An updated version of this post can be found here on the *Solution Tree* All Things Assessment website.

Thanks for taking the time to read it!

Tom

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# Tom Schimmer

## Assessment – Grading – Leadership – Student Behaviour

#
Instruction

# What “Rules” do you have?

# Practice without Penalty

# Working Smarter – 3 Questions

# 21st Century “Elevator Answer” Challenge

# We’re Talking “Seamless Math” K-12

# Math still takes their Lunch Money!

An updated version of this post can be found here on the *Solution Tree* All Things Assessment website.

Thanks for taking the time to read it!

Tom

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:

- 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’?
- 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.

We’ve all heard this phrase before – work smarter not harder – but what does it really mean, especially in education. We’re all busy, that’s a given. However, just because we manage to fill our minutes doesn’t mean we are maximizing our possible successes. Whenever you are beginning something new, implementing something new, or even thinking about something new, the following three questions will help you work “smarter” in your classroom, school, or even district.

**(1) Is it going to make us more efficient?** We are, as I mentioned above, all busy. The question is whether or not the “IT” is going to allow us to maximize the use of our minutes. None of us have time for the

**(2) Is it going to make us more effective?** Education is a people business so efficiency is not enough. Not only do we need to maximize the use of our minutes, we need to maximize the effectiveness of our outcomes. We should seek to strike a balance between efficiency and effectiveness. Too efficient and we lose kids; too effective and we might run out of time at the end of year.

**(3) Is it relevant to our context?** This is about fit and whether the “new” that you are thinking of implementing has meaning for you in your context. Some things work in some places but maybe not everywhere; other things are universally applicable. The important thing is to ask the question about relevancy and fit.

YES to all 3 and you are ready to implement

YES to 2/3 and you are *almost* ready, but should consider if one is being sacrificed and whether it is worth it to do so. All 3 may not always be necessary if you know it’s good for kids!

YES to 1/3 and too little has been considered so it’s likely your implementation plan is not well thought out.

0/3…**STOP!**

Just by asking these three simple questions you will be able to develop an implementation plan that is sustainable. Whether you want to implement something new in your classroom, school-wide, or throughout the district, these three questions will keep you focused on what really matters.

With all of the talk about Personalized Learning for the 21st Century, I thought this might be a fun challenge and way for all of us to refine our messages and learn from each other. I am a big believer in making messages simple and accessible, which is why I think this challenge is so relevant. It’s very easy to kill a good idea with a poorly constructed message, especially early in the implementation/exploration phase.

So….here is your assignment, should you choose to accept it:

“You are attending a conference on 21st Century Learning (yes, I see the irony!) At the end of the first day you step into the elevator at the hotel in which the conference is being held with someone who is NOT attending the conference and is NOT an educator. They turn to you, notice your name badge, and say as the doors are closing,“You’re attending that conference on 21st Century Leanring, right? What’s that all about anyway?”

You have 4 floors (3-5 sentences) to explain to this stranger what 21st Century learning is and give one example of what it would look like. Can you do it? How would you respond?

Good luck! This message will never self-destruct so send it to every educator you know!!

This week I have had the pleasure of working very closely with our school district’s Math teachers. On Monday night (Feb. 21) we hosted a dinner meeting with Middle & High School Math teachers, specifically Gr. 7-10, and school administrators. Last night, we held a similar meeting with Elementary & Middle School math teachers, specifically Gr. 1-7, and school administrators. So as not to overload anyone, we asked that the Gr. 7 teachers & middle school administrators not be the same people at both meetings. Our district has K-5 elementary schools, 6-8 middle schools, and 9-12 high schools.

There has been a feeling in our district that Math has been the *poor cousin* to our other two goals: Literacy and School Completion. For all of the right reasons, we have focused so much of our attention and resources on improving the literacy skills of all of our students, but especially for our vulnerable learners. We have also put a tremendous amount of energy behind our School Completion Goal trying to uncover the complex reasons why some of our students are not graduating from high school. However, as I posted on February 5, “Math still takes kids lunch money!”

This year we have put some purposeful energy behind supporting and enhancing our Math instruction. Over the past number of years there has been a pedagogical shift in the B.C. Math curriculum that now emphasizes mathematical processes and the core nature of math more than simple rote memorization and *drill-and-kill*. This shift in pedagogy has caused some stress and anxiety amongst our math teachers, especially for those who have never utilized manipulatives, for example, as effective instructional tools.

With all of that, we felt it was time to bring our Math teachers together to talk about how we develop a *Seamless K-12 Math Experience *for our students. We’ve done an excellent job in our district with the social transitions between our schools. As I like to say, “We have enough balloons and BBQs.” Where we need to improve is in our *curricular transitions*; specifically how our students transition from an elementary to a middle to a high school math classroom.

Both evenings were divided into four segments (about 30 min. per). The groups were mixed by level and by schools; here’s what we talked about.

