Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Learning, Education, Training, and School

I just finished another Sir Ken Robinson book. This one is Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education. There are so many good things in this book. I've already started to listen to it again.

One of the first things I really liked was his talk about the difference between learning, education, training, and school.

Learning - the process of acquiring new knowledge and skills
Education - the organized program(s) of learning
Training - a type of education that's focuses on learning specific skills
School - any community of people that comes together to learn with each other

I have been trying to get my students to actually learn in my classes for several years. However, I have found that the grade is one of the biggest problems with learning in our system. When students are worried about grades, they will only do that which is required so they can get the minimum grade they want. It doesn't matter how good the activity is. It doesn't matter how engaging the activity is. It doesn't even matter if students are thoroughly invested in the activity. If there is a grade attached to the activity, that is what students are going to concentrate on.

Oh, they will seem interested in what is going on in the activity for awhile, but when the activity starts to come to an end, they will just start to worry about the grade and what they have to do to get the grade they want.

One quote that I just found today was:

“The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners...

It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used.

The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.”

~ John Holt Quotes

So many times I think people (teachers, students, parents, etc.) equate teaching to learning. However, I am always trying to tell my students that they don't need a teacher to learn. I especially tell this to my Spanish students. I tell them that people learn new languages all of the time throughout the world without going into a classroom or having a teacher. 

Several years ago as I was telling one of my computer classes that they could learn just about anything from Google, one student asked me: "So, why do we even come to school?" I replied to her that even though they could learn just about anything from Google, they most likely wouldn't do it on their own. She paused for a minute and then agreed with me. 

I think some of that comes from us as teachers taking out any creativity on their part from school. They have to do the things we want them to do, the way that we want them to do it. This is something I want to start to work on this next year. I don't think I could go "cold turkey" from doing the assignments I know help students to learn, but eventually I want to be able to have them figure out how they can prove on their own that they can learn the things I want them to learn, but they can prove that in anyway they want.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


One of the best books that I have listened to in recent years is Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck. This book has really helped me to learn that I can change my mindset on a lot of subjects.

In the past I used to say that I can dribble a ball and I can walk, but I really can't do both at the same time. I would also say that I really suck at sports. This is all ironic as I am a pretty tall guy. However, since listening to Mindset I have fully changed my mind. I am still not good at sports. I still can't dribble a ball and walk at the same time. However, I know that I could learn to play sports. I know that I could probably get pretty good at it as well. However, I also know that I am not interested in doing so. If I really wanted to, though, I could take the time and learn to play any sports. Now, could I end up in the NBA or NFL, probably not at my age.

In this idea I have changed my mindset from a fixed mindset (me not having the ability to play sports) to a growth mindset (knowing I could learn to play sports if I wanted to). There are tons of websites, pins, and blogs that talk about Fixed and Growth mindsets. I would highly suggest getting a copy of the book and read or listen to it yourself, especially if you have any doubts about it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

What Happens When Students Don't Learn?

I have posted about how I decided to give all of my students "A's" in my class. Of course for most of my students this has helped them out a lot. I have seen most of my students doing more work than ever before, and therefore learning a lot more than with grades.

However, I will have to admit that there are some students that still don't do anything in class. Now, when I say they don't do "anything," they tend to keep "busy" in class, but they don't complete the amount of assignments that most of the students do. For example, every semester I have had least two or three students that have only completed two assignments the whole semester. This is really frustrating to me. And, at first this seems that the whole thing has failed and I get a little discouraged. However, I really had to start thinking about this.

One of the things that I came up with at first was to send students that were not really doing anything in class to our In-School Suspension room. My thought on this was that it is a privilege to be in class and learning. However, as I thought about this, I thought that this would be a nightmare for everyone involved (including the awesome people that work in our In-School Suspension room). So, before even implementing this idea, I totally scratched it. Plus, as I thought about it more, do I really want to send students someplace else to NOT complete the assignments in my class? That seemed a little silly to me. The whole point of this is to help students to learn.

