Are We Really Helping? Its Marks Season


The following has happened a few times.  I visit my mom every day in her medical residence and help her with either her lunch or dinner.  Then we “go for a spin” because she says that rolling in her wheelchair helps her to digest her meal.  However when we get to the elevator, a number of people have gone out of their way to be helpful and hold the door.  It is a great gesture but as it turns out, the people do so in a way that makes it more difficult to get my mom’s wheelchair into the elevator.  The good samaritans actually get in the way.  To make matters a tiny bit worse, when they realize that my mom and I cannot enter, they move out of the way and the “open-door-pause” for people to usually enter the elevator has passed and the door shuts with the elevator empty and starting on its way to another floor.

c-minus-school-letter-grade

 

As an educator, I wonder how our mandated version of ‘school’ gets in the way of true learning and engagement in our students.  In an attempt to give students an indicator/position amongst other students or a ladder to climb, is the practice of reporting through marks getting in the way, just like the good samaritans holding the elevator?  I am not really here to gripe.  Rather I am just wanting to be a little more mindful of what we do as educators, and what we focus on.

I used to love talking with my niece and nephew about what they did in school.  They would tell me about their teachers, their projects, friends and run upstairs to fetch their works of art/math/music/writinig/reading to show me.  That all lasted until they reached Grade 4.  After this, school was just school.  “It was okay” or “I am doing okay” became the typical responses.  Here in BC, Grade 4 is when students receive letter grades.  I am a secondary educator and I have hundreds of other examples.

As an educator, it pains me to how anecdotal and work habit comments take a distant second place to the letter grade or percent.  Sometimes the latter are completely ignored in the presence of the prior.  A colleague of mine writes all her anecdotal comments by hand and has not once referred to the comment bank provided by the school office.  Her comments are always authentic and appreciated, just like the learning in her drama studio.  Thanks to her, I now create all my comments and address them to my students.  And to this day, there isn’t a single parent that I have actually talked to that didn’t appreciate a conversation about their child’s progress over the reported two digit percent or letter grade.  I worry that the current focus on letter grades, percentages and rankings, serve as “useful data” about our students.  @jim_allison just posted an extremely thoughtful and thorough post on school rankings.  You can see it at http://expandmythinking.blogspot.ca/2013/06/tanked-thinking-on-schools.html  

I understand that there has to be some way to record the progress of thousands of kids in our province but is our practice really hitting the mark?  Are marks/percents/rankings getting in the way and shifting the focus of school away from the real authentic learning that is already happening?  If we go one step farther, are students still being held hostage by marks like I was when I was a teen a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away?  In my Geography 12 class, I used to sit in the front right corner of the classroom.  I was so close to the corner I could have been wearing a dunce cap.  So I wouldn’t miss out on the rest of the class, I used to sit sideways in my desk to my teacher’s dismay.  One day he had enough and threatened to give me a zero on an upcoming quiz if I didn’t sit facing straight ahead.  My former teacher is still teaching.  Does that still happen?!  This is also an example of how marks can be inaccurate.

So what is being done about all the focus on just marks?  There are countless teachers using rubrics and giving descriptive feedback to their students.  The school I am at now has many departments using systems based upon a set of “Essential Learning Outcomes”.  There is still a final mark but throughout the entire course, there is constant feedback and reflection on the part of the students and much less focus on a singular mark.  Across the province, other teachers are doing similar things.  The Inquiry and #geniushour movements are in full stride and most of the work done by students is not for marks.  It is clear that there is a ton of mindfulness around the use the marks for reporting and how it has affected our practice.  Awesome.  However, teachers in BC must still provide a mark for student progress to the M.O.E, reducing our children to keystrokes and taking away from their unique personalities, quirks, skills and potential.  There are still interest groups that use marks to judge students, schools and loosely, communities.

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