What is the point?

cheering crowd

Cheering Crowd by Michael Streat

The win! The cheering crowd, the champion cup, your team won! How do you know?

EASY. Look at the score board.

Is the educational game to determine the winners and losers so we can “fairly” award the victors?
Is learning an event that can produce data with mathematical accuracy?

Point Collection Culture

Point collection is both pervasive and invasive in school culture; assessments (tests, quizzes, assignments etc.) are designed to maximize the efficiency of point harvesting and not necessarily to provide relevant information around learning. Point collection, more than any other consideration in high schools, determines the selection of the summative assessment tool. Learning in high school happens in spite of point collection but not as a result of, or guided by, point collection (the main form of assessment in play in high schools).

Points are the currency of value and are what students work to acquire.

Students often see learning as a waste of energy as it may inhibit maximum point acquisition. Many students become desensitized to recognizing or identifying what learning feels like after being exposed to point allocation for non-learning activities over long periods of time. Point allocation for worksheet completion, word counts or even the wearing of a team jersey on spirit day, informs students that they should concern themselves with mastering point acquisition over learning strategies. Overall, points carry clout and value in the school setting and trump learning.

Point Driven Mindsets

Teachers in the name of efficiency are driven to collect as many points as possible in the shortest period of time. Points (and the collection of) are used primarily to determine how effectively the teacher transferred a fixed body of knowledge to the student (focused on what the teacher has taught). Point collection does not describe the student’s conceptual development of a subject and is limited to the highly prescribed curriculum. Most assessments reveal what a student does not know rather than reveal where students have mastered. The common student laments “I understood topic X perfectly but it wasn’t on the test”, “I studied all the wrongs things” and “But you never even taught us that!” all speak to this perspective. As points are deducted from students this that will determine the students overall average in a course, the focus avoiding mistakes at all costs.

Essays, projects and tests are often given to students with the “I need to collect marks” mentality as raspberries in season that need to be harvested in haste before the birds get to them. Rather than the consideration of the student’s learning and progress as the deciding factor, a pre-set date for harvest dictates when a student will have the chance to acquire points.  The school calendar dictates harvest dates and not the progress of the child.

Does this in any way improve the next crop of raspberries?

Point Driven Strategies

Over the course of their school careers, students develop highly sophisticated point acquisition strategies to succeed. These strategies generally reward students who are socially well-connected and those who know how to negotiate. Students who are willing to hound the teacher often benefit from more points (this speaks to personality rather than mastery of content).

Knowledge or understanding of content beyond material that will be tested is deemed “useless.” The common refrain “Will this be on the test?” speaks to this mindset. Students want and demand from teachers perfectly worded answers which are easy to mimic and memorize in order guarantee point acquisition.

Demonstration of learning is done so as to avoid error; errors are permanently costly in an averaged point acquisition set up. Evaluation is separated from the learning process and has nothing to do with the student themselves. “What did I get?” is the most commonly asked question of the classroom teacher instead of: What did I learn?; How can I improve?; Can you help me figure this out?

Students are routinely given the message that they should trust a number over what they feel and know about themselves as learners. “I thought I knew it better than that” reflects a student ability to self-access which is ignored in a scantron world “Well that’s what the bubble machine score showed us.” Regardless of wording, nuance or interpretation of questions, the scantron is given absolute authority over determining the student’s learning or lack there of.

The end game

What is in fact our end game in education? When our students exit the building in their final year with their school record what do we hope that record speaks of and speaks to about that student? When parents receive their child’s report card at the end of the semester and this is the only piece of information that they will receive about their son or daughter what do we want the piece of paper to communicate about this child?

At the moment report cards are the end game that drive the cattle home so to speak, all roads lead to report cards. When we work back from these it explains and decodes many of our schools habits and mindsets. Final exams, exam periods, and midterms exist in many cases to create and justify a final letter grade.

What do we want to be able to communicate in regards to student learning? What are we hoping to convey? Who is it for? Who is to benefit?

Do we as educators have a moral imperative to consider and begin to advocate for assessment that empowers learning?


Looking for feedback: Assessment & Grading Guide


‘Money reduces trust’ in small groups, study shows

It’s Time to Stop Averaging Grades

Grading Practices that Inhibit Learning

Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading

Navigating Uncertainty.

uncertainty (2)

Image shared on Flickr by Matt Curry

Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lies.
Margaret Wheatley

Blame it on the rain (now sun). Blame it on #blc13. Blame it on David Weinberger’s book Too Big to Know.

But it is official: I feel uncertain about the future of education.

 Is Uncertainty the New Certainty?

