“It’s complicated. And we need to move on.”

Michael Doyle (Science Teacher) inspired this post with his post “If Randall Munroe were Secretary of Education” If you don’t know who Randall Munroe is, he is the creator of the brilliant web comic xkcd.

The crux of Michael’s post:

“It’s…complicated. And we need to move on” kills inquiry, kills science, but apparently not science education.

In the quest for rich inquiry (easier said than done), this is a core goal. Student questions and curiosity must drive the curriculum awhenever possible.

When I, or the state standards, drive the curriculum train with what we think is important, engagement is a fickle mistress. Often, key topics bore many (most?) students to tears. Sometimes, students are hooked by topics I expect to incite mutinous apathy.

I’m getting better at knowing the difference but it varies dramatically from student to student, group to group, year to year. Every time I think I’ve found a topic that kids love or a method that keeps them engaged, I’m brought back to earth by a group (or a vocal minority) that reminds me I don’t have all the answers.

Better to let student interest drive the train, methinks.

Make time for… FRUSTRATION!

My students were frustrated yesterday and today. I let them wallow in it.

This is a good thing.

Yesterday, I started the group on a whole class inquiry challenge with minimal direction from me. Students had to lead their planning discussion while I observed and took notes. This discussion didn’t go very well – especially from the perspective of the two class leaders.

In fact, they left my room a bit angry.

This is a good thing.


I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

I think I saw this face in my classroom today...

Because they were frustrated with their classmates. They were frustrated with those who were not engaging in the process – those who were not participating. They were frustrated with the complexity of the process and the lack of easy answers from the teacher.

Today, the students came in with a renewed sense of purpose and a desire to collaborate. The discussion was much more productive (even though there was one emotional outburst).

I love to cultivate an healthy level of frustration in my classes. I love to see my students struggle, fail, regroup, and try again. My students need this. So do yours.

Some of the most powerful learning I have seen has occurred when students were frustrated – angry even! – and were able to achieve a breakthrough on their own.

Do I need to step in sometimes? Of course. One of the best lessons that experience is teaching me is exactly when to intervene. Jump in to soon and the student never learns independence and the joy of the epiphany. Wait too long and many students will quit. Usually, though, a teacher’s instinct is to give the kids a boost way too soon.

We all need to learn how to deal with frustration, in school, in work, in life.

image used under cc license from the flickr photostream of MarkKelley

Make time for… conversation

small talk

small talk - from the brilliant xkcd.com

Who does the speaking in your classroom?

When students speak, to whom are they speaking?

When students are talking to each other, what are they talking about?

These are absolutely critical questions. The answers to these questions speak volumes about the level of student engagement in a class.

Who does the speaking in your classroom?

Is it you, or is it the students? If the teacher is the star of the show in their classroom, students are not actively engaging with the content. If students aren’t actively engaging with the content they aren’t learning – at least not with any depth; they aren’t building capacity for transfer. Transfer is the ability to apply learning to new situations, which truly demonstrates ownership of knowledge and depth of understanding.

When students speak, to whom are they speaking?

Are students talking to the teacher or to each other? If student conversation always passes through the teacher-gatekeeper, true discourse is not taking place. Students must be given the opportunity to ask and answer peer questions. The teacher should serve as a passive facilitator (0r even an outside observer) whenever possible.  One great way to get true student-student discourse rolling is with a socratic seminar; another is whiteboarding.

When students are talking to each other, what are they talking about?

When students are talking to each other, are they talking about class content or the latest mind-rotting episode of Jersey Shore? If class content is not engaging or students aren’t afforded time for their curiosity, conversations in your class will quickly veer off task. This is why many teachers hesitate to allow students time for conversation. It is also a great measure of student engagement. Give students a few minutes to talk about your current class topic. Do they talk about it? If not, do they need a more structured conversation protocol, or do you need to revamp your content?

How do you make time for conversation in your classroom?

comic used under cc license from xkcd.com

Whose education is it?

We often send kids mixed messages.  Many of these messages actually create barriers to student learning.

“I want you to think for yourself”‘ vs. “Follow my instructions (obey my orders)”

“No talking when I’m talking” vs. “I want you to participate in the discussion”

“You are here to learn” vs. “You got an F because you didn’t turn in any homework and you’re missing these worksheets”

It is really hard to develop a classroom centered around genuine inquiry if it’s not compatible with your discipline style.

Inquiry is messy.  If you exert external control on students’ actions and behaviors, you can’t expect them to think independently.  Creative thinking doesn’t happen in a teacher-dominated classroom.

There are days that the chaos in my room is too much for even me.  There are days when I snap at the students.  I’m human, after all.  When I do, they slide into passive compliance.  The quality and depth of learning suffers for it.

Whose education is it anyway?

UNgrading – the early returns

This is the third in a series of posts about UNgrading.  The previous two posts were: Why I’m UNgrading my students and How I’m UNgrading my students.

a new day has dawned in my classroom

a new day has dawned in my classroom

We are about to begin week 6 of the school year and I’ve not given my students a grade.  Sometimes I feel a little like I’m neglecting part of my job.  Most of the time I feel like a huge burden has been lifted.

The early results of UNgrading are observational and subjective, so take with a grain of salt.

Brief Background:

What my students have been doing:

I’m a project based learning adherent, so each class (biology, chemistry, physics) has completed one long-term project this year.