Another thing that I thought of doing was putting those students that weren't doing anything in class in a group that would receive grades. I actually implemented this at the beginning of this last year. This was an absolute failure! I had these students still not completing assignments and still getting bad grades (mostly "F's"). This also mad me physically sick giving grades, especially when I was trying to have students not worry about grades. There was this threat lurking in the air that if a student didn't work, they would be getting a grade. Ugh! So, I went back and removed this group from my classes and gave all of my students "A's" again.

I then had to come to the idea that I had to be the person that helped these students out. I am the teacher. I am the person that went to school to learn how to be a teacher. I am the adult in the room. So, I decided that if a student was not completing the assignments in my class, I had to sit down with that students and talk with them personally. This has helped a little, but it is still something that I need to work on.

I have had a few classes that were smaller and I can move these students to either sit directly next to me or all by themselves. I usually let my students listen to music (either on their own devices or through my computers) while they work. There are times I tell students that are not completing assignments that they are not permitted to listen to music until they have completed enough assignments. I have also sat down with these students at times and have told them that I need a specific assignment done before the end of class that day. All three of these items work a little, but not extremely well.

However, I have also had to come to a realization that most likely if these students were to have received a grade (which most likely would have been an "F"), it (the grade) would not have been motivating to them to try and complete the assignments. Grades are more like a weapon that teachers use rather than a motivation for students. So, my biggest thing is trying to figure out how to help these students to succeed in my class. I don't have the answers, plus I highly doubt that even if I did find something that worked for me and my students, that it would work for everyone in their classes. However, if I do find something that works, I will still post it here so that everyone that wants to try it and tweak it (as we do as teachers), you may do so.

Friday, July 8, 2016


Another idea that I have loved about the book "The Element" by Sir Ken Robinson is the chapter on tribes. Every time I listen to the book I am extremely excited to be part of a great tribe at my school. We call our tribe "Down the Rabbit Hole." It is a name that took awhile to come up with, but really summarizes a lot of what we do and talk about.

Several years ago my principal started using teachers in our school as coaches for other teachers. Their basic job is to come in and observe us in our classes and then talk with us about what we want to improve on. One of our coaches encourages the teachers he coaches to video record at least one class of themselves. A lot of teachers who have done this have found great things that they can improve in their teaching.

One teacher/coach met with one of her "coachees" and they decided to just meet together after school to discuss things. The coach was an English teacher and the "coachee" was a history teacher. So they didn't necessarily talk about specific lessons and content. They were talking about teaching in general.

The history teacher one day stopped by my room on the way back to his room and talked to me about the topics they had talked about. He and I ended up talking for about 30-40 minutes as well. After a few times of this he invited me to just come to their meeting. Another English teacher or two had also joined the meeting. They were meeting on Tuesdays that were B-Days since one of the English teachers was a part-time teacher and was only at school on B-Days.

We had a great time together. I was finding myself excited about the Tuesday B-Day meetings. There were times as I was getting ready for school that I would have to think if today was the day for our meeting or not. We first started calling our meeting the "Tuesday Meeting." However, at the beginning of this previous school year we decided to meet on Thursdays (for several different reasons). So, we jokingly called it the "Tuesday Meeting that Meets on Thursday" group or the "Meeting Formerly Known as Tuesday Meeting" group. We also started meeting more often. We decided to meet most Thursdays even if someone couldn't make it.

Also there were times that we started emailing each other articles we had found on the Internet. Most of the time these conversations went on and on about the subject we were talking about. At one point we talked about opening our email conversation to more people in our building. We of course would always invite people to our physical group meeting, and sometimes a few people would come and give great contributions to our group. However, we know that not everyone's schedule could fit into that. We felt that emails were a better way to show other teachers what we were talking about as well.

So I started delving into websites that we could use for an email list so that we could also keep track of the conversation as it went along. I searched and looked at different websites for a few hours and then I was reminded of Google Groups. As I looked into Groups a little more I found that we could actually create a mailing list with one email that people could send information to and it would send it to all the people on the list. I brought it up to our small group and we started conversing about what to call the group.

