master or masterpiece?

It’s late August, you are back at school setting up your classroom. Your neighboring teacher pokes her head in to say hi and catch up: “Have you seen your class lists yet? Who do you have?” You hand her the printed lists lying on your desk. As she glances over the lists she shares: “Oh him, he is great! Oh no, not her, she struggles with everything!”

So innocent and so human, to want to know a bit about the students you will work with over the course of the next several months.


I promised myself I would try to avoid preconceived ideas about students. I wanted to let them be blank canvases as they entered the class and paint their own story, fresh for the first time. I even went as far to make a poster in big bold letters and post it up at the back of the classroom as a daily reminder to myself of this very thing:

Expectation becomes the realization

While my intentions were good it turned out my practice was not.

A couple of years into teaching I had the chance to work with students I worked with in Science 8 again in Chemistry 11. I was thrilled to have already established relationships in place! As such we had richer conversations, less ground work to cover to create mutual understanding. But with that prior knowledge of each other guess what else crept in?

I learned in talking with students how I had broken my own rule of thumb. In conversation one day, a student said: “Yeah I even got “name of student who always gets A’s” to do my lab for me and you still gave me…”
In that moment I was caught; I had fallen for the name on the page and not the words on the page. I was judging students on what I knew of them rather than the evidence of their learning they were sharing with me. I was marking everything students put a pen on and evaluating nothing. Oh I had so much to learn!

My take away that day (beyond the burning shame of being blatantly wrong and floored by how much I had to learn) was…
I needed to look at the evidence and not the person presenting it, regardless of what I knew of them, felt about them or had heard about them. I wanted to look for the potential masterpiece…and sometimes it would be crumpled, the spelling atrocious, and handed in late…but it could be a masterpiece! Would I see it?

Today I continue to ask myself when:

  • I read a tweet or a blog…
  • I evaluate or assess…
  • I listen to a student’s idea or suggestion…
  • I choose to retweet or share a blog…
  • I sit in a meeting…
  • I read student work on the crumpled or torn paper…

What am I reacting to? What am I really evaluating? What am I connecting to? What do I base my opinions on?

What do you react and connect to?

The master or the masterpiece?

Assessment in a time of abundance


“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care”

I clearly remember a staff meeting from my first year of teaching. The discussion was “lates.” Our principal suggested the “have a quiz at the start of class” strategy to hold kids accountable. This was brilliant! We had curriculum to deliver or push at our students and a fixed amount of time in which to push said curriculum at them. We needed kids in their seats. Period.

Just in case curriculum delivered via push

When I began teaching content was bound by textbooks and the notes I gave in class. It was a time of information scarcity with limited opportunities to expose students to the knowledge pieces they might need in the future. As such, we relied on practices to push students to where the just in case curriculum could be delivered to them. Assessment was used to push students to the just in case curriculum. Assessment was used to determine the success of pushing the just in case curriculum at students. Assessment allowed students (and the system) to demonstrate the successful acquirement of the just in case curriculum and readiness for further investment of the limited resources. In a time of scarcity, procurement of limited resources was a requirement for further investment. Standardized common assessments allowed us to quickly determine who should move on to the next level of investment.

Scarcity shaped our present day assessment tools

Quizzes held students accountable to the knowledge pieces they might need for the test. Tests held them accountable to the just in case pieces they might need for the final exam. And so on.
In a time of scarcity it was not wise to invest in understanding or synthesizing until students indicated (through our assessment tools) mastery of the just in case curriculum (that would not be available to them later).
Fill in the blank worksheets, non-original assigned work, work with time penalty, all created in a time when the itty-bitty knowledge pieces might prove useful in the future.

Reconsider assessment tools designed for just in case and scarcity

Almost 30 years later the textbook and my notes are now the least relevant sources on content. The abundance of information is mind-boggling to say the least. My students show up with encyclopedias in their pockets, experts at their fingertips and the potential of networks waiting to be tapped.

Yet…the assessment landscape of middle and high schools remains unchanged.

The majority of the assessment tools used in high school today were designed to measure mastery of a just in case curriculum pushed at students. Homework asking students to answer already answered questions, in order to copy a line of thinking already thought. Quizzes designed to hold students accountable to a predetermined pathway of just in case content acquisition. Final exams designed to measure the amount of just in case curriculum in the student’s mind (all be it only temporarily), to determine whether they should move to the next level of the pyramid scheme.

