Five years ago, my principal walked into my classroom as my students were chanting “One day without cocaine!” repeatedly and so loudly that it could be heard down the hallway. When she walked in and saw that I was leading the cheer, she asked me what the hell was going on and waited a little impatiently while I explained the purpose of the chant.
Since my classroom doubled as a computer lab, I had spent a lot of time learning to teach paperlessly and to use technology in useful and interesting ways. However, having technology in the classroom also led to management issues that I hadn’t encountered up to that point in my teaching career, like students wasting time on websites that had nothing to do with the lesson or the objective for the day. The problem wasn’t Facebook or Twitter. It wasn’t YouTube or any of the other typical time wasters.
My students were wasting insane amounts of time checking the online gradebook.
I grew weary of my students’ obsession with the online gradebook, so I decided that it was time for us to have a little chat about it. I started off the discussion by explaining to them a few things that they needed to know about the online gradebook and its role in their education:
- Using the online gradebook as a planner was a bad idea since assignments didn’t get put in the gradebook until after they were due, which meant that anything they were working on from that list was already late.
- Their grades in the online gradebook weren’t likely to change while they were in my class since all of their teachers were busy teaching their own classes instead of grading assignments.
- The secret to school was going to class, doing all of the work, and trying hard to learn all of the material and master all of the skills. It wasn’t about checking the gradebook or chasing points.
By explaining these things to my students, I hoped to change their focus from points and the online gradebook to learning and mastery. I teased them that they looked like mice trying to get cocaine pellets by pushing a lever over and over and over again as they were constantly hitting refresh on their screens hoping that their grades would magically change.
I challenged them to break this obsessive behavior and to go one day without checking the online gradebook. One day without cocaine.
After I explained the point of the chant and the discussion to my principal, she laughed and told me to carry on. I further challenged my students to not worry about the points. They needed to worry about the learning and the mastery of concepts, and if they did, the grade would come.
For my entire career, both before the “one day without cocaine” talk and after, I have been leery of the grading process. Even though I tried to set up my class in a way that emphasized learning and mastery, I had students everyday lobbying for points, missing assignments because they “already had an A,” and playing what I have termed “the game of school” where point accumulation by whatever means possible is the goal, not learning and mastery.
Then, in March, I had an awakening. I realized that people value what they measure. This concept isn’t new. It’s why financial planners tell people the first step to financial freedom is tracking every penny they spend or why dietitians tell people they can’t lose weight until they start to track every piece of food they eat. In both cases, spending and food consumption tend to improve just from the act of tracking. It’s not magic. It’s because we value what we measure.
At that point, I had never heard of standards based grading, but I was in the middle of a class on assessment in my masters program, and we had talked a lot about the proper role of homework and practice, the many different and effective ways to collect data, and the need for accurate assessment if we wanted to know exactly what our students knew and could do.
There are a couple of things to know about me that are helpful at this point. One, I am obsessive about things when I get passionate about them, and I will spend insane amounts of time learning and developing tools to do whatever it is I want to do. Two, in April, I was hired to teach at a new school, and I was alone in the standards based grading arena in that school. I had full support from administration to do it, but I didn’t have any of the paid tools that might have been helpful.
So, since March I have been developing and implementing a new grading strategy in order to measure the things that I want my students to value. It has been an amazing journey that has transformed how I teach, how I assess, and how my students learn. I have had to not only rethink everything in my classroom, but I have also had to create tools to facilitate the process. I have made standards based grading work for me, and I would like to share that process with others, so hopefully they can make changes in their classes to help their students develop a growth mindset by measuring achievement not points.
Let’s get rid of the cocaine forever.