Monthly Archives: November 2014

Moving from levels to feedback–what happens when we don’t give grades?

Many teachers I know are experimenting with giving more specific feedback and fewer marks.  It makes for some interesting thinking and a lot of questions.  Here are some examples I’ve seen:

  • In writing  teachers are conferencing with students throughout the writing process. They work with students to identify places where the message is unclear and the students continue to work on the piece.  The feedback might be things like “I got confused with who was talking at this part” or “I loved the story but your lead didn’t catch my interest” or “I wonder if there are some places we could insert some description of the main character so I could visualize him better”.
  • In Science students received the final rubric marked by the teacher PRIOR to handing in their portfolio of work. It was clear to students where they needed to improve before they submitted the work for grading.
  • In math class the students get feedback  on their homework from each other by comparing answers the next day.
  • In music students receive feedback on their playing that does not have a grade or level attached. Students base their personal goals for improving their playing on this feedback.
  • In reading students handed in their short essay responses and the teacher asked some questions.  Students had another chance to revise their answers.  Students knew the information; they hadn’t included it.

The research is very clear that if we give students marks, they pay no attention to any feedback that might be included:

” Overall, detailed, descriptive feedback was found to be most effective when given alone, unaccompanied by grades or praise.” A. Lipnevich and J. Smith

“Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and, ironically, the less well they do”  Alfie Kohn

“Real learning of both the topic and personal responsibility comes from specific, timely, and frequent feedback to students during the learning, not after the learning.” R. Wormeli

‘Learning in a graded classroom becomes an isolated act delivered in units that have clear starting and ending points instead of a fluid process of continual exploration and connection and growth and discovery.” B. Ferriter

“Our aim must therefore be to create assessments that provide better feedback by design, and not think of improvements in terms of more accurate evaluation. Indeed, without better feedback (and guidance based on the feedback) in student assessment, there is little point to precise scores and value judgments.” G. Wiggins

“Actual assessment practices are often harmful: marking and grading are overemphasized while giving useful advice is underemphasized, and comparing students competitively causes low-achieving students to believe they cannot learn.” Paraphasing Wiliam and Black

The research by Carol Dweck and others around growth mindset also fits into this paradigm shift.  We know that students who believe they can succeed are more likely to do so.  If, in the learning process, all of their “feedback” is grades and levels, they are far less likely to make those efforts to improve.  In fact, if we want students to develop a growth mindset, we must create the conditions in which that will happen.  In an environment in which grades or levels is the result of their work, students are less likely to develop a belief that effort matters.  What if they thought they had tried their best but weren’t that successful?  We can’t just tell kids to develop a growth mindset; we have to create the conditions in which they will come to believe it is true.

Mark Barnes is a proponent of no grades (  He suggests that when we are looking at student work we use the following dialogue:  Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit.  So, a conversation might go like this:

Sam, I see that you have explained your findings from the science experiment (summarize).  I do not understand what conclusion you are drawing from the data presented (explain—and perhaps chat a bit about this).  Could you please add that part (redirect) and then let me know when it is done (resubmit)?

The feedback loop is clear.  The task for the student to do is both clear and not overwhelming.  The student has an opportunity for further learning.  The student’s final “grade” may improve because there was an opportunity to learn the parts that were missing.  Isn’t learning, not grading, the ultimate goal? Contrast that situation to:

Sam, you got a level 2 or 60% or a C+.

Of course, feedback with no grades is not without questions and challenges…

  • Parents expect grades. So, if we are changing practices we must communicate this.
  • Our report cards have grades. If a student is going to get a poor grade on the report card both the parent and the student must be prepared for that.  Does this happen through conversations?  Does this happen with some assignments having grades?
  • If we must have grades through the term, do we give students opportunities to resubmit the work? Or, how many times throughout the term do students have to practice before we give a grade?
  • Could we give a test, provide feedback and not grades, and then allow student another chance? Is this “cheating” or allowing learning?
  • Do we revisit concepts so that even if students did poorly early in the year, they have opportunities to improve?

Teachers who have been experimenting with fewer grades and more descriptive feedback have been pleased with the level of student growth and engagement.   If you haven’t tried no grades or levels, try it for your next learning cycle—see what happens—no one will die and everyone will learn something.

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Scaffolding student learning in an inquiry-based classroom

When we scaffold student learning we think about “gradual release of responsibility”, “guided learning”, “modelling” and “exemplars”.  All good things which need to be part of every teacher’s toolbox.  But,  in a workshop/inquiry learning environment, we don’t necessarily want to show kids examples of what it “should” look like before they have had time to muck about.  If we think of the mucking about time as being intense learning time, jumping in too quickly with the exemplar may cause students to stop their own exploration of the ideas and just follow the example.