As we had been emailing each other with links to articles we had found we found ourselves starting to click on the other links in that same article. Then we found we were clicking on links in those articles to go to other articles. It became a vicious descent. Thus we decided to call our group and our mailing list "Down the Rabbit Hole" as we felt we were continually diving into more and more rabbit wholes by following the links on the articles.

With the approval of our principal we added every teacher in our building onto our mailing list. We did tell them that they don't have to read the emails and if they wanted off the list, then they could unsubscribe or ask one of the people in charge of the group to remove them. We didn't want the list to be a mandated thing that we had to do (we all know how those things work out).

I feel that I have found my tribe for now. I'm sure that some of us will move on and we may eventually abandon the group altogether one day. However, for now I feel that I am totally getting validation from this group. The first small part of this group were some of the first people that I told about giving all of my students A's. They are the ones that I almost have convinced to do the same thing, but they aren't there yet. I reassure them that they do not have to jump on board the "crazy bus" until they are ready. However, these are the teachers I hear from when students talk about what is happening in my classes.

These are also the teachers that inspire me to continue to work out this way of teaching. Even during the summer months we have been emailing here and there with articles that inspire us to think differently about what we are doing as educators. I would never have found some of the articles or videos we have shared without this group of people.

I also feel that they "Alchemy of Synergy" is working and within our group and we will be doing some great things together in our classes soon. I feel that although I have worked with different people in groups throughout the years, this is my true "tribe." As I mentioned before I totally look forward to the days that we meet. Sometimes the day can seem to drag on, but if we have our meeting that day I feel that I can make it through the day because we are meeting. There are times we have an impromptu meeting at lunch or before or after school. I absolutely love those time. They always make my day so much better.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Element

I recently just finished listening to The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Sir Ken Robinson. I had no idea that he had actually written books. I have listened to a lot of his talks online, but recently figured out that he has written several book. So, I went to my local library's OverDrive account and found this title available in audio format. I love listening to books on my phone. I can be working in the garden and listening to a book at the same time.

I have been very impressed with Sir Robinson for quite some time. He has inspired a lot of thinking on my part for quite some time. This book now has added more thinking on my part. The following is a great outline of the book:

Kim Hartman's Outline of The Element

So, I see this book as a great way of explaining why we need to get rid of grades and help students to learn. In other words, our goal as teachers should be to mentor students to find their element. I found chapter 8 to be really interesting in helping students. We are to:

  • Give Recognition
  • Give Encouragement
  • Facilitate
  • Help students stretch their minds
Hopefully I can get better at these as students continue to learn in my class. I believe that not having grades in my class can really help out with this. Once students can stop worrying about their grades and start learning, my role as a mentor also starts.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Single-Point Rubric

A friend at my school showed me the following article on the "Brilliant or Insane" blog:

Your Rubric is a Hot Mess; Here's How to Fix It

This is an amazing post and I have shared it with a lot of teachers. I was meeting with a group of teachers at school and they absolutely went crazy. Our English department has totally gone to Single-Point Rubrics in their grading.

As we have discussed this with several teachers, one of my friends at school called the Multi-Point Rubric (the one that teachers mostly use) is like a word-search. Students have to go through and search the correct words that they want. A Single-Point Rubric tells students exactly what they should be doing.

I always tell teachers that when we do a Multi-Point Rubric, we are essentially telling students at least two ways NOT to do the assignment correctly. Why do we do that? (And, I am including myself in this as I have given many Multi-Point Rubric in my time as a teacher).

We are also telling students that there is only one way to excel at the assignment. Even when we put the "wow factor" in the rubric (and, yes I have done that myself as well). One problem with the "wow factor" is that once you see one "wow" from a student, it is difficult to be "wowed" from other students. Plus, sometimes we have graded so many assignments that we are just tired and no longer "wowed" by things.

To me, the Single-Point Rubric is one of the best ways to give students feedback as well as helping them to know what exactly they are supposed to do.

