Marks and money matter.

Do you have a child? If not you can play along…

Let’s scan, in your mind’s eye, the life you imagine with your child.
Does it include travel? Does it have family activities or adventures?
Does it involve your child partaking in activities like dance, reading, yoga or hockey?
Maybe you envision camping trips, hiking, or riding bikes?
Perhaps you dream of taking your child to New York City to see a Broadway show?
Maybe sharing a Canucks’ game?

Regardless…money probably is not THE central focus of your family. In context however, money matters and will make a difference to the decisions you make as a family.

In the above schema context is everything; the value of money is related to the value we place on experiences we share with our children (not to imply that only those that cost money are valuable). We as a society share ideals and dreams we have for our children and some of these cost money.

Let’s follow the same process with your child’s education. Let’s imagine your child’s life as they move through school. What do you dream for them? Do you encourage them to follow their hearts and find a passion? Do you imagine they might follow a passion into post secondary education? If at age 5 your child has a dream, to write, design, sing or care for animals, would you discourage or support them? Would you do everything in your power to make their dream a reality? Your child reaches high school, their passion still in place as they head into Grade 12. As you discuss post secondary plans with them, ONE of the variables in the discussion will be your child’s marks.

#truestory or not?

Marks can be used badly….just as money has the potential for abuse. But can’t marks be used as a meaningful way to document growth and progress? When we react to the misuse of traditional point based marks do we serve our children?

In context… marks matter to our children and the choices they can make (for grade 11 and 12 students). Lets recreate how we define marks and evolve our marking systems (updating report cards to provide information related to the specifics of your child, using grading practices not based solely points). Let’s engage in a conversation in the grey areas between traditional marking system and no marks….

The hard conversation is not the one that decides that marks are “bad”. Marks can be misused and abused. Marks can be used for behavior modification, marks can be used as punishment, marks can be given as rewards for Kleenex boxes, cans of beans for food drives, and marks can be bought and sold. But does this mean marks are bad in ALL situations.

If we are to topple the tyrannies inherent in our existing mark system, let’s address and rectify the abuses that exist within the system right now. Let’s work to create marking schemas that allow students to show what they know over a spectrum of time and ways. Let’s not, because our present marking system is outdated and rife with problems, walk away with our children sitting in these chairs right now. Let’s work consistently and conscientiously with children, with parents, to make marks matter that fulfill dreams and aspirations. Marks that enable rather than disable.

The hard conversation is the one that recognizes that our children receive marks. That is a fact.  Marks may be part a dream, as money might be part of a dream.

This is where we need to converse and put the spotlight. Not on mark hate, but on mark smarts.

Not on the polarized conversation for and against marks. We can do less marks, just as we can discover activities that don’t require money. Let’s not go black and white, let’s do grey. Lets build a mark system that empowers and matters.

Let’s make context our conversation. Let’s work to make marks matter in the way our children matter.

BUT… my students are going to university!

Have you ever played broken telephone? Someone starts a message and the message is whispered around the group until out it comes on the other end all garbled and funny?

One of the messages I have “heard” over the course of my career is: “Part of your job is to prepare your students for university. This includes making sure they KNOW the content (every detail!) AND are really good at the game of school.”

No one has of course ever said this aloud or in writing, but the implication has always been out THERE, deeply embedded in the culture of science departments I have worked in.

But what if this message is no longer valid? What if in fact universities were changing too? Would this not be a great reason for us the secondary level to examine and maybe renovate our practices?

Scott Harkness, former student teacher extraordinaire who is now teaching both Biology and Chemistry at Pen High in Penticton B.C., had this very clever and insightful thought “Why not find out WHAT uni prof’s actually want?”

Below is his post on what he found out:

I teach senior high school level biology and chemistry and over the past year I have changed the way I deliver, and the way students “acquire” content in my course. I have shared my journey and ideas with other colleagues along the way. Many have been receptive, and others…well…

Working in a department it is important to work as a team rather than against one another.  It is great to bounce ideas off of each other but some days it feels as if I am constantly fighting an uphill battle where I defend one argument and then another takes it’s place.  Even still, I feel comfortable moving in the direction I am, until university is mentioned.

The thinking goes something like this:  “Students’ in senior science course are headed to postsecondary. They need to know the INFORMATION before going to university or they will not be successful. We at high school need to make sure we cover the CONTENT otherwise these students will be at a disadvantage and it will be MY fault.”

Is this in fact accurate? Is this what universities’ want?

I’ve never asked them…until now.

