Points over Practice?

This post is written as a precursor to my session on homework at next week’s Pearson-ATI Summer Conference

practiceYou’d think by now we’d have the whole homework thing figured out. Should it be assigned? What is the purpose of homework? How much is too much? How much is too little? Should it be graded? Is it formative? What if my students don’t do it? What if only half of my students do it? Why do we continue to act surprised by the fact that some students don’t master the intended learning the first time they practice it? These (and so many other questions) fuel a continual debate over where the actual sweet spot of our homework routines is.

Is homework the means or the end? In other words, does homework present students with an opportunity to further advance their proficiency with regards to specific curricular standards or is it an event all unto itself? While some might be tempted to answer both, it is challenging to come up the middle on the means vs end discussion.

As a means, homework tends to be about practice. Inherent in this practice paradigm is the elimination of points and their contribution to an overall grade. In other words, as practice, homework is formative. As an end, homework is just the opposite; it tends to be an event that independently contributes (even in a small way) to a report grade. While subsequent new evidence of learning may emerge, homework as an end remains a contributor to what could eventually be an inaccurate grade. And that is the bigger point. Whatever we report about student learning – and however we determine the substance of what we report – must be as accurate as possible. Previous evidence (homework) that no longer reflects a student’s current level of proficiency has the potential to misinform parents and others. When homework counts, we are emphasizing points over practice.

“…but it only counts for a small percentage of a student’s final grade,” some might argue, “so it doesn’t really matter.” I suppose on one level that might be true, however, consider a scenario where someone steals a five dollars from you and then asks you to dismiss it since they didn’t steal a lot of money. Now, I do understand that making the connection between stealing and counting homework is a stretch, but my point is that if learning (and the accurate reporting of a student’s achievement) is our priority, then emphasizing points clearly misses the mark. It’s not how much the inclusion of homework impacts the student’s final grade; it’s that it does in the first-place.

Still, others may proclaim (and wholeheartedly believe) that, “…if I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.” Again, while that might be the paradigm in a classroom, we have to ask ourselves who is responsible for creating that paradigm. We must recognize that students don’t enter school in Kindergarten with a point accumulation mindset; the K student never asks her teacher if the painting is for points! So where do they learn that? Somewhere in their experience points (and grades) become a priority for the adults…so they become a priority for students. Parents and students also contribute to this mindset, but we have to acknowledge our role as well. Also, if the only thing motivating students to complete any assignment is the promise of points then we really have to consider whether the assignment is truly worth completing in the first place. Again, is homework a means or an end?

I am looking forward to sharing more on the topic of homework, practice, and assessment at Pearson-ATI’s 20th Annual Summer Conference next week (July 8-10, 2013) in Portland, OR. The session on homework entitled Practice without Points will explore the biggest hurdles that prevent some teachers from eliminating the points attached to practice work, the reasons we assign homework and how those reasons fit within a balanced assessment system, and how teachers can thoughtfully respond to the trends they see between initial homework results and subsequent assessment data. You can read more on why I believe homework should be for practice and used formatively (here) rather than being used as part of a summative reporting process.

I will also be leading a session on Effective Leadership in Assessment specifically suited for those responsible for taking assessment literacy to scale and a session entitled Infused Assessment that takes participants back to the core fundamentals of formative assessment by infusing it into already existing instructional practices rather than creating  summative-events-that-don’t-count. 

If you’re unable to attend the conference, please take some time to follow the hashtag #ATIcon on Twitter.

How curious are your students?

Image courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In her recent article The Case for Curiosity (Educational Leadership, February 2013), Susan Engel asserts that “curiosity is essential to learning, but in scarce supply in most schools.” One of the major points of the article is that students should be encouraged to ask as many questions as possible. While this might first appear to be a rather pedestrian outcome, we should reflect on whether our instructional choices foster curiosity within our students. Engel wants us to make questioning a goal:

Think of question asking as the goal of an educational activity, rather than a happy by-product. Develop activities that invite or require students to figure out what they want to know and then seek answers.

Unfortunately, sometimes questions are seen as, at-best, an accidental outcome; at worst, they are a disruption to the teacher’s flow. Like most things, curiosity within our students will only be nurtured and developed through purposeful thought & action. What would the outcome be if we examined each lesson through the lens of curiosity? That is, what if we asked ourselves how curious will my students become as a result of this lesson? 

There is no question that this is easier said then done. Undoubtedly the pressures to cover content, meet outcomes and standards, and prepare students for year-end exams leaves many of us wondering about where we might find the time. That said, why do we always try to leave time for questions or squeeze a few questions in at the end. Why don’t we start with questions?

