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.

Working Smarter – 3 Questions

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 add-on so we need to make sure that whatever we are thinking about will make us more efficient at what we do. If we were only dealing with machines then efficiency would be the goal, but there is more to working smarter in education.

(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.


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.

21st Century “Elevator Answer” Challenge

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!!

We’re Talking “Seamless Math” K-12

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!