Do these tools meet the needs of our students in this time of abundance?

Just in time and pull

In a time of abundance students need skills to pull the knowledge pieces just in time. Projects solving real and authentic problems create the pull and in turn students pull as needed. Students create the need to knows, the just in time schema, through the problems and puzzles they are trying to solve.

Problems, real and authentic need to pull students in. Students need to pull information and knowledge just in time to solve problems and create answers. Students need to be made responsible (rather than held accountable) with the skills, the opportunities, the know-how to pull the information they need, when they need it. Students need to do the pulling.

Holding students accountable to something no longer valuable devalues the system

The steps of mitosis, organelles of a cell, states of matter, dates of the world wars still matter. They do, of course they do. But they matter in context. In context of solving a worthy problem, in struggling with a dilemma, in writing a piece to understand ourselves, in creating a movie, etc.

But knowledge pieces lying in an extracted heap and pushed at students. Valueless. Completely valueless.
Pushing these knowledge pieces is no longer the why of school.

Instead of wondering how we can hold students accountable, shouldn’t we be wondering how we can make them responsible for finding and solving worthy problems?
Instead of designing assessments to validate our ability to push curriculum at our students shouldn’t we be wondering how to help student assess what pieces of content they need?
Instead of trapping students in a quagmire of knowledge pieces shouldn’t we be providing them with the skills to find and access the knowledge pieces when they need to find them in context?

Our challenge in this time of abundance is to create an environment that pulls students in. Not one that pushes them out.

How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger


Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students


Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

5 Point Free Assessment Strategies


Shared on Flickr by ys

If we view assessment as a way for the learner to forge a pathway forward, towards commonly held and co-constructed expectations, we need a way to guide the learner along their learning pathway, a guide wire of sorts. Assessments have a longstanding tradition of being more about mark generation. Slowly there is a growing voice and collective understanding of assessment as a means to provide useful, timely and relevant information about learning….to the learner, so they can guide themselves, towards their expectations.

Think of the mountain climber trying to make the first ascent up a certain mountain, when the first attempt does not work she will have to revise and plan a new route. Moreover one pathway might be successful for one mountaineer but not the next, it depends on the conditions, the mountaineer and their equipment. Make no mistake; every mountaineer will set out with some form of equipment to receive regular and ongoing feedback about where they are going.

How might we provide such feedback for our students on their learning journey without tainting it with points?
Below are 5 point free assessment strategies. Maybe you have some to add!

1. Hot Seat or Interview: To create a community of learners we need to have ongoing and regular conversations about learning. If learning is important let’s talk about it! To have meaningful conversations we need a commonly held lexicon of learning (don’t you love how that sounds?).  Students need the time, space and opportunity to discuss the nuances of their learning journey. Instead of points being the language of learning we need to work consistently to create words to give life to how learning looks and feels for the learner to use (as opposed for the teacher to use about the learner).

Setting aside a regular time for these conversations to occur embeds it in the classroom routine and signals to students that talking about learning is valuable. A formal conversation also gets the ball rolling for having continuous, ongoing casual conversations with students and between students. Students would often conference with each other before sitting down with me.

I had “Hot Seat” appointments with students the week before heading into a “test” (an opportunity to show their learning). If students weren’t ready, it allowed us to create a plan of action based on their specific situation. Alternatively if the student was feeling uncertain about certain topics this provided the student a chance to have one on one time with me to clarify. It also provided me the teacher, rich information about each learner and convinced me that students can self-assess with accuracy (more accurately than I could with points).

The information that came from Hot Seat indicated to both me and the student how the student would do on the upcoming test. Instead being a surprise, the test became validation of evidence we had already examined.

2. Test in advance: There is a belief that if we show students the test in advance then “it will be too easy” or somehow not fair. Nothing can be further than the truth! Even with test in hand, student still struggle to build schema around concepts and develop vocabulary to communicate their ideas fully. Learning is a process and we want students to be growing towards fixed targets rather than crashing into invisible ones.

3. Group Quizzes: Inviting students to writing quizzes as a learning opportunities rather than point collection opportunities for the teacher, changes the whole vibe of quiz writing.