Why don’t we ask our students what they’re curious about? Would it change anything for you if your students told you what they wondered about the solar system, the industrial revolution, statistics, or poetry? Would your students develop a deeper level of engagement if you paused for one moment, right in the middle of a lesson, and asked the students what they’re thinking. When we pause and ask, are there any questions, we’re usually are met with silence; follow that with now, what are you thinking and you’re likely to be surprised at how much is on their minds.

Your move to emphasizing curiosity doesn’t have to be epic. Just begin by keeping curiosity at the forefront of your mind as you develop your usual lesson sequences. Eventually, it will become a natural routine; then a habit.

Fostering curiosity will take some time; time for you to shift your focus and time for the students to develop new, habitual ways of reflection. However, by shifting our instructional mindset to one that makes nurturing curiosity a priority, the same content you’ve taught for years can be transformed into the means that drives an unprecedented level of motivation and engagement.

Everything is assessment

If there is one bias that I have developed when it comes to assessment for learning it is this: As much as possible, we should not have to stop teaching in order to conduct our formative assessments.  In other words, if I were to walk into a classroom and observe, the lines between the moments of assessment, instruction, and feedback would be blurred; the chosen strategies would seamlessly lead students and teachers through a continuous assessment-instruction-feedback loop. While there are always exceptions to any rule, we should, as much as possible, strive to infuse our assessment for learning practices into our instructional strategies.

With that, formative assessment is actually easier to infuse than some might think. So many of the strategies that teachers have been using for years can – quite effortlessly – be used for formative assessment purposes. In fact, when I’m asked to provide/discuss some effective formative assessment strategies with teachers I’m often met with the fairly typical response of, “Oh, I already do that.” 

Now, I’m not doubting their responses.  The truth is that many teachers are already doing or using the strategy I describe, at least at first glance. Upon further review, however, I’ve come to realize that while many are using the strategies I outline, the strategies fall short of serving as an assessment for learning.

Everything teachers do – every strategy, activity, or process – is an assessment in waiting. Every activity students participate in – every project, assignment, or task – has information that can be used for formative purposes if we follow two simple guidelines.

TargetFirst, every activity must be linked to the intended learning. Activities are just activities unless there is a direct link between the activity and the intended learning; that’s what turns a task into a target. Even better is expressing this link in student-friendly language so that students may have intimate access to what they are expected to learn from the activity. This link is what’s often missing in far too many classrooms. Think about how often you begin a lesson by describing to students what they are going to do as opposed to what they are going to learn? The link to learning will establish far greater relevance for students and assist in their understanding of why – especially with knowledge targets – what there doing today is important and relevant for tomorrow (and beyond).

fork_in_the_road_signSecond, the results of every activity must have the potential to illicit an instructional response from the teacher. One of the core fundamentals behind formative assessment is that the collective results are used to decide what comes next in the learning. Now I use the word potential because the results of your activities (assessments) may indicate that what you had previously planned to do tomorrow is, in fact, the most appropriate decision. You’re not always going to change course, but for an activity to serve a formative assessment purpose it must have the potential to influence what you plan to do next. As long as you are willing to consider some instructional adjustments based on the results of the activity then it becomes an assessment for learning. As well, the more we can involve students in the process of self-assessment and personalized adjustments the more they become meaningful decision-makers in their own learning.

Whether it’s a class discussion, an A/B partner talk exercise, an Exit Slip, a 4 Corners Activity, a Jigsaw, or the use of exemplars, we can infuse our assessment/feedback practices into our instructional routines. When we link an activity to the intended learning and allow the results of the activity to potentially influence our instructional decisions, it moves from being just an activity to an assessment. Everything is an assessment in waiting if we use these two guideline to enhance what we’re already doing. 

Over-Prepare ‘Em

Although many schools/districts have had students in session for a while now, this week, for many, marks the second week of school. As such, it is likely that many of you are preparing your students for their first summative assessment/moment in your class (maybe it’s already happened).  Back in January – in my first blog post no less – I wrote that “It’s all about Confidence.”  While a new school year can provide many students with the opportunity to re-invent themselves and fix what (in their minds) needs fixing, there is an unparalleled opportunity to build student confidence through success on the first summative assessment.

This is not a debate about the merits of summative assessments; this about the realization that many of you will be using some form of summative assessment to determine whether or not your students have reached the intended learning goals. Therefore, if you want students to have a positive emotional response (feeling confident) to the prospect of being assessed, over-prepare your students to the point where success is almost guaranteed.