I sent emails to professors from UBC, U of A, and SFU asking them what their biology/ science departments are doing in terms of classroom format (lecture, etc), educational trends and expectations of students coming out of high school. I included in my email a description of a flipped classroom and how I am trying to move away from content acquisition and towards skill based, process oriented, and collaborative learning. I mentioned that I was hoping to get some insight into what the instructors were doing and to help get my students ready for the next level.

I had no idea what to expect or whether to expect any replies at all. I was blown away, excited and amazed at the responses I received. Below are summaries from 3 university professors.

Dr. Samuels
Head of Botany at UBC.
Her suggestions on how to best prepare students for their post-secondary education:

  • “Encourage all activities that promote active learning in high school [such as skill based, process oriented, and collaborative learning.]
  • Develop…”habit of examining their own thinking will have a more successful transition to university.”
  • “Apply what they have learned in novel contexts.”

Dr. Jonathan Schaeffer
Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Alberta
Upcoming changes he mentions for the university :

  • We have been experimenting with flipped courses. Come September 2013 we will be expanding our number of flipped courses, at least two of which will be in Biology. If all goes well, then we will continue to move in this direction.

Dr. Lam
Biological Sciences at SFU
Upcoming changes he mentions for the university (Note the second one!) :

  • “More inquiry-based and critical-thinking-heavy exercises. “
  • “Experiment with a flipped classroom design (like the one you mentioned) for the lectures.”
  • “Away from content acquisition and move towards skill-based, process-oriented, and collaborative learning.”
  • “Shift the focus away from knowing content and towards the useful skills and conceptual understanding that we want students to have when they graduate.”

His suggestions on how to best prepare students for their post-secondary education:

  • “Break the habit of memorizing things instead of understanding them. The more you can shift their focus towards understanding concepts with the goal of being able to use them as tools to solve novel problems, the better.”
  • “ Build their confidence in their ability to figure things out for themselves. Give them challenges and problems that they don’t think they can solve, refuse to give them hints or answers, and teach them to ask themselves the right questions and to test the validity of their educated guesses until they start to understand the problem and stumble their way towards a valid solution. “

These suggestions from university educators tell me that a big change is on the horizon at the university level. They indicate to me that change can start at the high school level.

We, who teach high school students, can no longer hang on to the illusion that if we focus on content  we are “getting them ready for university”.  Push for change in your classroom, in your department, and in your school.

The change is coming…will you be part of the new era of education?

“I think, increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade and so the most important kind of learning is about how to learn.”

Lawrence Summers – Former President of Harvard

For more on this topic I suggest reading the following articles from the Globe and Mail:

Classroom of 2020: The future is very different than you think

Why university students need a well-rounded education

Through the eye of the needle.

You teach ____________. You are an expert in the field of _____________. You have taught ______________ for ____________ years.

You have all the answer bubble sheets, to all the multiple choice tests, locked safely, in your overflowing filing cabinet.

You have all the workbooks photocopied and stacked for the year. Ready.

You control all the resources.
You decide the parameters of play.
You determine who will fit through the eye of the needle.

You can tell within the first week. They stand out like sore thumbs. They have the wrong friends, they have the wrong habits, they have the wrong life. It is your job to weed them out, like dandelions from your lawn. OUT-OUT-OUT. Don’t let them dilute this _______________class, this university (college) bound class, this academic class, this class where you are grooming these young adults for success in their successful lives ahead.

These students who have the right parents, the right resources, and the right conversations at lunch. Surprisingly too, they have the right answers to your questions in your stacked, photocopied workbooks and… get all the points, like ribonned birthday gifts shiny and encouraging.

Yes…these are the chosen ones, the ones we want in this room and the ones we want to move forward.

The ones who fit effortlessly through the eye of the needle.

You say you are prepping students for university (college) so that when they get there they know about ____________________. You say students must know how to______________, to succeed in __________________. You say it is your duty to get them ready for what lies ahead. Imagine what would happen if you did not…..just imagine, just imagine…

Their lives would be ruined, a shattered and irreparable teapot in a hundred jagged pieces. And you are not going to have that on your consciousness. Not on your watch as a _________ teacher, uh-uh, no way. This is how the subject has always been taught, you are grooming these children so they too can enter into this field, have the right skills and succeed.


Who told you this? When did it become your job to stamp these young adults with “will succeed” and “not able to succeed”. Who gave you that power?

Who made you king or queen of the silo?

Whose needle is it? Who does it serve?

Why Can’t ALL your students fit through?

What is the purpose of the needle?

And finally, with a heavy, heartfelt and pained sigh…what are the ramifications if you decide to put this needle down and go another way?