“Yes please cheat!” “Please ask your table what they think the best answer to the question is!” “Please try to figure out the answer together!”

Quizzes are a great example of just in time learning (instead of just in case) and show clearly that students ARE motivated to learn, just maybe not be at the exact second we want them to. 🙂

4. Clear learning targets: When students are explicitly aware of the learning targets it becomes easier for them to hit them. Not only do I think so, but there is data to support this. Hattie calls this: Self-Reported grades, as he explains succinctly here.

But seeing believing and after watching student’s self-assess (based on standards that related specifically to the course, see examples here) I grew confident that they could accurately tell me how they were doing.

5. Learning Journals: As the mountaineer needs time to map out a new route, students need quiet time in and with their own thinking to map out their plan of action. Providing regular class time for reflection signals it is a valuable part of the learning cycle. I used in expensive copy books which stayed in the classroom.

The greatest effects on student learning occur when the teachers become learners
of their own teaching and ………when students become their own teachers.

                                                                                        John Hattie

The purpose of classroom assessment: Do we know?

Mycelium is mass of fine, white interconnected fungal threads that grow through a substrate as they digest it. This process of digestion and absorption allows the fungus to spread as fruiting bodies appear atop the location where the mycelium lurks. The fruiting body is what you chop up to put on your pizza but it also holds spores which disperse and spread the fungus far and wide.

Assessment is an invisible, interconnected web of interactions that pervades education and digests learning as it grows. While it may hard to locate the mycelium, it is evidenced by the letter grades and accompanying percentages that appear, emerging from the subterranean assessment. Percentages and letter grades are the fruiting bodies that emerge out that allow the assessment to proliferate and spread. Assessment as mycelium is tangled throughout our institutions and begets assessments of the same sort, as spores produce fungus of the same sort.

Do we have a historical hangover from our greedy consumption of standardized tests in the name of fairness? Can we effectively remove the millions of innocuous threads that proliferate throughout the system? Can we recover a medium free of standardized assessment contamination (ones used to rank, sort, and compare)? Has the learning in education been consumed and ravaged by our obsessive and abusive love affair with data and the quantification of learning?

This weekend I had the opportunity to delve deeply into the varied functions, uses and abuses of assessment at all levels. #Mermforum2013 offered new insights and pushed my thinking around the purpose of classroom assessment.

While assessment at the federal, provincial or state level is beyond my direct control, I can as a classroom teacher clear the lens and clarify the purpose of assessment in the classroom.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment? Do we know?

If classroom assessment is in fact to inform learning, class assessment would in all instances:

1. Empower students to determine and locate their best talents and selves, as a compass helps us locate a desired location.

2. Act as a medium for growth and support as a tomato plant laden with fruit are supported with a tomato stake.

3. Focus on improving rather than proving. (Students would say: I know how to get better, I know where and how to get helpful and timely feedback related to my learning).

4. Help students understand themselves as people. Students would see learning as a human, integrated activity, connected wholly and fully to whom there are as a person.

5. Allow for feedfoward (not simply feedback) that would spotlight learning as a continuous ongoing process. There would be follow-up and follow through. We wouldn’t asses as an end point; we would access to begin, anew, again and again.

When we say assessment is for learning but are not consistent with this purpose…the mycellium…begins to grow. To say classroom assessment is in the service of learning then…we must, in every instance, say classroom assessment is NOT:

1. A way to generate percentages to serve the need of universities to filter students for entrance (whether it is in fact true teachers still service this belief).

2. A razor to make precise cuts to the .01% place to justify the awarding of monetary scholarships. If assessment is about learning, it cannot also be about this!

3. A method to rank students for awards such as top student and student of the year.

4. A way to control student behavior (get this done or I will take it in for marks).

5.  A means to justify low-level and non-learning or pseudo learning tasks (i.e. worksheets worth 125 points or bringing in a box of Kleenex).

6. As a way to generate a final letter grade or percent.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment?

The Point Factory


Photo shared on Flickr by Societies Illusion

The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to students but goes on inside students.
                                                                                                                                                            Ron Berger


Each September millions of children return to point factories. Children are assigned to work groups where a supervisor will monitor and track each child’s point production.  Point quotas vary from group to group but daily production is strictly enforced. Children remain at their work stations throughout the work day or risk point deductions for absence or reduced productivity. Children who fail to meet weekly point quotas are reported to the factory warden. Such children are mandated to complete their point quota or risk removal from the factory.