I am uncertain about mark generation and our use of letter grades and percentages.
I am uncertain about top down prescribed siloed curricula.
I am uncertain of our report cards as representative of student learning.
I am uncertain of exactly what skills will best equip our students for their futures.
I am uncertain of our systems ability to adapt and evolve in a timely manner.
I am uncertain of our systems ability to provide a relevant and meaningful education to our students.

Yet. As a system, we continue to devote our limited energy towards maintaining a status quo of certainty
To evolve as a system do we have to embrace our collective uncertainties before we can experience meaningful systemic change?
For change to ripple throughout the system, do we need to let go of our facade of certainty to create a new status quo that embraces uncertainty?

relevance (2)

Image Shared on Flickr by Dean Shareski


Our system’s exoskeleton sits propped up like a circus tent; the exterior imposingly large but inside vacuous and lacking life, sucked clean by how and where students are really learning. Our obsessive data collection (aka certainty) our primary propping mechanism. This mandated propping keeps us inside anchored and frozen in place. If we let go the tent will collapse, we inside trapped. In our pursuit to justify to ourselves and society that learning is in fact going on, we have inadvertently crushed, like insects, the potential for connected learning to occur.
Just, look at these grad rates–up! Look at these failures rates–less than one percent!
We are certain…so certain.
So certain in fact that we keep all our feedback loops dialed in on this status quo of certainty. Any new behaviors patterns squelched as they disrupt the system’s ability to maintain homeostasis; life of the system superseding innovation of the system.


Here we stand. Education. Standing stubbornly on our hierarchical particle based shores; siloed groupings guarding their piles of sand even as the grains wash out to sea. Adamant and petulant in the certainty of ourselves.
Stand here! We will not venture into these unknown waters! We are right! Foot stomp. Arms crossed. We are!


Uncertainty grows and like the fog rolls in. We on the shore, trapped in “analysis paralysis”, growing ever more hesitant and fearful to launch into the uncharted dark waters.
BUT we can’t launch…now. We need more…more…data, more certainty. Produce it and THEN we will launch.


Classrooms remain centered around asking, teaching, memorizing Googlable factoids. The primary focus to provide “bits” of just in case certainty to students, who remain decidedly uncertain about the relevance. The message unspoken but loud:

You will get something interesting later on (when and if you deserve it) but first jump through these hoops. This is training for what REALLY matters (life, job, university)!  Later you will see why and how it matters; we are doing you a favour!  We are here to indoctrinate you into certainty. We are certain that all the facts in this book matter and all are relevant. Don’t venture beyond this book and you will be successful! Yes, we are certain this will be on the test. Yes, we are certain that if you miss class it will lower your mark. Yes the answer is B, look it up in the text-book! We are certain that if you fail here, you will also fail in life. 


Students are holding massive garage sales, piling and reallocating the treasured chachkas of our siloed disciplines, only to have them sold off again for far less than we want to think possible (What do you mean you copied this!; What do you mean you want to use Google on the test?; What do you mean you didn’t do the 125 mark worksheet for homework?) Like trinkets we lug home from Mexico to proudly show to family and they awkwardly wonder to themselves: “Why the heck did you buy that?”  Our students are wondering the same: “Why the heck am I learning this, it’s worthless!?” In Mexico the trinkets WERE treasures, in context the knowledge was and is relevant.

Do our students have the context? Or any context for that matter?


Source: The Gallup Blog 

If disengagement is not measure enough, Eric Mazur (Dean of Applied Physics at Harvard) points to MIT research on nervous system activity during lectures as being the same as watching TV. In fact there is more activity during sleep! As Dewey pointed out in 1938:

There is, I think, no point in the philosophy of progressive education which is sounder than its emphasis upon the importance of the participation of the learner in the formation of the purposes which direct his activities in the learning process, just as there is no defect in traditional education greater than its failure to secure the active cooperation of the pupil in construction of the purposes involved in his studying.

Despite growing uncertainty about some things, I have gained certainty about others:

I am certain the students want to learn and have many topics they are deeply interested in.
I am certain that students are creative and need to create to understand who they are.
I am certain students want to have a voice about their learning.
I am certain students want to have a positive impact in their communities and their world
I am certain that many students with high grades have low or very little deeper understanding or love of the topic.
I am certain students with lower grades often times have a deeper understanding but are crushed by the triviality of factoid acquisition.
I am certain students want to be challenged.
I am certain students want to be mentored by people who care about them deeply as human beings
I am certain students want to be seen as individuals.
I am certain students want to feel connected; to their learning, to each other, to the world.
I am certain students want time, space and trust to make decisions about their learning for themselves.
I am certain students are capable with support and love of taking responsibility for their learning.


