Educators: Define Achievement!

| December 6, 2011 | 3 Comments
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Audiophilage

In the discussion over learning styles and measuring achievements, it’s important to take into account what educators see first-hand in class. To get a sense of their perspective on the subjects, I asked educators who are part of the Powerful Learning Practice to weigh in on what they’ve observed in their classrooms. Here’s what they say.

PATTI GRAYSON: Elementary teacher at Virginia’s Hampton Roads Academy.

Educators should take note. Making some simple changes in the way we talk to students can have a significant impact. We should never underestimate the potential of a child based on test scores, and should be wary of how grading can impact a child’s image of themselves. We owe it to our students to give every child the encouragement and opportunity to learn.

The word achievement is often thrown around as the ultimate, if undefined, goal.

As a 4th grade teacher, I see students making judgments about what they are and aren’t “good at” every day. At 9 and 10 years old, students are very sensitive to this, and one poor grade can convince them that they are not good at a particular skill or subject. This mindset is very difficult to reverse.

Grading has a very strong impact on these perceptions. If they receive A’s in Reading, Math, Science, and Social Studies and a B in English, suddenly English becomes that subject they know they are not good at. With this determination comes damaged self-confidence, increased anxiety over assignments and tests, and a lifelong self-fulfilling prophecy.

Bolstering a child’s confidence is key. They need to believe that with hard work and perseverance they CAN learn – and not just in certain ways or in certain areas. Teachers often see students with lower IQs performing above their potential, and even above students with higher aptitude.

The New York Magazine article How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise by Po Bronson includes some discussion of the study by psychologist Carol Dweck, where she studied the effect of praise on students in a dozen New York schools. The results of her series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders is astounding. Random groups of children were either praised for their intelligence (“You must be smart at this”) or for their effort (“You must have worked really hard”). The children who believed it was effort, not innate gifts, that made the positive difference in their learning success achieved more and were more willing to take on difficult challenges.

BECKY BAIR: intermediate grades in Pennsylvania’s Elizabethtown Area School District.

The debate surrounding recognition for achievement, identification of learning styles, effort, and multiple intelligences certainly sparks a great deal of interest and discussion. Just like any other topic in education these days you can probably find research that refutes or supports the side that you would like to take.

What worries me is that within all of this conversation, we’re still not talking about the  ridiculous amount of time schools spend focusing on student weaknesses. Do we gain anything when we make students feel that they are less smart if they don’t make a certain grade? Or when we set them up for failure in certain classes because we’ve decided in advance that this child or that child “doesn’t do well” in math or science or language? Or when we constantly force kids into learning situations that emphasize only what they have done wrong?

Here are some messages I see students getting all the time:

• Didn’t pass the test? Let’s have you do more test prep instead of learning skills that you can actually apply as you get older.

• Can’t read enough words per minute? We’ll pull you out of a less important subject like history or science and give you an additional reading class.

• Not grasping a particular skill in a core subject? Let’s prohibit you from taking electives that might spark your interest. We’ll put you in remediation classes instead.

• Not sure how to decode longer words? Let’s put you with a different teacher and you can practice this skill in isolation. We won’t worry about connecting it to real content where you might see its value.

Perhaps this discussion needs to be about more than whether we’re doing our students a disservice by patting them on the back or identifying their preferred learning style. Maybe we should really be thinking about how our students’ educational experiences prepare them for real life after school. In real life there are days when we adults feel really great and smart, and there are those days where we feel like we don’t have a clue. What differentiates kids from adults, hopefully, is that adults understand those blue days are not lasting and we have the power to change them.

Maybe this discussion should be more about exposure. Let’s give our kids the chance to try lots of things so they’ll discover what they’re great at and can start thinking about a career path and how to be a successful adult. And let’s not be afraid to put our kids in situations where they fail and try and maybe fail again, so they can see that failure is not the end of the world but an inevitable and valuable experience — another opportunity to learn and grow.

ED ALLEN: administrator and drama teacher at Cardinal O’Hara High School in Philadelphia.

I have had the good fortune during years of teaching the performing arts to watch students learn by experiencing the struggles of putting together a show — the failures and uncertainties and ultimately the triumphs of a successful performance. There is no tracking, no extrinsic rewards, no talk of learning styles. Just the work and the learning.

In the current educational climate, the word achievement is often thrown around as the ultimate if undefined goal. We understand, of course, that for those who’ve positioned themselves to hold educators “accountable,” it means success on tests. It is rare that learning is discussed.

When we measure everyone’s achievement by high-stakes tests, we are strengthening the fixed mindsets of not just our students, but of everyone who works in education and everyone who discusses or wants to fix education. Society loves small digestible bits of data with which they can pass judgments on students, teachers, parents, and schools.

It is far more challenging to really find ways to assess the journey of learning rather than relying on a summary “outcome” or grade. But isn’t it worth it?  If we want our students to truly learn, shouldn’t we lead by our willingness to truly learn as well?

As I direct our high school musical show, I’m watching Carol Dweck’s concept of “growth mindset” in action. Kids were singing and dancing, working on the process. They knew it wouldn’t be easy, and they know they are not receiving a grade. They know that mistakes are welcome and expected.

Next time you can, stop in to watch a show practice, a choir practice, a band rehearsal, or an art class. Watch what happens. Watch the kids. Then think about how the pedagogy that you witness in these settings might work very well in any discipline. And feel free to sing, dance, play, or paint along!

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  • http://twitter.com/johncroftnorton John Norton

    Tina – thanks for sharing these comments. Ed Allen did a post on a related theme back in the spring, and the photos he shared of his Cardinal O’Hara High students performing in their rendition of the musical “Jekyll and Hyde” say a lot about “student engagement.”

    http://plpnetwork.com/2011/03/07/its-always-opening-night-%E2%80%93-the-arts-and-21st-century-learning/

  • http://www.spellingcity.com VocabSpellingCity Mayor

    These issues are endlessly complex.  Should K12 education be about the easily measurable skills and knowledge?  About earning credentials? About career training? About life training?   There is no consensus on what the right mix of these goals. Similarly, nobody can agree on at what point useful supportive encouragement becomes ridiculous confidence-undermining blind praise. 

    Yet, I think there are a few points that we can agree on.  I think we can all agree that in the 1970s-2000, the US education system suffered from a oversupply of “good” news from schools that “progress was being made” with no objective measures or data. Schools were fooling themselves and their supervisors. The standardized high stakes test, despite all their flaws, brought some realism to the discussion and help focus the nation on education, a sector that has been failing us for awhile.  

    Until we get a strong baseline of foundational math and reading skills, there’s no debate really as to whether the tests are an adequate measure, is there?  Until we get everyone up to grade level in math and reading as they enter middle school, we should stay focused on skills, developing them, and testing them.  Once the basic are mastered, we will be in much better shape. And the question of the further significance of the tests versus learning less measurable material, will move to center-stage.

  • Gioamias

    I work with ells and couldn’t agree more with the way children are assessed when they still don’t even know the language. It’s so unfair to these children. i want to get the decision makers and give them assessments in another language.