Supervisors assign point producing projects with strict time lines. Without such time lines children reduce overall productivity of the factory. Overly sentimental supervisors may reveal point allocation for work projects in advance. Efficient supervisors like to keep point allocation to themselves; “Just complete the task children! You will be told in good time!” This breeds the trust necessary to run an efficient factory.

Supervisors keep accurate and detailed data logs on each student’s point production. Detailed data reports are sent home to parents daily. In the modern age parents prefer monitoring their child via electronic sensors. Supervisors may include comments such as: “Congratulation your child is expert at point acquisition; we feel certain this will ensure their success in the future.” This type of tracking is preferable to time-consuming conversation and discussion. Daily point output provides a reliable and efficient means of determining the child’s progress towards being a valuable member of SOCIETY. For children who can’t be productive point producers it is dubious if they will ever contribute in a meaningful way to SOCIETY. 

Children are required to prove authenticity of their point production. Children create new point counterfeiting strategies daily. As a result supervisors receive extensive training to allow them to remain diligent. Regardless, point buying is common when children have access to currency. Haggling is a known and accepted way to increase point allocation from a supervisor. Parents often provide point negotiating training for their child. 

Most supervisors believe daily point tallies are vital to keep children focused on their purpose. Children are not to be trusted for remembering why they are at the factory in the first place, they are children! Once points are assigned, students wear these points publicly displayed on their work jackets. This allows supervisors to efficiently judge what they are up against and adjust working conditions accordingly.


Just because something is mathematically easy to calculate doesn’t mean it’s pedagogically sound.
                                                                                    Rick Wormelli

Perfectionism, grades, and hollowing out.


Photo shared on Flickr by Roni Rosen

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
                                                                                                                                                    Anna Quindlen

Over the years as a senior science teacher, I have noticed a trend among high achieving girls* (read note below on why only girls) that I call “hollowing out”.

Hollowing out is when the student shows up in the physical sense but “they are not there”; their soul, spirit, joie de vivre has disappeared and shut down. I have observed hollowing out in seniors who were previously dynamic, outgoing, and high functioning. I have no data to support this, only anecdotal conversations I’ve had with students and their parents over the years about this change in attitude, energy and grades.

A quote from a student struggling to hang in during her grad year after a successful high school career, has stuck with me:

“I am just so tired Ms. Durley, so tired of making everyone else happy, I just can’t do it anymore.”

Not only does the comment break my heart but it captures the emotional cost of being a high flyer and the burn out or “hollowing out” that can result. More haunting than her words, is the memory of the vacant and disconnected look that replaced the once curious twinkling bright eyes from years past.

This alone might make for a good write, but this year my observations moved from moderately concerned teacher to highly concerned parent, as I watched my 16-year-old daughter begin to hollow out.

I did not realize (or admit) what I was watching, until I read Scott McLeod’s post, My Son is a Maker, which hit me like a ton of bricks right in the gut. Part of the reason I avoided examining my feelings is I teach at the same school as my daughter and I felt conflicted. After months of reflection, I understand this issue is not school specific but rather a symptom of the system as a whole. I now feel comfortable discussing it openly; I do not specifically blame our school or staff and accept that I am part of the problem too (more conflict).

Down the proverbial garden path my mind has wandered over several months. Watchful for clues, of my daughter, of the children I work with. I began to wonder if other aspects of school culture are related to perfectionism.


Brené Brown describes perfectionists as: “raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people pleasing, appearance, sports)”. This description makes me think of our school environments, especially in senior years when 90% of what we do with our students is focused on their grades (quizzes, tests, GPA, college/university entrance, scholarships, honour roll, career choices etc.).

Senior years in high school academics are like the training grounds of thoroughbreds for the Kentucky Derby: how you get there does not matter as long as you bring home a ribbon. The drive to hyper-prepare students pointedly for post-secondary education comes at a cost I am not sure we have yet honestly accessed.

As Marc Prensky points out: It’s not that we did education wrong in the past; it’s that our past education no longer works in today’s context. What we did in the past is no longer working.

We can do better.

We need to do better.

