Sunday, October 19, 2014

3 reasons to stop rewarding and punishing children

Teachers and schools make thousands of decisions, big and small, everyday. Just as we would hope that our doctors and hospitals are making decisions based on evidence and research, so should teachers and schools.

Should schools use rewards and punishments on their students?

Here are 3 reasons why schools and teachers need to stop using rewards and punishments:

1. We want children to do the right things for the right reasons. Too often rewards distract children from doing the right thing for the right reason. Instead of being virtuous and doing the right thing regardless of whether anyone is watching or waiting to catch them, too many children (and adults) will do good only when they stand to personally gain -- then we lament about why some children (and adults) become grade grubberspraise junkies and bribe bait. We can't teach children to do the right thing with carrots and sticks. We want children to share and adults to slow down in playground zones not because they might get caught -- and yet when we reward and punish children to do the right thing, we teach them to look over their shoulder before they do good or bad.

2. There are two kinds of motivation: intrinsic & extrinsic. The problem here is that we need to stop asking ‘How motivated are my students?’ and start asking ‘How are my students motivated?’. Motivation is not a single entity that you either have a lot or little of. There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated then you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something, or not do something, based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. But that is not even the interesting part—the real catch here is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related. When you grow students' extrinsic motivation by bribing them (or threatening them), you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for what you want them to learn shrivels. Rewards can only ever gain short-term compliance from students when what we really desire is their authentic engagement.

3. To a child, an adult's praise and presents are cheap -- it's our presence that they value the most. There is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing children -- problems occur, however, when our recognition is manipulative and controlling. Too often the children we deem the most undeserving of our recognition and attention are those who need us the most -- too often rewards and punishments rupture our relationships with children. My teaching and parenting mantra is borrowed directly from Jerome Bruner who once said that, "Children should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information". This mindset lays the foundation for shifting away from doing things to children and moving towards working with them.

Further reading:

Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn

Why we do What we do? by Edward Deci

Drive by Daniel Pink

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Teacher reflects on Alberta's new Student Learner Assessments

This was written by Catherine Dohn who is a grade 3 teacher in Edmonton, Alberta. Catherine tweets here and blogs here. This post was originally found here.

by Catherine Dohn

For those of you not in Alberta, you might not have heard about the new government Student Learning Assessments otherwise known as SLA’s. This is the pilot year where they rolled them out for all grade 3 students in Alberta and being that I moved to grade three this year, I was able to experience them firsthand.

Now Alberta Education went into these SLA’s with some pretty lofty goals. They were going to replace the dreaded Provincial Achievement Exams of old with something new and better. They would…..”better enabling parents and teachers to be aware of a child’s strengths or areas needing improvement. The SLAs are essentially “readiness” assessments that can be used to determine the programming needs for students for the school year, and support more personalized learning.” (Alberta Education Information Bulletin)

However, after being immersed in them for these last 2 weeks, I am now going to share what I have learned.

1. Awareness of Child’s Strengths/Areas of Improvement: well, being that I spend 5 days a week and almost 8 hours a day with my gang, I already had a pretty good idea of where they were at, both with their strengths and weaknesses. Funny enough, the first few days, I had a few tell me point blank “I am not really that good at reading, Mrs. D.” or “I don’t really like writing, it’s hard for me.” So those that were already walking in the door with challenges, both they and I knew this. The thing is that they and I spent quite a bit of time those first few weeks building up their confidence in these areas – finding strategies to help them tackle the areas they found hard. I worked hard helping them realize that while it might not be something they were not that great at, I constantly reinforced the idea that they might not be good “yet.” If they and I worked together, maybe we might find ways to help them get better so they could change that statement of “I am not good at reading” to “I am starting to find strategies to be a better reader.”

So then these SLA’s came with 4 different pieces of assessment that involved a lot of reading and a lot of writing and I saw those students who had started to see themselves in a different light, start to shut down. The multitude of questions, with these expectations of higher level thinking was something my struggling students found challenging and I could not help them. I had to say things like “try your best” and “it’s okay, I know you are trying hard” So now I am back to square one with some of them and I will have to try to again build up their confidence in themselves after feeling like failures. Some of my shy, quiet students who would get quite anxious about things actually wrote things like “SLA’s I am done with you.” “If I have to write this again, I will freak out.” And yes, this would be even though I did not make a big deal out of all this, I kept saying it was just an experiment to see how we would all do and not to worry.