As we continually deepen our understanding about how students learn, we start to question practices that we once thought were the “best”.  Stephen Katz, for those of you who like to quote the experts, says that we shouldn’t be looking for the “best” way of teaching but just the “next” way.  When we do that we are responsive to student need and reflective about our practice.  It is less about the “wrong”  way and more about a better way.

So, while it was “best” practice a few years ago to teach by showing the exemplar right away, I have recently observed some other ways of scaffolding student learning which allow the students to participate in discovering what needs to be learned.  Here are some examples I saw just this week (if I’d been in classrooms more I probably would have seen more!):

  • Students in science need to know how to write a procedure. Instead of giving students a perfect example of a procedure or telling them the components of a procedure, the teacher has them draw a small line diagram and write the procedure of how to replicate it.  They read their procedure to a partner while the partner tries to replicate the drawing.  Now that students have some experience with procedural writing, table groups share their experiences and come up with criteria for a good procedure.  This then becomes the anchor chart for the class.  All of the students in the class could participate.  All of the students now have a better understanding of what makes a good procedure.  All of the students helped to co-create the anchor chart.
  • Students in English need to write answers to three summative questions about their novels next week. The students are given the questions this week and can begin to talk about them in their literature circles.  The teacher reads a number of picture books with a similar theme.  Students work in groups to answer the summative questions with respect to the picture books.  Answers are shared and exemplars are created.  The teacher then shows teacher-created exemplars as well.  All students could access the picture book read aloud and had opportunities to explore what the questions meant.  All students were involved in creating the exemplars.  When the students get to the point of needing to write their own summative answers to their own novels, they will have had many opportunities to practice.
  • Students in writer’s workshop are having a mini-lesson about sentence variety. In a traditional lesson the teacher may have demonstrated a number of sentence types and urged students to write sentences of different types.  Or, the teacher may have introduced transition words and had students complete a worksheet.  In this class students had to write sentences with only 5 words each.  Students began to notice that their sentences were boring.  This led to more experimenting and the students were able to lead the discussion on how different sentence types added interest and variety to their writing.  The teacher has observed that their writing has improved.  All students were involved in the activity.  All students were involved in understanding how different sentences can be derived.
  • A math class did not do well on a certain math question. The teacher reviewed the question with the students the following day without handing back their quizzes.  If the teacher had handed back the quizzes, the students would have focussed on if they’d received a good mark.  Instead, they were now focussed on how to solve the problem, comparing their answer to the correct solution.  Next week the teacher plans to have the students do the problem again.  Instead of having the learning be a one-time thing, in this class the students are getting another chance to show their learning after having had some more instruction.

When we first thought about scaffolding student learning, we did a lot of showing and telling.  We are evolving now to having the students be involved in the discovery of the learning.  We are providing multiple opportunities for students to practice the skills in meaningful ways.  Students are involved in their learning.  The scaffolding is in the design of the lesson not in how the teacher “releases” the information.

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Growth Mindset – Create an environment where anything is possible

I find the research around growth mindsets fascinating.  I catch myself praising students for intelligence now and switch it to effort.  I reflect on my own language when talking about students and try not to say things like “level 2 kids” or “IEP kids” as if they are labelled  for life.  I reflect on my own teaching practice and try to build in opportunities to look at mistakes differently.  And, I want to convey to students that grit, perseverence, effort and setting goals all make a difference.

But, I am also concerned how the educational community has jumped on the growth mindset bandwagon so quickly, as we in education are apt to do.  I never check my twitter feed without seeing new posts about growth mindset.  Teachers on pinterest are posting anchor charts and classroom libraries devoted to growth mindset.  I have been wondering how best to bring growth mindset research into the classroom.

As in many things (see my post: Is Teacher Lingo Good for Kids?) I worry that teachers may be laying the research too much at the feet of students.  I believe that all teachers should have a solid understanding of the current research about growth mindset.  It is our job to understand learning.  And, I don’t think it is a bad thing to let kids in on the information:  in small doses, as is age appropriate and not to the point that it overtakes the joy of learning.  If we really want students to believe in growth mindset, then we need to create a learning environment that supports it:

  • Teachers can ensure that they create open-ended and interesting tasks that are more likely to engage students in taking risks and persevering because they want to.
  • Teachers can ensure that they give descriptive feedback to students that helps them move forward and past the obstacles.
  • Teachers can help students to identify their own goals by providing exemplars, checklists and anchor charts.
  • Teachers can experiment with grading fewer assignments and giving effective feedback (not “good job!”) more often.
  • Teachers can encourage students during lessons to share both their successes and challenges.  There is great power in  students showing how they didn’t solve the math problem or asking their peers to help them rewrite the lead of their story.
  • Teachers can show students how they have developed their skills and grown over time.
  •  Teachers can plan recursively so that students have multiple opportunities to learn key concepts.
  • Teachers can plan activities that require a bit of struggle and let students struggle.  Students don’t really like tasks to be simple and boring–like anyone else, they enjoy challenge.