Two things that over-preparing doesn’t mean: It doesn’t mean you give it away nor does it mean dumb-it-down. In either situation students will quickly recognize that the summative moment is atypical and does not represent their usual experience in school/your class, thereby rendering the assessment results meaningless.  Over-preparing means we provide the maximum amount of learning and support to ensure that they are ready for that first authentic summative moment.  This will maximize their success and likely result in many students “out-performing” themselves – which leads to increased confidence that this year might be different and that success (or even greater success) is possible!  As a reminder, here is one of my favorite quotes from the book Confidence by Rosabeth Moss Kanter:

The expectation about the likelihood of eventual success determines the amount of effort people are willing to put in. Those who are convinced they can be successful – who have ‘self-efficacy’ – are likely to try harder and to persist longer when they face obstacles. (pg. 39)

Now…imagine what might happen if we over-prepare ’em for every assessment?

Discipline is not a four-letter word

Somewhere along the way the word discipline has, for some, become a four-letter word.  Isn’t discipline a good thing?  Don’t I need discipline to sustain a habit, change my lifestyle, or excel at anything I do.  Isn’t it important that I learn self-discipline so I can monitor my own progress toward any goal.  If I don’t have it or know what it looks like, isn’t it important that I have someone to help guide me there? Now, I know that’s probably not what is often meant when people use the term discipline, but therein lies the problem.  If by discipline you mean punishment then say punishment.  Living in the world of connotation opens the door to misunderstandings even when we actually agree.

I don’t want to move “beyond discipline”; I want discipline, self-regulation and self-control…and I want it for my students.  I certainly want to move “beyond punishment” to engage in more meaningful dialogue to assist students in understanding where things went wrong, how they can restore their relationships, and how to avoid making the same mistake again.

For schools, discipline plans or systems should be designed as instruments of support & inclusion, NOT removal and isolation. The focus should be on teaching what is socially acceptable within the given context and helping students learn what is and is not appropriate. Students are greatly influenced by the parameters outlined by the adults they interact with and are taught, both directly and indirectly, what is socially acceptable. Do we not celebrate coaches who can instill a disciplined atmosphere within their team? Do students not need discipline to prevent themselves from reacting inappropriately while emotionally charged?

Discipline is a good thing; the misuse of discipline – or mistaking punishment for discipline –  doesn’t render the idea of discipline inappropriate or ineffective. Effective school discipline brings a sense of belonging, an atmosphere of inclusion, a feeling of predictability, and a climate of respect.

Classroom Management is about “Predictability”

The other day I came a cross a tweet that asked what they key to classroom management was.  The first word that came to my mind was predictability.

Now before I explain…a little disclaimer.  This is not about “control” – it’s about creating “conditions.”  The word management seems to have fallen so far out of favor that it feels necessary to use “air quotes” each time we say the word.  There also seems to be a never-ending semantically anchored debate that labors to move to actually discussing effective practices when we continue to say, I don’t manage kids (insert air quotes).  Managing situations and learning environments – at least from where I sit – is not at all about trying to control every single move a student makes or stifle creativity.  For me, managing a class means creating the optimum conditions in which students can learn.

Classrooms are effectively managed when there is predictability around expectations, routines, and relationships.  

Predictability of EXPECTATIONS: Students have to know what is expected of them; how they are expected to interact with their peers and with the teacher in the classroom.  They have to understand how to listen attentively, how to respect both themselves and others within the room, how to respect the learning environment, etc.  The consistent interplay between teacher and students establishes a predictability that brings comfort to students; that what is expected of me is not a mystery but clearly established and agreed upon.

Predictability of ROUTINE: There is a rhythm to effective teaching – it’s the rhythm of how we do learning.  Predictable routines – how to access assistance, how to re-organize for group work, how to submit completed assignments, how to respond to feedback – create learning conditions that students can depend upon day in, day out.  In turn, anxiety around routines is reduced which reciprocally raises student confidence and removes yet another obstacle toward the expectation of eventual success.

Predictability of RELATIONSHIPS: For me, most important.  The relationships we develop with students need to be predictable in that there is no doubt that we are on their side and will do whatever it takes to help then succeed. It also means that the relationships between the students is also predictable; that the classroom is a safe place to learn, take risks, make mistakes, and recover free from personal or emotional harm.  All that we do – assess, instruct, grade, report – should not jeopardize our relationships with our students. Everything our students do should not jeopardize their relationships with each other.

The optimal environment in which to learn is one that is predictable enough to provide the necessary parameters without stifling individuality and/or creativity.  It’s a balance – a balance that when struck is the sweet spot of teaching that allows learning to sit front-and-center.