At the end of every school week our teachers receive a bulletin which provides valuable updates, cites interesting educational research, recognizes staff accomplishments, and highlights upcoming events. The format remains the same but new content is presented. The one constant is the series of (Du)Four questions intended to guide our practice and reinforce our mission statement: As the faculty and staff of a comprehensive high school, we will provide opportunities to all students giving them the skills needed to better themselves and society.
1. What do we expect our students to learn?
2. How will we know they have learned it?
3. How will we respond to students who are not learning?
4. How will we respond to students who already know it?
These four questions have provoked some of the most stimulating and challenging professional conversations I have experienced in eighteen years of training and professional development. In 2008, Dr. Tom Guskey opened our school year with a memorable inservice presentation, sharing his wisdom and expertise in healthy grading practices. As a result, the district formed a committee–of which I was thrilled to be part–to research, discuss, and establish a philosophy of best practices for instruction and grading. The brilliant work of Wormeli, Reeves, O’ Connor, Marzano, DuFour, Wiggins, Tomlinson, Wiliam, and Guskey–among other educational experts–inspired my teaching and affirmed my classroom philosophy (learn with a purpose). After numerous drafts and revisions, the committee published a 6-12 grading document which our learning community continues to review. The most positive improvements include:
- the elimination of zeros and extra credit
- grades indicate achievement only
- behaviors and work habits are reported separately with criteria identified on a citizenship rubric
- distinguishing between formative, benchmark, and summative assessments (as online grading categories)
- common summative assessments and consistent reporting in like courses (taught by multiple teachers)
- a reassessment policy for summative assessments
While teachers continue to make significant progress in building workable classroom models, some have struggled to transition from a traditional mindset of grading and instruction. The cause of this discrepancy is mostly due to varying interpretations of the grading guidelines document. The research highlights what Frank Noschese identifies as the spirit of standards-based grading–a positive first step in a traditional model; however, traditional district practices impede the path to officially commit to the philosophy. I anticipate many school districts can relate to being caught in a similar predicament.
So now what? In an educational world where so many conditions are predetermined, attitude is the one factor we as individuals are able to control. As more questions arise, teachers, administrators, parents, and students must seize the opportunity to create an environment with freedom for growth and expectations of achievement. Rather than resist this positive shift or complain about the inevitable challenges, let’s act with the mindset that all may thrive if we fully commit to a culture of learning.
In addition to expressing our own passion for teaching, love of our students, and zeal for learning, here are ten immediate, attainable solutions to impact our culture of learning.
1. Increase our reflective practice to contemplate what works or does not work and why.
Returning to the four guiding questions above is the best starting point. With respect to colleagues and friends, I challenge everyone to put their responses to the big questions in writing. And if those questions are too broad to start with, try answering these:
- Have you and your department identified standards and learning targets for each course?
- How are you assessing student performance on learning targets?
- What are the reasons why students are not learning?
- How effectively do you differentiate to provide opportunities for all students to learn?
2. Identify the purpose of each course and design units to meet course goals.
- Determine the course content and performance standards
- Craft essential questions to guide teaching and learning of standards
- Break each unit into student-friendly learning targets (“I can” statements)
- Allow common formative assessments to inform instruction as necessary to meet success criteria of learning targets
- Design summative assessments around common standards to measure learning
3. Define levels of proficiency so students can achieve course goals with the encouragement of a growth mindset.
4. Make Learning Transparent.
- post learning targets so they are always visible to students (then, attach them to reinforce purpose and refer to them throughout the learning process)
- emphasize the formative process to guide teaching and learning (continuous consideration of practice needed to become proficient on learning targets)
- know expectations of summative assessment
- students are accountable for monitoring their progress–there should be no surprises
5. Stop grading and reporting everything online.
- instead, provide constant feedback on progress toward standards without including a number or letter grade
- differentiate next steps for learning according to individual student needs
- teachers may record student performance but this should not factor into a grade
- better yet, have students chart their progress and take greater ownership of their learning
- homework should be considered practice–ungraded, assigned as necessary on an individual basis, and respectful of each learner’s time
- allow the process to determine when students are ready to be formally assessed. Then ask, “What can you create as evidence of your learning?”
- remember: learning stops when students see a grade
6. Stop grading on percentages or points (ex: 7/10 = 70% = C-).
Instead, assign a score based on a scale of proficiency (7-8/10 = PROFICIENT or 9-10/10 = EXEMPLARY). Teachers have professional freedom in this and may report as required by the online grading program or district guidelines (ex: 7/10 = PROF = B or 85 online).
7. Redesign assessments to compartmentalize learning.
- arrange by learning targets and label headings accordingly
- reassess portions only–the most recent learning gets reported
- students must prove they are ready–promote the mindset that students have earned the opportunity to reassess
- have students reflect on their growth or verbalize their learning
- embed reassessment into portions of the next assessment or formative piece (graded for individual students)
- make sure rubrics reflect an accurate description of success criteria toward mastery of standards
8. Change the gradebook and reporting of grades.
- set up categories to organize course standards
- report performance on standards separately, not as a single grade (traditional example: “Chapter 1 Test” does not communicate learning)
- report online by standards (ex: Understands How to Multiply Fractions)
- learning is continuous and should only be final at the end of a semester, which means stop averaging Quarter 1 with Quarter 2–allow for improvement, recovery, and growth. Remember, the MEAN is MEAN!
9. Network with other educators. Learn from their expertise. Be inspired.
There is no excuse for neglecting professional development. If we do not seek to improve our craft, we will fall behind. Yes, we lead busy lives, but teaching requires reflection and constant adjustment; it’s our responsibility to be lead learners. Twitter provides a constant flow of information and is always available for educators–begin by observing and then get involved. Follow #SBLchat #TG2chat #ATAssess #COLchat, some personal favorites and an outlet to engage in conversation about my passion–student learning.
10. If you commit to one suggestion from this list, PLEASE make it this one:
In every conversation with students, teachers, administrators, and parents of the community, make a conscious effort to replace “grades, scores, and points” with “learning, progress, and growth.”
Taking these simple steps to promote a culture of learning–with an emphasis on learning–will benefit any school environment. The reality of acting on these improvements will undoubtedly:
- guide daily instruction, planning, and assessment for teachers
- empower students to learn with a growth mindset, rather than be point chasers
- increase communication with parents about what their children know and can do
- impact the public image of the learning community
- shift the mindset of a culture