As we move into writing June report cards and are beginning to think about assigning grades, it is helpful to differentiate between when are you giving feedback and when is the student receiving so much assistance that the grade may be effected as the student is not able to independently demonstrate achievement.
Providing effective feedback is not the same as “with assistance”. You do not need to worry that because a student was able to use your feedback to improve upon his or her work, the final mark should be lower because you provided assistance. Let’s look at some instances:
Math: A student is having troubles with fractions and has handed in work with a number of errors. Providing the correct answers will be useless. Telling the student that within the first 10 questions, 2 are incorrect and he needs to double check and find the errors by doing each problem using a different strategy is effective feedback and allows the student to learn. If during the instruction period you sit with the student individually or in a small group and guide him through understanding fractions, you are providing feedback. However, if the student, at the end of the instructional period, still requires your help to get the right answers, that is with assistance.
Project/Writing: Students are working on a project. They have a checklist/rubric/deconstruct available to them. Midway through you ask them to use the checklist to determine how well they think they are doing and hand it in. You look to see if you agree and indicate areas of agreement and disagreement. You make suggestions such as: your introduction is weak and needs a stronger lead; you haven’t supported your main argument well enough. The student is able to go back and fix these things independently—that is effective feedback. You may even work with the student in a small group to help the student develop the skill required. That is feedback and good teaching. If, however, the student requires you to sit with her to complete each stage of the project and to suggest how to write it, that is with assistance.
You get a driver’s license if you pass the driving test. No one asks if you practiced parallel parking one time or 55. However, if the driving instructor has to guide you through the parallel parking task, you probably won’t get your license. If the essay you write is brilliant, no one asks how many rewrites you did, or how many opinions you sought. The fastest skier gets the gold medal. No one judges how many practice runs she took or how many falls she made learning how to ski that fast.
Effective feedback will lead students towards greater independence in their abilities. The final grade should not be based on how much feedback or good teaching/support a student required during the instructional time. A student may sit with you in small group instruction every day for 2 weeks, but if at the end, he is able to demonstrate an understanding of the skill or concept independently, it does not matter how much help he got to get there. In fact, if your teaching can do that, you have achieved your goal of helping all students to reach their potential.
The latest buzz words in education: grit, perseverance, resilience, growth mindset. And, of course, descriptive formative feedback isn’t going away. Try searching any of those terms in youtube or google and you will get some great information. While it is good to know the research, and it is good to know what they mean, the question is, how might they change our teaching practice. How might these things interact? Can we create the climate in our classroom so that students develop grit and perseverance? Can we provide situations that help students develop a growth mindset?
Here are some of my musings, in no particular order:
- 10, 000 hours. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell looked at the same issue. Do geniuses and superstars have innate abilities or do they work at it? His conclusion was that although some people do appear to be born with certain talents, success is based on 10,000 hours of practice. (The book is very enjoyable and an easy read if you haven’t read it). I think this is the same idea as growth mindset. But do we as teachers really believe it? Do our students? Or do we tend to believe that either you have natural talent or you don’t? I visited a classroom the other day (at a different school) where the teacher had obviously read the book Growth Mindset by Carol Dweck. However, one of the charts her grade 3s had made was a list of things that her students couldn’t do…yet. (I can’t skateboard…yet/I can’t surf…yet). I thought it was a powerful message.
- Goal setting. When you set short term or long term goals, you have a belief in a growth mindset. When you are successful, particularly at your long term goals, you have demonstrated grit. Is your classroom goal focussed? Do you have students revisit their goals on a regular basis? If I came in and asked your students what their current goal was in math or writing or science or track would they know? Do you share your goals with your students, and your setbacks?
- Achieving goals is hard work. Once you have set goals with kids, do you talk about how hard it is going to be? Do we let kids in on the secret that along the way to success there may be setbacks? Because, if we don’t, they may think that all they need to do is set the goal and it will happen. That’s never happened with any of my goals.
- Challenges. Carolyn’s grade seven class was examining the issue of the tar sands. When we chatted about a week ago she was despairing that her students knew nothing about the topic and they were having troubles reading the articles. But, she persevered and so did her students. Today they presented their various arguments for and against the tar sands development. She couldn’t get them to stop talking about the issues. They were keen and enthusiastic. Robyn was telling me about her students in math and how they were so focussed on solving problems that were really challenging. They had some choice of problem but all her groups were “right into it”. I think we develop perseverance and grit when we succeed at something that we originally found difficult. When we are faced with a challenge and are able to overcome it because we receive just the right amount of support, we have a sense of real accomplishment. And, we have learned that we are capable of great things when we apply effort. We are, then, more likely to try the next challenge. We will develop students with grit when we provide tasks which are challenging for them; when we design tasks that are at their proximal zone of development.
- Feedback that helps with the challenge. The trick about effective feedback is finding the exact right words at the exact right time that helps a student to move forward with a challenge. We have to choose the type of help we give carefully. One trick is to ask the question or make an observation and then LEAVE. The message is that you trust the students to figure this out. It is a very powerful message.
- Feedback that helps with the goal. How often does your feedback feed into the student’s goal? Because you are the teacher, you will have a perspective the student does not have, and, at times, will offer feedback that offers new directions. However, when students have real and tangible goals, and they are able to receive specific feedback about the goal that is meaningful to them, they may be more likely to apply that feedback. If that feedback helps them succeed because they have put forth effort, it develops a positive growth mindset. As they reach goals through perseverance and effort, they develop grit.
May is a nice time of year in teaching. You know your students. You have the classroom management down. While you will collect more assessment data, you have a fair amount. And, you are beginning to think about next year. They say that one of the most stressful things about teaching is that you have definite start and end dates. However, I have always thought that one of the nicest things about teaching is that every year you get a “do-over”. Every year, about May, I start to think about how I will do things differently in September. Some things will stay the same but I do start to think about my “do-over”.
So, May and June are the times when I try new ideas to see how they work. September, while being a fresh start, is really not a good time to try out new ideas because you are getting used to a new class, or a new grade, or a new subject, or a new school. September is busy with paperwork. And, new ideas don’t always work the first time around. You are more likely to persevere and work out the bugs in May.
Here are some ideas you may want to try if you aren’t already:
- Try to work with one small group every day in each class, even if it is only for 10 minutes.
- If you already work with small groups, move to the next step and try to build it into your weekly plan.
- Try out some of the apps that allow students to collaborate and create: Edmodo, Educreations, PicCollage, iMovie, Prezi.
- Incorporate “turn and talk” at least once into every lesson.
- Do you conference with students to get a better understanding of their thinking? Try planning to talk one-on-one with one student every day for 5 minutes and reflect upon what you learn.
- Try returning some work without a mark or level but just feedback. How do your students react?
- Do your students have goals for themselves as they start their work? Try some quick and easy ways to get students to identify a goal and determine if they have achieved it.
- If you tend to sit at your desk while kids are working, try moving to a table at the back or another part of the room.
- If you tend to teach from the front of the room, what happens when you sit in the middle of the room?
- Are your minilessons really mini? Can you get them closer to 7 minutes?
You may have your own reflections and ideas about things you want to do differently with next year’s class. I would urge you to try it now. You will be far more likely to have it work next September if you try it now.