As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally — our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. No one person or perspective can give us the answers we need to the problems of today. Paradoxically, we can only find those answers by admitting we don’t know. We have to be willing to let go of our certainty and expect ourselves to be confused for a time.
Margaret Wheatley

Everything Formative.

Back in the heyday of my addiction to point collection I would look over my columns of neatly entered numbers with pride and deep satisfaction. More columns proved I knew EXACTLY how the students were doing and like a heart monitor on a dying patient, the data could tell me the exact line between life and death…beep, beep, beep…

The final number my computer spit out WAS mathematically based (numbers had been entered, weighted and averaged correctly) but the number failed to accurately represent the student who was walking out the door of the course. In fact I had no clue about who that student was; the final mark was a blur of data that I had extracted primarily to hold students accountable and/or to present an airtight case if I was held accountable.

Over many years I had been exposed to AFL (assessment for learning) and as result I could provide solid definitions for formative and summative assessment. However, I was unable to translate these words into practice.

Maybe it is the same for you?

Things have changed. Now I have very few numbers in my day book and even when I do, these numbers are always in flux; they are a fleeting snapshot of the student right now and not a concrete prediction of where the student will be at the end of the course.

What do I mean? To explain I thought I would use a specific example to show what it looks like in practice. While this example is for Biology 12, it is the marking schema I am trying to highlight and not the biology. This example is from the first unit of the year, cell biology, and is based on the standard below, which is one of two standards (read more here and here about where standards come from) for this unit:

A2. I can explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from a cell in the human body.

The various assessments for this standard are outlined in the table below. Note these are the formal assessment opportunities and do not include the many informal opportunities for feedback. As well students can apply for a re-do of any unit assessment.

Task Type Student prompt summarized Feedback provided Formative or Summative
Quiz Outline the overall production of a protein, starting with the RER. Students use 4 point scale to self-assess. Written & verbal feedback provided by teacher.

 Formative. Students     self track. Teacher records number from self- assessment.

Assignment-Done in class with help from teacher & peers. Explain how the following 5 cells organelles of a pancreas cell would work together to make and export insulin. A diagram may be used to support your writing. Organelles: RER, vesicle, Golgi complex, membrane, nucleus. Students self assess using    4 point scale.  Written and verbal feedback provided. Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Formative. Students self track. Teacher records number.

Test Explain the production and processing of a protein that is exported from a eukaryotic cell. Begin with rRNA and end with the release of the protein from the plasma membrane. Tests returned to
students to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.
Formative or Summative.
Midterm Explain how the function of RER, Golgi complex and cell membrane are relate. Tests returned to students
to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment. Teacher uses
4 point scale.
Formative or Summative
Final Exam Explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from
a cell in the human body.
Students can pick up final exam the week after finals. Written feedback given.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Everything formative allows for:

  • Ability to cycle back through the course several times, we review (as a class and in groups) at each test, the midterm and again at the final. Each time we review we do a different type of activity.
  • Multiple entry points are provided for students into a topic and there are always opportunities to catch up. Entry points for each standard vary (i.e.: a lab, a group activity, an interactive white boarding activity, a review game, a writing activity), but come at various times. I call it ‘cycling back’ when talking with students.
  • Few surprises for students when students challenge the midterm or final.
  • Reduction of student and teacher anxiety.
  • Students to take high stakes assessments when they are ready.
  • The target to stay the same over course of the semester.
  • Building lasting schema by exposing students to the same key ideas more than once and in various ways.
  • Activities to be designed for learning not point extraction.
  • Conversation shift to one about learning and not about points.
  • Students to be able to explain their mark and we are not reliant on “well that is what the computer told me so it must be right!”
  • Feedback related to how student can improve instead of “remember you did not hand that in so…”
  • The assessment process to be human. I found the years of point focus dehumanizing.

Would love to here how you are using formative assessment in your classroom!

Starting with WHY. Course outline, e-portfolios and non-content standards.

This year I wanted a course outline that signaled to students right away that this course was way more about them as individuals than about a long laundry list of learning outcomes. I also wanted to establish a shared “why” for us as a class and to invite students to formulate their own personal “why” for the year ahead in Biology. This idea gave me a lens for the course in general and one which fits perfectly with Biology; unity and diversity (or individual and community).

I also decided after much internal debate to embrace the e-portfolio as a mechanism for students to collect, document and showcase their own “story”. To that end students will use 9 standards (drawn heavily from the work of Chris Ludwig) to organize their evidence as we go along.

Below is the outline and 9 course standards. Students will collect evidence for each of the 9, but only the first 7 will be as evidence for a letter grade in the course. I will be using Weebly for student portfolios. After much debate this seemed the simplest (although there is a cost for student sites). I have more detailed standards (some still to write) for each unit. This is still very new for my brain and I am by no means an expert, but I am excited to dive in and try.