The other sad thing was that my more bright students, the ones I knew had a lot to offer, even they did not get the point of doing a task multiple times and then evaluating themselves on it again and again. I heard a lot of “didn’t we do this already with the last question?” and “why do I have to do this?” So yet again, these students did not really show what they are truly capable of because even they thought “what’s the point of all this?” and did what they could to just get done.

2. An Information, Reflective Piece: so the point of all these different literacy and numeracy pieces was this going to inform and reflect my students to better guide my instruction. As well, I would be able to take these out and use them as something to talk to parents about. I really look forward to these conversations in that if I show parents some of the numeracy questions with the self reflective pieces, I am sure I will spend more time explaining what the questions were actually asking and validating the point of this type of questioning. With so many parents already questioning the “new math” they don’t understand, this is probably not going to help me much.

The reflection I might have, if I was a new teacher to grade 3, is that I better prepare my students better for this type of assessment. So instead of spending time those first few important weeks building a relationship with my student, I start practicing with 7 and 8 year olds how to self assess, how to reflect because gosh knows those skills come built in at the beginning of a school year in grade three. (yes that was a bit of sarcasm, my apologies)

3. My Frustration – my biggest frustration was not the hours of extra work for myself – inputting students onto the system so they could actually do the test, figuring out the pieces and parts to administering these the best way possible, marking and going over each assessment piece. It was not how I put the rest of the school out at times – SLA’s meant no one could use the internet because doing the digital pieces that took every bit of wifi bandwidth our school had. No one could use laptops or computer labs because they were all booked up for us. Don’t get me started on the amount of trees I killed photocopying everything needed. My biggest frustration was seeing one of my students lay his head down on his desk and cry because he just couldn’t get what the question was asking, it was seeing one of my girls go “Mrs. D. I just don’t get what to do” It was seeing some of my students take close to 2 hours to get done on the computer because of glitches, freezing, having to shut down and hope it would not make them start from the beginning.

So to the powers that be, I have the following to say about what I learned… I honestly think this could have been done so much better. I am not sure why you couldn’t trust that I am a professional, that I am able to find and use assessment pieces that will truly reflect my students’ abilities. But I guess, like my students, I have areas of improvement too….

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Parent-Teacher Interviews without a gradebook

Why does school create the conditions necessary
to make this cartoon both funny and true?
I had parent-teacher interviews yesterday and today.

I went through the entire two days without a gradebook -- we talked about children and learning.

Without the gradebook, we were liberated from talking about rows and columns filled with numbers and letters. Assessment is not a spreadsheet -- it's a conversation. Parent-teacher interviews should reflect this.

Without a gradebook, we were not distracted by reducing children's learning to numbers.

Without a gradebook, I had to actually know my students names and know something about them as a person.

Without a gradebook, I didn't get into needless arguments about whether their child and my student is an A, a 78%, or a meeting expectations. Instead of concealing student learning by reducing the child to a number or letter, we were able to talk about their child as a whole-person.

Without a gradebook, we didn't sit and stare at a laptop screen or spreadsheet. Instead, we were able to make eye-contact and talk face-to-face about (and with) their child.

I told parents not to bother wasting time looking at their child's marks on Pearson's PowerSchool. I told parents that if they wanted to know what their children are learning, what they are reading, what they are thinking, or how they are doing, then they should visit their child's blog.

Here are 3 reasons why the parent's response to all this was overwhelmingly positive.
1. Too many parents have a hard time getting their child to tell them about what they are learning at school, so they were excited to know that they could visit their child's blog anytime, anywhere and anyplace. They were excited to look at the blog through out the year and use it to initiate better conversations with their child. 
2. The best evidence parents can receive about their children's learning is to see their children learning. Parents were excited to know that their child's learning wouldn't be hidden in a binder in the bottom of their locker or on the teacher's desk. They were excited that their child's learning would be so visible.
3. Because my class sizes are ridiculously large (30+ students in every class), I told parents that I have a real hard time getting to each student, every class. They were happy to hear that they could help their child by showing an interest in their blog, and if they like, they could help their child improve their writing and thinking skills. 
If you are interested in replacing grading with more authentic ways of making learning visible to parents, you can check out my chapter Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning or here are all of my blog posts on abolishing grading.