Teacher Evaluation

This last year we had to start a new teacher-evaluation system in the state where I live and teach (Utah). The districts in our state are trying out online systems to help us evaluate ourselves and have our administrators evaluate us. Here is the rubric (ugh, it is ugly):

As I went through the process of evaluating myself with the system I found out one major thing about rubrics. The evaluation system had us evaluate ourselves on several different items. Each item had an option of 1-4 (or basically a Multi-Point Rubric). As I was going through my evaluation I found that I started thinking that if I wasn't doing EVERYTHING on Level 3 (the one where we are supposed to be), then I felt I had to grade myself as a Level 2. 

When my administrator talked with me about my evaluation. He indicated that the three administrators were looking at my self-evaluation and were laughing because I had graded myself so low on things. As I started thinking about that I realized that the Multi-Point Rubric doesn't work. So, I took about 30 minutes one morning before school and went through the evaluation system and created a Single-Point Rubric of it. Here is what it looks like:

I find this rubric so much better. For of all I decided to use the single-person pronoun so that it makes it more personal. I also eliminated all of the wording how "effective" a teacher is. This again limits a teacher to saying they are only effective in specific ways. Sometimes I have become "effective" in an area in a totally different way, but the old rubric doesn't seem to allow for this. With the Single-Point Rubric I and my administrator can write down what I need to work on and what I excel at. This, I believe, will help me to become a better teacher.

I haven't used this rubric yet as I just came up with it at the end of the year, but I am hoping to use it this next year in my teaching.

Collaboration Rubric

We also have a rubric in our district for our collaboration teams. I decided to do the same thing with it. Here is what the original looks like:

Here is what it looks like as a Single-Point Rubric:

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information

I remember reading something several months ago that talked about how grades actually hurt students. Of course I am a "Throwing Out Grades" information junkie, and I tend to read a lot of information and forget where I read it. This is one reason I have decided to start writing these posts in this blog.

So, I started looking for that article again a few weeks ago, and I think I found it (or at least I found something like it). Here is the link to the article:

Response to Assessment Feedback: The Effects of Grades, Praise, and Source of Information

Of course with most research articles I don't read the whole thing. I usually will jump to the conclusion and just read that so that I can find out their findings. One of the greatest parts that I read was:

Detailed, specific, descriptive feedback, which focuses students’ attention on their work rather than the self, is the most advantageous kind of information that should be provided to students. The benefit of such feedback occurs at all levels of performance. Evaluative feedback in the form of grades may be helpful if no other options are available and can beneficially be accompanied by some form of encouragement. At the same time, grades were shown to decrease the effect of detailed feedback. It appears that this occurs because it reduces a sense of self-efficacy and elicits negative affect around the assessment task.
So, what I am gathering from this article is that detailed feedback is the BEST thing we can do for students. Even if we give feedback to students, once we slap a letter or number grade on the assignment, the feedback is totally lost.

I shared this with a few friends as well. One friend mentioned the following quote from the article:

Overall, detailed, descriptive feedback was found to be most effective when given alone, unaccompanied by grades or praise.
So, even giving praise can diminish the feedback. Interesting.

Another friend did point out that this research was done with college students. This then begs the question: "Does this same thing happen with high school, middle school, or elementary school students?" I personally don't know, but I would guess that it does.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Throwing Out Grades

A couple of years ago I started researching the idea of totally getting rid of grades. The only way I could think about doing that was to somehow give every student an "A" in my classes. I started searching online for anyone who had done it. I didn't find anyone.

However, I did find an article from Mark Barnes' blog that talked about the same idea. Here is a link to that article:

Why All Students Should Get Straight A's

That article inspired me to try out giving every student an "A" in my classes. So, I did it. It was the end of a semester and most of classes, so I went in and manually gave every student an "A." I waited to see what would happen. I was afraid I would get emails from parents, that students would come in and complain, or that the administration in my building would come in and talk with me about it. However, an amazing thing happened: nothing. No one said anything. No one!