The Animoto video was shown to students to model the “we all have stories” idea (even us teachers!) .

Biology 12
We all have stories to tell.

I. Why?
We share similarities and simultaneously each of us is unique.
Using themes is one way in which we can learn about the living world around us. One such theme is unity and diversity; understanding how life is united and similar but at the same time how species (Homo Sapiens) and individuals (you) are different.

We could summarize this as:
How are WE all the same? How are YOU unique?

This is the theme we will use this year to guide our study of Biology. Hopefully this will give us a deeper understanding of how we share experiences (birth, death, growth etc.) and at the same time have unique traits (ex. fingerprints, DNA) and combinations of experiences that are uniquely our own.

To make this theme more “student friendly” and relevant to “real life” , we will refer to this as “telling our story”.  Each of us, has a story to tell (part of what makes us unique) and as we tell our story, collecting artifacts and evidence, this will hopefully provide insight into the shared experience of being a human being.

II. How?
How will you tell your story?

Create a self-sustaining community of self-regulating learners.
This year we will work as a community to support, encourage and catalyze each other as a self-regulating learner. In this space we will work towards collaborating as a group of learners, to allow each to find and tell their story.

We will work individually to create your own unique story that spotlights and focusses on our own story. But we will work to recognize and embrace that collaborative work is key to understanding and telling of our story.

III. What?
Create your story.
Create an e-portfolio which tells your story. To this end you will be responsible to collect evidence and artifacts and evidence around the standards below. Your portfolio will focus on 3 areas: Performance, Progress, and Process.

1.    Content: I can accurately use key terminology, specific facts, and explain key concepts related to biochemistry, cell structure and function, bioenergetics, cell reproduction, genetics, and evolution.
2.   Research: I can examine past and current research in the biological sciences and articulate its impact on society and consider pros and cons.
3.   Lab Skills:  I can explain the principles and purposes behind the techniques introduced in laboratory experiments.
4.   Experimental Design:  I can carry out scientific investigations to solve problems, formulate hypotheses, and design controlled experiments.
5.   Data Analysis:  I can interpret and manipulate data in a variety of formats, such as graphs, tables, and charts, to analyze results and derive and defend conclusions.
6.    Tech Savy:  I can select and apply contemporary forms of technology to solve problems, compile information, and communicate with a global audience.
7. Communicator: I can communicate clearly and logically in essays and multimedia presentations.

8. Metacognition:  I can evaluate my own learning, recognize areas of strength and weakness, and can describe the next steps for growth.

9. Community Member: I can contribute to the learning community in our classroom through meaningful participation in group work, modeling of good work habits, giving my best efforts, and working towards displaying a positive attitude.

Much thanks goes to Chris Ludwig whose blog was invaluable in my learning around e-portfolios and standards.

Starting with why.

I have been frustrated with myself lately.

I have been unable to commit or connect to a specific direction and dig deep into one problem, solve it and move on.

I have been watching all the “good stuff” fly by, thinking: “Yeah I should really look into that.” I have taken some feeble stabs at it; I do have a journal full of musings and a ridiculous number of links in my Diigo. Yet, I feel detached and puzzled by all the shiny new tools and ideas.

I guess some of it is just plain summer time relax mode, but the fuzziness felt thicker than regular summer brain fuzz growing on the grey matter.

Now finally, after some serious angst, I can identify the source of this brain fog…

I am no longer certain or clear on the “why” of school and more personally, on the why of the (my) classroom in the lives of students. Perhaps this is just too much for summer ice tea sipping time, but I felt mentally paralyzed and stagnant in this zone of not knowing.

As I refer back to the past whys from my teaching life, many of the whys I find are “cause the system says so”, “cause the curriculum says so”, “cause the principal sent me to a ProD session on it”,  “cause I need to raise my test scores” or even “so I can survive”.

None of these galvanize me into action any more. Even a little bit.

This confusion around the basic question of the why of my classroom (I say my now as I think through it, but it will become ours) was an obstacle course, long and tough, that I have been struggling to work through and still am. After a solid month of fairly unproductive reflection, reading, and self discussion, I finally have some faint but promising whys starting to solidify into something concrete, but just.

This process of reflection or big picture thinking also has me asking: when and how do I give students the opportunity to think deeply and ask why for themselves? Do I always demand something concrete of them that justifies our time together? Do I push them to be “productive” for the sake of self validation?

I am getting closer to defining the why of my role in the classroom for the year ahead. And  the rest (the how and the what)  should be be easy, right?

I do know my whys won’t be… to serve the system, or to serve the curriculum, but will be to serve students, my students.

What is your why? Do you have any clues to share?