Feel free to e-mail me. I enjoy working with teachers and parents to abolish grading to make learning more visible.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Pak Tee Ng (Singapore): Teach Less, Learn More

Here are 5 points that stand out for me:

1. Focusing on PISA scores, or scores on any other test, is not the same as focusing on student learning in the classroom. Too often, a focus on standardized testing can actually have a harmful affect on teaching and learning.

2. Education is an investment -- not an expenditure. Cutting education is like a farmer who sells his top soil.

3. Teachers don't need surveillance -- they need support. You don't improve the education system by firing individual bad teachers -- you improve the education system by creating good teachers and then trust them to do their job.

4. Teach Less -- Learn More. Pasi Sahlberg writes about Finland and Gary Stager writes about the Maker Movement. Pak Tee Ng reminds us that, "more of the same teaching is not the way to inspire better learning." Efforts to "teacher-proof" education via standardization is not the solution, it's the problem. 

5. You say you want this, so why are you doing that? Unfortunately, myths are often more satisfying to us than the truth - in education we are satisfyingly distracted by a great many myths. If we are to improve school, we have to allow it to change. And if we want to make the right change, we need to be evidence and research based.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Teaching would be easier if it wasn't for the students

Here's what happened the other day.

My grade 8 students were exiting our classroom from social studies, as my grade 6 students began to enter.

I was getting myself focused on teaching a lesson on sentence writing, with an emphasis on using commas. I was thinking about how I could teach my students to write with a variety of sentence lengths so that their writing might flow for the reader.

I was trying to figure out how I was going to teach them how to use independent and dependent clauses to make short, medium and long sentences without boring them to death by talking about independent and dependent clauses.

I was proud that I had completely abstained from using the school's photocopier until the third week of school for a one-page handout on sentence writing.

But before half the class could even arrive, Kevin and Thomas were engaged in yet another one of their daily disagreements. Despite the obvious that they want to be friends, and that they need each other to get through the day, Kevin and Thomas's lagging social skills continue to set each other at odds.

Kevin was pissed right off and wouldn't even come in the classroom. He was going home.

Thomas came in but he was both denying and avoiding Kevin's accusations over a missing Rubik's Cube.

I immediately caught myself being completely annoyed by this spat.

I don't have time for this!

I had a lesson on sentences to teach! I didn't have time to worry about some stupid Rubik's Cube that may or may not have been stolen!

Sometimes it's tempting to think about how much easier teaching would be if it wasn't for the students -- Sometimes it's challenging to remember that there is no teaching without the students.

I had to remind myself that for every problem that occurs in school, there are actually two problems -- a teacher's problem and a student's problem and rarely are they ever the same.

I had to remind myself that I am the adult and that if I wanted Kevin to care about my problem -- teaching and learning sentences -- then I had to first show Kevin that I cared about his problem -- the missing Rubik's Cube.

I had to remind myself that I teach children first and curriculum second. Yes, sentences are critically important for teachers to teach and children to learn, but teaching children how to problem solve first may be our only chance of getting to academics like sentences.

So I walked into the hallway and asked Kevin, "What's up?"

He told me about his missing Rubik's Cube, and that he was certain Thomas had it in his locker.

I looked Kevin in the eye and said, "Kevin, I promise you that I will help you solve this problem and find your Rubik's Cube."

He looked at me and said, "Right now?"

I said, "No. Not right now. Right now I need to teach you about sentences and you need to learn about sentences -- but at the end of class, I promise that we will make time to find your Rubik's Cube. Can we do that?"

I could tell that Kevin really wanted to find it now, but he looked at me and reluctantly said OK.

Kevin and Thomas sat down and learned about sentences while I taught. With a few minutes left in class, I talked with Thomas about the Rubik's Cube. It didn't take long to discover that it was in his locker.

Kevin had his Rubik's Cube back.

The next day, I sat with the two boys in the hallway and debriefed this situation. Rather than punish Thomas for doing wrong, I worked with him and Kevin through a conversation about why he shouldn't steal. Thomas came to the conclusion that he shouldn't steal from Kevin, because he wanted to be Kevin's friend.

Now they are writing stories and learning to write sentences.
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