So, I decided to take the next step. I started to talk with my new students about what I wanted to do. We talked about what grades actually mean. I found out from our conversations that they really don't know anything about grades (in general). They know they get grades, and some even figure out how to get a better grade, but most students have not been trained in grades, so they don't know how they work.

One thing I was able to point out to them is that their ideas of what grades actually mean are totally different from one person to another. When you see an "A" on a report card one person will have an idea of what that means, and another person will have a totally different idea. That is why grades are meaningless, because they don't mean the same thing from one person to another.

Also, I didn't want my students worrying about their grades, even if the grade didn't come until the last of the quarter. I figured that the high-achieving students would still worry about the grade even if I told them not to worry about it. So, I decided to take the issue of grades "off the table." I told them I would give all of them an "A" no matter what. Guaranteed. When I asked my students what I was going to ask in return most of them said "we have to work" or "we have to complete the assignments." Wow, what training we have done on our students. I told them that yes, I did want them to complete their assignments, but more important I wanted them to learn. (I have to remind them of this every few weeks of course).

Here is the amazing thing that happened: My students worked more than any other year in the past! I started recording down the assignments they had completed. If they couldn't pass the exams I had them take, I had them go back and learn the material again and they could re-take the exam again. They could do this again and again until they could pass the exams they were given.

This was amazing to me. I told my students at one point that generally teachers think that generally students are lazy and won't do any assignment unless it is on their grade. I tell my students that they (the students) don't help out with this point of view. I tell them that any time they ask "Is this going to be graded," they (the students) are perpetuating this myth with teachers.

One of the thing I tell my students to try and motivate them is that they need to help me to prove to other teachers that they (the teachers) are wrong about how "lazy" students are. I tell them that if none of them (the students) does any work, that will just prove to the other teachers that they myth that students are lazy is actually true.

The amazing thing is that the majority of my students end up working really hard on their assignments and learning a lot of the skills I want them to learn in my class. There are of course some students that will not do any work at all. Each semester I usually will have at least one or two students that will only do a few assignments. I had to start to think of what to do with these students when they weren't working (I will take some time in a different post to talk more about this).

I have been doing this for a few years now. Each year, semester, and quarter that I get new students I take part of the first day to talk with my students about grading and how they don't need to have a grade to "motivate" them to learn. I try to incorporate them into my plan to prove to teachers that students don't need grades in order to learn.

Students also started talking to other teachers about it as well. The students told these other teachers that they were doing a lot more work in my class than any other class they were taking.

I eventually did tell my principal what I was doing, and he was extremely supportive. I was relieved. This summer I want to start to draft a letter to parents to let them know what is going on. Of course some students have spoken with their parents already about this. I haven't received one phone call or email from a parent about this at all. I did have a few parents at Parent/Teacher Conferences tell me that they were happy with what I was doing.

I will say that this experience has been very liberating and I love helping my students learn without worrying about their grades. I am hoping to start to allow students to prove their knowledge of the skills required in my class in different ways besides the assignment I have created.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Assignment Points

I had been very frustrated with grades for years. I had learned through my teaching experience that some of my "A" students did not remember anything from my class. And sometimes my "C" and "D" students went and and did quite well in the subject in later classes. About four or five years ago I decided to do away with lots of points on assignments.

For years I had worked with multiple points on assignments. Some assignments were worth 10 points while others (the ones I thought were more important) were worth 50 or 100 points. However, this turned out to be awful in the end. I was trying to "tell" my students that the 100 point assignments were more important than the 10 point assignments, but that inference never was implied by most of my students. If they wanted to raise their grades, most of the time students would look at the simple assignments to get those done first before going onto the huge assignment that was worth more points.

I also had started consulting with a testing company that creates international tests. Their point of view on their tests was that either a test-taker passed the test, or they did not. It doesn't matter if the test-taker barely passed the test or got a really high score and passed the test. Both test-takers passed the test.

