG says we shouldn’t grade homework, so I stopped grading homework and the students stopped doing homework.
  • SBG says I can’t count habits, so my students’ grades went down.
  • SBG says I need to grade using a 1-4 scale, but kids still convert to A-F in their heads, so it’s all just semantics.

When the only thing we change is how and what we grade, SBG will be confusing at best and inaccurate at worst. All of the above may very well happen if we keep teaching as we always have, so when teachers and parents and students say, “SBG doesn’t work,” they may very well be right. Because SBG does not work with traditional teaching practices.

It is vital that we transform our teaching practices to support what we know about learning. After 5 years teaching in standards-based classroom, we can honestly say that class looks entirely different than it used to. Here are some of the main ways our teaching has changed:
  • Targets, not content, drive instruction: I used to decide what to teach based on content. For example, if I was about to teach the Mongols, I would think of all the things I wanted them to know about the Mongols. Then I would try to come up with engaging ways to deliver that content. Now that I am standards-based, I start with the target instead of the content. If my target is about choosing valid evidence to support a thesis, then I design instruction that uses the Mongols to have students practice choosing evidence. This does not mean that content isn’t important; it means that content now serves skill rather than the other way around (see: A Standards-based Lesson Start to Finish). As Tony Wagner says, “The world no longer cares what our kids know..., what the world cares about is what kids can do with what they know.”
  • Teachers plan in response to data from formative assessments: One of the biggest shifts in SBL is that the majority of a teacher’s time goes into planning for class, not grading.  Once we are aware of where a student is in relation to the target (think the blue dot on a GPS) we must adjust instruction to help them reach and exceed their goal. For example, once we know that groups of kids are at different places on a scale, we must adjust instruction accordingly.  I will very likely be using the same content with everyone, for instance photosynthesis; however, if I know that kids are at different places with understanding cause/effect and relationships, I will have three groups doing different things with it.  The goal is to make sure that I am pushing each student to improve at the given skill, all while grappling with the rigorous content.
  • Students spend the majority of every class practicing and playing and thinking and trying: I used to think about class in terms of what I was going to do. First, I’m going to tell them...then I’m going to show them...then I’m going to have them...This meant that I spent a lot of time in front of the room delivering content which I then hoped they would internalize and give back to me a few weeks later. Class discussions involved me asking questions and facilitating participation. Overall, the majority of the class was about me doing and them sitting and listening or sitting and following directions. When class is planned based on targets, this has to change. Now I start by thinking about what they are going to do. We know that doing is learning and that listening is not learning (Dr. Duke); so in order to learn, students need to be getting messy with the skills in class.
  • Groupings, furniture set-up, and classroom structures change constantly based on the learning needs: Just as we intentionally alter our instruction to match the needs of the students and the class, we also need to make sure that the class set up matches our needs. Depending on the purpose of the class and the activities planned, the class set-up must be intentional and support the learning.  A socratic discussion, peer editing, a small group activity, and practicing speeches all require different set ups and needs.  Creating the perfect learning environment for the day can be the most important part of an effective lesson and is worth the time it will take to set it up.
  • Students track their own learning and take control over the paths they take to that learning: The ultimate goal of any standards-based class is to create an environment in which students can have more control of their own learning. This does not mean that the teacher is off the hook--in fact, it’s the opposite. Designing opportunities, instruction, and assessment that allow students to navigate their learning is much more difficult than traditional teaching. If we are doing our job right in a standards-based class, students will know what their targets are, will know where they are in relation to their targets, and will know how to close the gap (DuFour). This clarity and self-awareness will open up so many possibilities for student interest and choice, and ultimately increase engagement and learning.

Once our learning is driven by mastery and not content or seat time, and once these instructional changes are part of our routine, we will need a grading system that can communicate learning. And that’s when SBG not only makes sense, but becomes necessary.

Without significantly changing what learning looks like, SBG won’t work any better than the current broken system. But when we do change instruction and assessment based on what we know about the brain and learning, then SBG becomes not only logical, but essential.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Five don’ts that might just lead to better learning

Habits take time to form...that’s how they become habits. And if  we don’t start to form new habits immediately, the old ones will take over because life will get complicated and we will fall back to our defaults to survive. So this month, for one full month, be bold and vocally and publicly declare new (soon-to-be) habits. Here are 5 suggestions for the first month:

  1. Don’t assign homework. Here’s what this will do: you will be forced to use your class time differently right away, demanding high-quality, rigorous, focused work during class. You will need to talk less (see #3) and let them do more. Students will learn what it means to work hard while you are there to guide, redirect, and watch their learning. You will have more time outside of class for high-quality, substantive feedback based on the work you watched them do in class. Ultimately, you will learn more about your students more quickly when you are present during their learning. When the month is up, decide if you want to start giving homework…but you may see you don’t want or need to. If you do decide to give homework, here’s a link to a helpful infographic called “Homework in a Standards-Based Class.”
  2. Don’t grade anything. Grades cause anxiety and anxiety leads to a variety of behaviors, all detrimental to learning. Some students will give up when graded, some will become obsessed with the grades (not the learning—big difference), and some will stop taking intellectual or creative risks. Allow students to learn safely for the first month, providing feedback, but no grades. Show the students where they are in relation to your targets, show them benchmarks, celebrate risk taking, and encourage redos and retries and retakes. After a month, if you must, grade away…but again, you may find you don’t need or want to. Curious about grading changes? Join #sblchat on Wednesday nights at 9pm ET.
  3. Don’t hog the learning. Limit yourself to 5 minutes of talking (to the whole class) in a 90 minute block. Why? Because the one doing is the one learning. If our goal is to have students learn and make meaning, then we need to make sure that we are setting them up to learn. And as the wonderful Dr Duke reminds us (see amazing video here), “Listening isn’t learning.”  Brain research has clearly shown that people need to play with content in order to learn content in a way they can use beyond simple recall. They need time to talk and to experiment and to write and to chart and to explore--all things they aren’t doing if they are listening to us. So rather than telling them about supply and demand or the functions of a cell or the themes of Macbeth, allow them to discover these things. It’s a lot harder to plan for what they will do than to plan for what we will do, but the learning (theirs!) will be worth it.
  4. Don’t focus on the wrong things. The more we focus on what we don’t want students to do, the less we focus on what we do want them to do. When we spend lots of time and energy making detailed rules about hats and gum and food and bra straps and cellphones in class, you know what’s going to happen? We’re going to spend lots of time and energy enforcing rules about hats and gum and food and bra straps and cellphones in class...time and energy we could be spending on learning. This does not mean allowing class to be a free-for-all; it just means being thoughtful about what really matters to us and to our ultimate goal: to improve learning.
  5. Don’t stand at the front of the room. In fact, don’t have a front of the room (this will help with #3 as well!). That means being really intentional about how we set the room up each class. Yes, this takes time, and yes, it may be a bit loud. But how we set up the room can make a huge difference in learning, attention, and engagement. So think about the purpose of each class, the tasks you are having students do, and then determine the BEST setup possible for that purpose.

These suggestions may seem extreme, but think about the underlying premise of each “Don’t”. Our goal as teachers is to maximize learning for all students, and so many of our teaching defaults get in the way of this goal. By being more intentional about daily decisions and structures and policies, and by doing these class after class after class, we can start to build practices and systems that become...well...habits.