Practice without Penalty

Somewhere along the way we created an educational mindset around practice and homework that determined that if we don’t count it, the students won’t do it. This idea that everything counts is wrought with misrules and situation that make accurate grades a near impossibility. In so many other aspects of life – fine arts, athletics – we value the impact and importance of practice.  It seems odd that in school we’ve decided that every moment should be measured.

Here is my position:

Anytime a student makes a first attempt at practicing new learning it should not be included in the grade book until the teacher provides descriptive feedback on the student’s work.

First, let me clarify my view on the difference between practice and homework.

  • Practice refers to those times where students are making a first attempt and using or working with new learning.  For most of us, this represents some of the traditional homework we used to do and, in some cases, still assign. 
  • Homework refers more to work completed at home that is either an extension or deepening of the key learning outcomes or work completed after descriptive feedback has been provided and or in preparation for a summative assessment.

From my perspective, I don’t have any issues with this type of homework counting toward a final grade; my issue is when practice counts.  Here’s why:

1) Whose work is it? When students take work home there is always the possibility of outside influence.  Older siblings, parents, friends can (and one might argue should) be involved in supporting the student as he/she increases their understanding of the key learning.  The problem arises when practice results go into the grade book.  The outside influences could affect assessment accuracy and distort achievement results.

2) Flawless Instruction? The idea that I can teach something once and 30 diverse learners can now go home and proficiently complete an assignment is absurd.  We can’t assume that our instructional practices are so flawless that 30 different students (or even more if you teach multiple sections) will all get it at the end of the block…every day; even the most exceptional teachers can’t do that.

3) Clear directions? Even with the best intentions, we are not always clear with the directions we provide to students for completing the work independently. That’s the key – independently. It is also possible that we were clear but some students misunderstood, which is their responsibility, however, it wouldn’t be the first time a student, especially a vulnerable learner, misunderstood what they were supposed to do.

4) With or without me? This, of course, will shift as students become more mature, but in general, I’d rather students do the vast majority of their learning with me rather than without me.  By doing so, I can more accurately assess (not test) where they are along their learning continuum.

5) Score the GAMES, not the practice. There is a lot wrong within the professional sports world, but they do understand the importance of practice.  There is training camp, where they wear all of the equipment but it’s not a real game.  Then they have exhibition games which look, sound, and smell like real games – even charge the public real prices – but they don’t count.  Yes, they even keep score, but the games are zero weighted…they don’t matter.  Then they play the regular season, which counts, except nobody really cares who’s in first place after that because all that matters is who won the championship.  Somehow we need to have more “training camps”, “exhibition games”, and even “regular games” before our academic play-offs!

Two additional thoughts:

  1. If everything counts, when are students supposed to take the academic risks we encourage them to take? Most kids will stay in their safe zone.  Why risk a ‘F’ by going for an ‘B’ when I’m happy with a ‘C’?
  2. If the prospect of the grade is the only potential motivator, then it is possible the assignment isn’t really important and maybe the students shouldn’t be asked to do it in the first place.

My bias on Practice was/is this.

  • I assigned practice and checked to see if it was completed.
  • We went through the practice assignments and provided descriptive feedback to students.
  • I kept track of their practice scores (zero weight) but they never counted toward a report card grade!
  • Most students did their practice assignments and I never experienced the flood of assignments at the end of the year!

I think our students need room to breathe at school.  If every moment is graded students will play it safe, become passive learners, and never stretch themselves to their potential.

“How did he get so Good?”

My son, Adrian, is an exceptional skier.  Now before you think I’m about to take credit for it you need to know that it had nothing to do with me.  In my first blog post on confidence (Jan. 27) I mentioned how afraid of skiing he was when he first learned; he’s not afraid anymore. The picture on the left is of Adrian last year (age 9) so clearly fear is no longer a factor.

Every Saturday morning Adrian and I make the 35 min. drive up to Apex Mountain. Adrian is part of the Apex Freestyle Program.  Now I’m not saying he’s going to the Olympics or anything, but when your ten-year old tells you that the double-black diamond runs are easy and boring you know he has some skills.  Every Saturday he skis with the freestyle program.  So we drive up to Apex, I drop him off with his coach, and then I head off for a day of skiing.  If my wife and daughter choose to come then I ski with them; otherwise I’ll ski with some of my friends who are at Apex that day.  It’s a small mountain so it’s easy to find someone.

This past Saturday, however, was a little different. There was no one for me to ski with so I decided to ski alone.  One thing I learned about skiing alone is that it really tests your own commitment to improvement.  I am a good skier, not great; moguls are my enemy!  I found out that when you ski alone you don’t really have to ski any mogul runs. After all, no one is watching.  However, I did head over to a few of the more challenging runs because I do want to improve.  After bouncing my way down one of the black diamond runs – I didn’t fall, but make no mistake, I didn’t ski it – I stopped to catch my breath.  As I stood – alone – thinking about what I had just done, I kept mentally referring back to the images of Adrian skiing the very same run. I wondered aloud, “How did he get so good?”

I traced it back to two things: First, he has spent a tremendous amount of time on his skis over the last 4 years; last year he skied 25 times.  However, time on skis is not enough if you are consistently practicing the wrong technique.  Second, and more importantly, he’s had excellent coaching.  As I thought about the coaching he has received and reflected upon it within the context of what we know about assessment for learning and sound instruction I realized his coaches did all the right things.

Here’s what his coaches did:

  • They figured out his strengths and weaknesses as a skier.
  • They made Adrian spend most of his time strengthening his strengths in order to maintain his confidence & motivation.
  • They put Adrian on the edge of improvement by introducing challenges that gradually pushed him.
  • They gave him specific, descriptive feedback on how to improve.
  • They taught him how to recognize his own mistakes and how to correct them.

Here’s what his coaches DIDN’T do.

  • Evaluate him every week and send a report home.
  • Set unattainable improvement targets.
  • Keep the standards for excellent skiing a secret.
  • Only tell him what he was doing wrong.
  • Set a time limit for improvement.
  • Scare him or stress him out by expecting too much too soon.

As I thought about Adrian’s experience, and how proficient at skiing he has become, I realized that his ski instructors got it.  Everything they did with him fell in line with the current thinking about formative assessment, descriptive feedback, and the role both play in allow kids (students) to maximize their success.  The self-assessment/correction piece was the icing on the cake.  By teaching him the standards of excellent skiing and breaking down the techniques into manageable chunks, Adrian is able to now correct himself when something (or he) goes sideways! After all, the person who does the assessing does the learning.

How do we get more of this in our classrooms?  I know it’s there, but how do we get more? How can we give our students more opportunities to strengthen their strengths, self-assess their progress, and continually sit on the edge of improvement?