In biology, the project was integrated with social studies and English and was focused on the driving question, “What determines who I become?”  This project integrated studies of genetics and heredity (biology) with elements of culture and famous world leaders (social studies).  English focused on writing and speech skills.  At the culmination of the project, students created a poster to answer the driving question.  This poster integrated various pieces from each class.  The posters were presented at a poster session prior to Open House.

In physics, students took on the challenge of the egg drop.  Our school gym has a roof that is about 40 feet high and I climb up there to drop their egg protection devices.  They were given a very limited list of materials with minimal quantities of each allowed.  They made and tested prototypes, completed a scale diagram of their plan for their final device, built their device, and presented their product to their peers with an explanation of the physics behind their design.  The final result, of course, was the egg drop itself.  We had about 100 students and staff in attendance at the event (our school has ~250 students).

In chemistry, we dove headlong into Whole Class Inquiry.  The students explored the particle model of matter with a couple of brief labs, followed by modeling-style whiteboard sessions.  We then went through an inquiry involving baking soda and vinegar and various apparatus that eventually forced water into a graduated cylinder.  The students determined which variables to manipulate about the system and then designed and carried out their experiments.  Finally, they had to bring all of their separate group data together to complete a whole class inquiry assessment.  In this challenge I set the parameters and they had to use their experimental data to complete a single trial experiment.

What I’ve seen so far without grades:

  • This is purely substantial evidence but I feel like I’ve seen a much greater level of curiosity and question asking.  I strongly believe that I’ve never seen so much genuine wonder and inquiry in my classroom.
  • Kids are grading themselves right about where I would have probably done it anyway.  Yeah, a few here and there are a little high or a little low.  Only a handful have been off by more than a grade (i.e. – A vs. C).  Those I just had a brief, gentle conversation with and asked them why they gave that grade.  The ones who undergraded were all too happy to bring it up.  Those who overgraded were quick (maybe too quick) to say that they thought they went too high.
  • The focus on quality work in projects has been at least as good as before, if not better.  Maybe that’s more because the projects were rigorous and engaging and had an audience at the end.  Still, I had to (gently) kick kids out of my room on consecutive Fridays (my day to go home early) at 4 because I wanted to head out.  High schoolers!  On a Friday!  I wouldn’t have been caught dead near a classroom on a Friday afternoon in high school!
  • The focus on content learning during projects has been at least as good if not better than in past years.  Counterintuitively, instead of focusing on really “pretty” products (which I think they equate to “better”), they are doing more functional work focused on learning the necessary content.  Scores on conventional quizzes (not graded) have been at least as good as in past years as well.
  • The relationships in the classroom are better than ever.  My relationship with my students has been very positive.  I feel like I’m acting as more of a mentor or facilitator than ever before.  I feel like we’re on the same side.  My students are also getting along very well with each other.  I do think that grades foster competition among peers, even when there is no curving of the grades.
  • I’ve had no complaints.  No student has complained about UNgrading (not a big surprise).  As yet, no parent has either.  As long as the students and parents are happy, so are my administrators!

The Bottom Line:

  • Students are working at least as hard as before, if not harder, and doing quality work.
  • Students are focusing on learning and being curious more than ever.
  • Relationships are better than ever.

Having seen these positive results so far this year, it’s hard to imagine ever going back to giving grades.  I’m really curious to see what happens when we hit that time of the year when student motivation really starts to wane.  How will the absence of the carrot and the stick affect their willingness to work and to learn when they want to be nowhere near school?

My next step is to keep sharing my learning about UNgrading with my colleagues.  Hopefully I can steal some more converts away from the Dark Side!

Why I’m UNgrading my students

I couldn’t call it DE-grading, now could I…

I never felt right about grades before...

I never felt right about grades before...

It couldn’t really be this easy, could it?

  • Increased motivation to learn for the sake of learning
  • More time on task
  • A rise in creativity and critical thinking
  • Improved work completion
  • A much more positive classroom culture
  • No angry calls from parents

I’ve seen all of these things in my classes in the first month of school.

What did I do?  More importantly, what DIDN’T I do?  You’re thinking, “here comes the sales pitch…”

I haven’t given my students a single grade.

I’m calling in UNgrading.  I want to thank Joe Bower and Alfie Kohn for the inspiration and courage to dive in and do it!

First, some context, so you can see how your system and mine are similar and different:

  • I teach high school science at a public school (not a charter)
  • 90+% of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch
  • 90+% of my students are ethnic minorities
  • We have a traditional school structure (standard course offerings, 6 period days, 55 minutes per class, etc.)
  • I am required to report athletic eligibility grades every Friday
  • I am required to give students progress reports every 2 weeks
  • I must report grades at the end of each quarter
  • My electronic gradebook is viewable by any parent at any time

Pretty standard stuff, really.

For years, I’ve wanted to do away with grades but never was sure how.  Somewhere in my mind, I was still caught up in the fallacy of needing grades to motivate students.  I also felt a strong need to have a defensible position for my grades.  I wandered through the woods of various point systems my first 3 years.  I gave standards-based grading (SBG) the old college try the last 2 years.  Retakes and no late penalties; all that stuff was part of my system.  No matter what I did, it never felt right.

I always said, “I love teaching but I hate grading!”

Now I know why: I was evaluating student work and passing judgement on it.  No matter how clear and detailed my rubrics were, it was still my subjective evaluation of their work.  In fact, the more clear and detailed my rubrics, the more boring their work became – both for them to do and for me to assess.

Next post: How I’m doing UNgrading!

Image used under cc license from the flickr stream of amboo who?