We need to do so NOW.

As Brené Brown makes clear: “perfectionism hampers success. In fact it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis”. The irony is in our drive make our children “successful” we drive them away from it. Studies such as Women do better on math tests when they fake their names suggest that girls who feel they will be judged are negatively impacted.

Are challenges we face in our schools consequences of this perfectionist culture found in both schools and society at large?

Such as:

1. Fear of sharing and openness – To share is to be vulnerable. To share is to open oneself up to potential criticism. The risk is great. To share risks that the world will potentially know that: I am not perfect and therefore not lovable.  Brown states: “Belonging is in our DNA, most likely connected to our most primitive survival instinct. Given how difficult it is to cultivate self-acceptance in our perfectionist society and how our need for belonging is hardwired, it’s no wonder that we spend our lives trying to fit in and gain approval.”

Simon Sinek explains it as “Our need to belong is not rational, but it is a constant that exist across all peoples, in all cultures…When we feel like we belong we feel connected and we feel safe.  As humans we crave the feeling and we seek it out.”

2. Lack of a unified consistent identityDr Alec Couros talks about the importance of a unified online identity. I wonder where and how do children develop a unified identity? Can they decide who they should be if they feel they first must know who WE want them to be?

What happens to identity when they expend a large portion of their energy trying to anticipate what identity will help them fit in, help them be perfect, help them be lovable? I see many young females you are hyper socialized; they are nice (as compared to kind), aware of their image and scripted in public.

3. Product over process: When results matter more than learning it does not matter HOW you get the “right” answer, it just matters that you get it. Academic integrity goes out the window, cheating, and copying are quickly justified.

4. External rewards over internal ones: Only what others see matter: report cards, honour roll, awards, student of the year.

5. Competition over collaboration: Work with others opens students up to the risk that the work will be less than perfect. From the student’s perspective when they work alone they control the work and it WILL be perfect.

As Johnny Bevacqua references in his post Collaboration AND Competition:

In societies where competition is encouraged, children associated competition with greater self-esteem. However, in societies where cooperation was encouraged, children tended to associate cooperation with greater self-esteem. In either case, it was not some inherent quality of the child, but rather the culture itself that most influenced self-esteem.

6. Increased absenteeism: As students hollow out, they increasingly game the system. They feel lack of control over the meaningless of what they are doing and so in reaction they try to take control by maximizing their energies and only attending when “it counts”.

7. Fear of connection: Connection requires honesty and with a perfectionist mindset the thought that the real me might never be liked, instead I will show you what I think you will like.


We could simply “flip” the above statements around, and say let’s work towards that! I have only just begun to collect clues in earnest and to make sense of the translation into actions and processes would look like in our schools.

Below are some starting points for further exploration using the stem provided by brilliant teacher Tom Barrett at #BLC13 in his Design Thinking sessions.

How might we:

1. Develop self-regulation and mindfulness.

2. Cultivate creativity: Let go of comparison, ranking and embrace uncertainty. Could we admit we don’t know what the future will hold but admit that what we are doing is not it?

3. Create white space for goal-less learning and ownership: This Joe Bower post hints at this.

4. Focus on questions instead of answers.

5. Process vs. end point: Give value to getting there, the effort and the skills used in the learning journey, that is continuous and ongoing.

6. Value understanding over knowledge: Move away from that which is Googlable.

7. Celebrate Openness.

I know I can’t turn this ship around for my daughter. But I am so up for helping to turn it around for yours, your sister, your cousin, your wife to be, your granddaughter, your girlfriend.

In closing, I offer this beautifully simple video by Ron Berger on feedback (make if kind, make it specific, and make it useful):

”  . . . and if you can’t see anything beautiful about yourself, get a better mirror, look a little closer, stare a little longer, because there’s something inside you that made you keep trying despite everyone who told you to quit.”  

                                                                                                                                                       Shane Koyczan

Further resources:

The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown

No Tosh’s:  Design Thinking 

The Challenges and Realities of Inquiry Based Learning

*My observations pertain to girls not because I believe girls to be the only victims of perfectionism but primarily because as a mother of a girl I spend more time observing trends that relate to her development. Most students I have become close to over the years have stayed in touch with, got to know their families, are also mainly female.