Students can learn about how feedback can help you improve a task (such as the famous butterfly example:    Students can read a book here or there where the theme is about effort and setting goals.  Students can celebrate when they have mastered something that was tricky before.

But, let us think more about how we as teachers create an environment in which students experience the benefits of a growth mindset over an environment where everything is about growth mindset.  Experience more than research is what will change a child’s mindset.   There is a plethora of children’s books about growth mindset but as a kid I wouldn’t want to read one every day.  Robert Munsch is probably still way more entertaining.  I would hate us to be so concerned with students believing in growth mindset that a parent-teacher interview started with:  “Jimmy just doesn’t seem to have a growth mindset and that is why he is not progressing as we would hope”.

Growth mindset is exciting research that may open up many pathways to students.  Our job is to embed the philosophy into our teaching, not teach the philosophy.  Let us create the conditions whereby students can’t help but believe that they can do anything.

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High Expectations …for kids.

A group of teachers  and I went to a workshop and watched a video of a grade 6 literature circle.  We had a chance to discuss it in our group and we thought that the students had done a pretty good job:  they were engaged and lively in their discussion, they talked about the book, they made reference to the book and talked about their connections to the main characters.  It sounded rather like a book club meeting I would go to.  When it was time to share with other table groups we were surprised that others had thought it was not a good discussion.  They thought the conversation should have been deeper.  They thought that the students should have referred back to the text more.  They thought that all students in the group should have spoken.  They thought that students should have not interrupted each other and used politer language (eg. Have you thought about this point?)  We wondered if our expectations were too low or were theirs too high?

A student in our school who spends a lot of her day with one-to-one support has been very unhappy by 1:00 p.m.  When we met to talk about strategies we began to realize that this young lady has constant “teaching” all day long because of the individualized instruction.  None of our other students are “on” for that long every day.  She probably needs more down time.  Maybe our expectations were unrealistic—most kids get lots of down time at school.

The grade 3 team was doing some teacher moderation of student writing.  We used our rubric to examine each piece.  As we get better at teaching, we also get better at knowing how to improve each student’s writing.  We needed to remind ourselves that many times this was good voice, good plot development, good arguing for grade 3.  Maybe the description was a little overdone; maybe the plot didn’t flow well.    Of course we could do better.  But they are just learning.

Our math teachers do lots of group work.  They have noisy classrooms.  Upon entering my first reaction is that it needs to be quieter.  But when I listen in on the conversations, they are all about math.  The students are all talking about math, all the time.  I don’t think that 30 grownups could talk about math quietly, so I shouldn’t expect that 30 students can.  In fact, I am impressed that 30 students are all talking about math for 20-30 minutes at a time.  There is an expectation that the students will be mathematicians who argue, and figure and ponder together.

So I have been thinking about all these things and wondering about the expectations we have for kids.  We want to set high expectations for all kids.  We want students to set goals and reach them.  We want our students to learn that it takes effort and hard work to achieve goals.  But, they are kids.

Imagine the following:

  • You have to sit on a hard plastic chair all day long. I hate long meetings.  I can’t wait for the break.  Sometimes I go to the bathroom just for a break, not because I have to.  Sometimes my head hurts because I have been concentrating so long.  Do we let our students stand, get up and move, go for a run around the school?  Should we purchase more exercise balls to sit on?
  • Your best friends are sitting right beside you but you can’t talk to them. Have you ever been to a meeting with your friends?  Don’t you talk to them?  Does your group at a PD session always stay on topic?  Do you ever laugh and joke around?
  • After you have worked a really long day, you have to take more work home (I know, you usually do; you’re teachers) and there is no research to prove that the work you do at home makes any difference whatsoever. A little bit of homework is ok.  But, in the grand scheme of life, is homework going to make or break a kid’s life?  And what if everyone else at work didn’t have to bring work home except you, because you didn’t really get it?
  • You’ve just been introduced to something new. You don’t quite get it. It’s new.  It’s different.  It doesn’t quite make sense.  Don’t you want someone to sit with you and explain it again?  Don’t you want some time to struggle with it before you have to show anyone?  Wouldn’t it be nice to have some feedback as you go along?  Don’t you want someone to maybe show you exactly what they mean?
  • You have to write a test. You have studied.  You paid attention in class.  The questions on the test don’t look like what you did in class.  You’ve never had to think like that before.  Some of you will relish the challenge but many of you will panic.

We are doing a great job of having high expectations.  It is always good to remind ourselves that they are just kids.  How does school look from their perspective?  High expectations are important; we want to make sure that the expectations are also reasonable for children-children who are curious, anxious to please, have lots of energy and short attention spans.  High expectations, yes; but not unreasonable ones, not ones that we wouldn’t expect of ourselves, not ones that don’t celebrate and recognize that they are children.

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