**1) Common Practices between Levels:** The groups discussed the commonalities and differences in five specific areas: Classroom routines, Lesson format, Practice time, the Literacy of Math, and Assessment. We certainly found a lot of overlap, but there were some differences; differences that will create a significant challenge for our vulnerable learners to move seamlessly through the system.

**2) Communication Needs:** Groups discussed what communication is currently working well, what further communication is needed, and whether or not the information being communicated is specific, timely, and/or useable. Communication between the adults is the key to creating effective *curricular* transitions.

**3) Problem Solving, Differentiation, and Manipulatives:** The groups then had discussion on these three specific topics. The goal was to understand how these areas were addressed at each of the levels and what could be done to bring about more alignment. Again, while there was some overlap, we were able to identify certain practices where some significant differences existed.

**4) Essential Learning:** We know that we always run out time before we run out of textbook, so our teachers are already making choices about when to go deep and when to move on. With that, we wanted to be a little more strategic about those choices. We discussed the concepts that are essential; which curricular outcomes are essential and which could be marginalized for the sake of deeper understandings. The example I’ve often referenced is *should teachers spend more time on ‘fractions’ even at the expense of ‘statistics and probability?’* The overwhelming response from our group was ‘yes’. Some math skills *are *more important than others if students are going to successfully navigate the math curriculum within their schools. Grounding our students in the fundamentals – not memorizing, but knowing – will build their confidence and allow them to expect a positive outcome. If everything is a priority then nothing is.

This was just the start as we still have a lot of work to do. Our goal is to create as much of a *Seamless Math Experience* for our students as we can. The conversations have just begun, but they were focused, deep, and constructive. We all love it when a plan comes together. These were nights where I was able to sit back and soak up the conversation; to allow the experts in the room to do what they do best! Lisa West & Steve LaPointe (our District Numeracy Helping Teachers) organized two excellent evenings of discussion and our teachers left feeling optimistic about where our math instruction was headed.

…and the cheesecake for dessert wasn’t bad either!

As a subject, math is still the academic bully that many kids face everyday. It corners them, pressures them, intimidates them, and leaves their confidence shattered. Math still takes some kids’ lunch money and I am struggling with how we can put an end to it.

It seems as though you either *get *math or you don’t. It also seems to be the only subject where it’s permitted for adults to admit they’re not very good at it either. As Kyle asked/commented on my blog about confidence (Jan. 27), *do you ever hear a parent or student proudly announce that they can’t read? But with Math it’s OK?* Why?

*Maybe it’s the nature of the subject itself. *Maybe we’re asking students to be far more abstract that their stage of development allows. When my daughter was in the third grade, she had a homework question that asked her to “Draw as many shapes as she could with 2 parallel lines.” She did that. “Now write about them.” That was the question…what kind of question is that to ask of a third grade student? Now write about them? Then again, we talked it through, I helped her understand the intent of the question and she got it, so maybe it’s not that.

*Maybe it’s the way we teach it.* Maybe we just quite haven’t figured out the best way to organize our instruction. We have the manipulative toolkits, but have we figured out how to use them as both lead and remedial instructional tools? Or maybe our youngest students do need more drill-and-kill to master the essential skills necessary to be successful. But then again, I’ve given enough blackline masters to enough struggling students to know it did nothing to improve their skills, so maybe it’s not that.

*Maybe Math teachers were too successful when they were in school.* Since most Math teachers have loved Math since they themselves entered Kindergarten, maybe they just don’t have the empathy for kids who don’t get, or even like, Math. Maybe the idea of *not getting it* just doesn’t compute? Then again, I taught Math, I loved Math, yet I had empathy for those who struggled. I’ve since Lisa West, Dave Killick, and countless other Math teachers spend hours with struggling students to help them get over the hump, so maybe it’s probably not that.

*Maybe it’s the language of Math.* Why do we say ‘pluses’ and ‘minuses’ when we know those aren’t proper math terms? Maybe we need to teach the proper language of math earlier on and use it consistently throughout the grades. Product, quotient, difference, area, diameter, quadratic formulas, it’s all very confusing. Irrational numbers, really? Maybe the words get in the way. ∏? What in the world is ∏? In Math there is only one correct answer yet we have a number that goes on forever? If we going to ask our students to speak this foreign language then we better explicitly teach it to them. Some kids do make it through, but maybe it is a little of this.

*Maybe Alan Schoenfeld is right? * In the book *Outliers* by Malcolm Gladwell, Schoenfeld said that you master mathematics if you are willing to try. That success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds. Maybe he’s on to something. Maybe our students give up too quickly? Maybe we do too? Maybe we begin to compartmentalize math students too early as haves and have-nots. It could be some of this.

Maybe it’s all of the above; maybe it’s none of it. All I know is that I am going to maximize my *twenty-two minutes* trying to figure it out.