Rolling grades and the final exam.


cc licensed by flickr photo shared by DS Bigham

In March I wrote about rolling grades and now with final exam season upon us, the full potential of rolling grades comes into to play.

At our high school, we have a common 25% value of the overall course grade for all final exams in grade 12 and the expectation that the final exam will occur during the designated time slot. This policy is a holdover from when provincial exams (in BC) were no longer mandatory.

Although I am limited in some respects, I have made the following changes to how final exams look over the last 2 years:

1. No multiple choice only open-ended questions. A sample exam is provided below.

2. Emphasize big ideas of the course and a move away from details only type questions.

3. Questions on the final exam that are similar or the same as the ones we have been discussing and working on all year.

4. Final exam as a showcase of what students know now to replace outdated data we have about their learning.

5. Option to use this new information (or parts of this new information) to replace old data. This exam can potentially count for up to 100% of student’s final mark if this advantages the student.

General Observations:

1. Students value memory based questions: Students feel “ripped off” if some questions do not ask for memorized details. They feel this devalues their hard work as many of them have highly developed short-term memories. I have tried to value this by providing some detail type questions without letting them become the focus of the exam.

2. Currency of value is points: Students struggle (really struggle) to know how much to write or understand how important a question is without the points provided. I have tried exams without assigned points and I have tried linking questions to specific standards (as the questions are anyways). But like a visitor in a foreign country, currency is to a large part intuitive and so for this reason I put the point value to indicate to them what questions are really important and roughly how many thoughts they should have in their answer.

3. Providing the questions in advance does not mean everyone gets 100%. You might think giving questions in advance makes the exam “too easy” but students still struggle and still have to work at the process to do well. Moreover, giving them a set goal gives them the hope that they can get there with effort and preparation.

4. Preparation, preparation, preparation: My hope is to give value to the process of getting ready (the learning) and not just value to the event. As well, to discourage cramming we are not covering new content up until the last second. Student need significant time and opportunity to get organized, ask questions, and take ownership of the situation. This means finishing the course with lots of time to do meaningful pulling it all together type activities in class together.

5. Emphasize big trends: This is a big change for students and naturally their focus is drawn to the dazzling array of details. It is a daily conversation to get them to consider: What is the big idea here?; Why does this matter; Does it matter?

6. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue: As with any significant change to long-standing practices you must be willing to create space, time and safety for ongoing conversations. I talk about how this works on a daily basis.

What next?

1. I recognize this time as a time of transition and so I accept the limitations of my ability to create exactly what I think is best. I must be sensitive to the culture of my school, my department and most importantly to the culture of my students.

2. Continue to foster an atmosphere of learning. Continue to find examples that speak to the value of learning over and above the value of marks.

3. Continue to unpack through dialogue unconscious preconceptions about learning and grades with students and parents.

4. Work to find ways that give parents a peep-hole into their students learning (as compared to just a glimpse at their marks). This is a priority for next year.

And finally, here is an example of the final exam I used with my students last semester.

Re-do’s and rolling grades.

Over the past year and a half I have been tinkering with re-do’s (re-tests or re-assessments) and rolling grades (grades that do not get set until the end of the semester) with my Biology 12 classes. Assessment is both a volatile and emotional topic for teachers, parents and students. I want to emphasis that what I am sharing is still in progress; I am not there yet but I am trying to get there! I am not an expert in this area, this is still relatively new for me and I am still learning.

To create a re-do policy took several revisions, I worked collaboratively with my colleague Graham Johnson, consulted with my principal, and referred to Rick Wormeli‘s book Fair Isn’t Always Equal.

Re-Do Policy Fleshed Out

1. Students complete an application form and get it to me by the end of the day on Tuesdays. At this time I might have a quick discussion with them about what went wrong the first time. If I have not already done so in class, I might ask them a couple of quick questions about the content. If it appears the student has no new or significant evidence of their learning, I might suggest they wait until the following Thursday. The application is the basis for a meaningful discussion and it is not black and white (they fill it out and they re-write). I have had students show up on a Thursday morning (re-do morning) with no application turned in and have sent them away. I want the re-do to be something they plan for and commit to in advance. As I say to them: “You are not going to Vegas to gamble!”