As I started thinking about that I decided to change the point value on ALL of my assignments to one point. That point indicated to students that they either passed the test or assignment to my satisfaction or they did not. If they did not pass the test or assignment to my satisfaction, then I would indicate where they had gone wrong and allow them to resubmit the assignment.

This ended up being one of the best things I could ever do in my teaching career. It was difficult at first for students (and especially parents) to get used to the binary system of grades. However, once they found out that they could resubmit assignments as many times as they needed, the anxiousness from both students and parents subsided. Students would then ask me what they could do to raise their grade, and I just told them to complete their assignments. Any assignment could raise their grade.

What Assignments Should We Give?

Near the same time my principal started talking to our whole faculty about our assignments as well. He asked us if all of our assignments were necessary. He brought up the idea that if a student had a 59% F and 60% was a D- and they only assignment they were missing was a cross-word puzzle, then we really need to think again about what assignments we are giving our students.

This means that all tests, homework, class work, participation, etc. were valued at the same level. That then started me thinking about the assignments that I was having my students do. Were all of them necessary? Were some of them fun, but didn't really help students to learn anything? Did I have students complete some of them because they were easy for me to grade? I had to start reflecting a lot about the assignments. In the end I had to walk away from some that I enjoyed doing in favor of assignments that were better for my student learning. Other assignment I had to tweak a little to help them work better for student learning.

Driver's Education

I also had an experience with my own daughter. She had just taken driver's ed and we were waiting to see her final grade. At her high school they required students to get a C+ or higher in order to qualify to get their driver's license. When her grades came out, she had a C. When I went in to look at her total points and percentage I found that she was two percentage points away from the C+. When I looked at the assignments listed on her grade I saw two word-search assignments that were marked as missing. When I asked her about it she said she had turned them in. When I asked if she had put her name on them she was stumped. So, essentially the teacher was saying that because she did not put her name on a word-search assignment, my daughter could not get a driver's license. That seemed pretty excessive to me. 

Her teacher retired the day after the semester ended and could not be reached. I emailed the department head and when he replied several months later he was very accommodating and had her complete a small research assignment. I did indicate to him that I did not expect a grade change. She got earned the grade she deserved. He told me that she could just do that assignment and we could talk afterwards. I emailed him a few weeks later, but no reply came (in his defense it was summer, and I am assuming he was having a good time and not worrying about school at all). Near the end of summer he emailed back and asked if my daughter had completed the paper. I indicated that she did and he told me he would send her information on to the DLD so she could go get her license. He didn't ask to see the paper!

Well, this is not about the politics of getting a driver's license. What was surprising is that a grade had been placed at this high school to indicate that a student would be a safe driver. And what made up that grade? Assignments, word searches, participation in class, etc. Nothing from her range time or her driving with the instructor. 

Binary Point System

Wow, this went sideways really fast.

Getting back to assignment points. All of my assignments were worth one point. Once a due date came up, if a student hadn't turned in the assignment, they got a zero on that assignment until they could complete it to my satisfaction. On assignments this would be different for each assignment. For tests I could indicate that 80% on the test was the "passing" and anything from 80-100% would get them the one on the assignment. 

As I have talked with teachers about this over the years, most of the time their first reaction is one of horror. Basically I was saying that 80% and above is an A on the assignment. After thinking about that, yes, that is what is means. If we could complete any task at 80% or above level at least 80% of the time, I think that is pretty good. How many of us can actually do 100% of our job 100% of the time? I would think there are very few people in the world that could do that. If my students could pass a test at 80% or above, I was extremely happy. If they could do higher, great, but that doesn't mean anything for their grade.

Extra Credit

I also don't give extra credit points. As stated, if a student wants to raise their grade they should complete the assignments given in class to my satisfaction. If they didn't do well, they should redo the part(s) that I told them to.


For several years I had a great time with the 1 and 0 idea. Students got used to the idea and parents did too. Several other teachers in our building started using the same idea and have loved using it as well. I wouldn't say that everyone in our building uses it or would love it, but I think the idea is starting to catch on.

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