2. Re-do’s happen outside of class time on Thursday before school or after with no exceptions. If a student says “I can’t make it this Thursday.” I respond with “choose a Thursday you can make.” This avoids the “I have a spare Monday afternoon” runaway train of individual appointments that I can’t track or manage.

3. There is a two-week black-out period at the end of the semester (and is highlighted on our class calendar). This provides me the time I need to focus on end of the year activities, report card deadlines, final exams, etc. I did not do this last year and ended up feeling overwhelmed.

4. Re-do’s are a privilege, not a right. If I think they are trying to game me or take advantage of the opportunity I have the right to refuse their application, or we defer it until I see they have committed to the intent of the process.

5. Re-do’s are open to all students regardless of grade.

6. The most recent mark is the mark that will be used. I call this “rolling grades” and grades continue to roll all the way to the final exam (this semester there are 3 parts to the final: a written portion, portfolio presentation and an exit interview, but that is another post!) which is when the grades will stop rolling.

7. A limit of 2 redo’s per semester.

General Insights from working with Re-Do’s

1. I needed to define my limits in terms of time and energy in the policy. Sometimes this is hard for teachers to do, but making this policy made it easier for me to define those limits.

2. The idea of a “re-do’ is new for students and I needed to talk about both re-do’s and rolling grades on a daily basis. I know that sounds unbelievable, but I had students in last month of the semester ask incredulously “You mean I can re-do that test I bombed back in September?” Students see marks as set in stone so it takes time and many conversations before they begin to intuitively understand how it works.

3. I am using written assessments and no longer use multiple choice tests (Good bye multiple choice! Good-bye?). Re-do tests are very similar to the original; questions follow the standards for the course that we use in class on a regular basis.

4. If a student never chooses a re-do, they can still show what they know on a topic on the midterm and/or final exam, and their mark will roll with the most recent information (so in essence both the midterm and final exams are re-do’s).

5. Tests have an advanced and core questions; students can omit the advanced part if they are struggling to keep up and can challenge at a later date. Last semester I had several students who struggled with advanced questions but were ready to challenge these questions by the end of the semester with much success (it was pretty neat to see 🙂 ).

How about you? Do have re-do’s in your class? Would love to hear!

Meaning of grades? You tell me.

Student D shows up for class early, Staples-issue binder, Lou Lou Lemon lovely, warm breakfast sandwich lovingly wrapped in one hand and a Venti Starbucks in the other. As she enters she asks: “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” She sits at the front, during class she will ask up to 10 questions and gets impatient if her needs are not quickly meet. At break she hangs out with other like-minded’s and they map out a plan of attack for the up coming Physics project.

Student S shows up late. She struggles to get to school every day. Her mom tries to text her from work in the morning to wake her up. Her binder is somewhere, she just can’t remember where? Maybe her boyfriend’s car? She does not have time for breakfast or really the energy to make it. She rushes out the door hair wet. Once again, she did not bother to get the answers for the chemistry homework assignment….oh well.  None of her friends are in chemistry and she does know anyone well enough to text them for the worksheet answers.

Student C works upwards of 20 hours a week. She and her Mom have just moved to an apartment closer to school so she can walk to both school and work. When homework is assigned she relies on her friends. She is happy she has smart friends. She would like to do her own work but she just can’t keep up with the demands of work and school. For a Physics assignment where she had to build a catapult she thankfully purchased one from a former student. She tries to get her friends to tutor her right before tests and go through the material. She finds she is too tired most days to focus in class.

Student M sneaks quietly into to class, head down, books clutched tight, treading lightly as she moves to the back corner of the room, hoping to remain unnoticed a little longer. During class, she does not interact with other students and only on the rare occasion will talk to her teacher. She dislikes group work and any enforced group activities make her feel anxious. For the last group project she had no one to work with and ended up by default having to work with the other “left-over” student. The partnership did not go well and as a result the project feel on her shoulders to complete.

Now. Guess the grade for each of the above students?

Go on. I’ll wait.

By guess I mean use your detective skills to figure them out.

Did you have a knee jerk reaction of some sort to each description on how you expected them to do based on your experiences and biases?

Lately, I have been wondering (and feeling kind of queasy as a result) if grades, especially at the secondary level (as I watch my teen and her friends move through) in a points based transactional model, are more related to how the student is socially connected and than anything else.

What do grades tell us? You tell me.