Saturday, June 12, 2021

Unpopular Opinions: On Failing Credits, Teaching Hybrid, and Grading Student Work!

Riding on my high that a post-covid education system could be different, I joined a committee. It quickly killed my buzz with a reminder that bureaucracy will only allow choices between a very narrow range of options. But I also appear to be in the minority of teachers on many ideas discussed, including this one...

Regardless, I'll state (or re-state) my case for letting kids fail, teaching hybrid, and assigning numeric grades. 

NOTE: I'm just talking about secondary schools here and within a system that requires a number on a100-point scale be cast in stone at the end of each course based on adherence to a pre-set curriculum, a number that will have a significant effect on post-secondary options (university/college entrance and scholarships). My preference outside of our current system would be to have a pass/fail for each course and to follow Michael Sandel's suggestion that any high school student that meets basic standards and is hoping to go to university should be chosen by lottery in order to dismantle meritocratic attitudes, but that's not within the scope of a board sanctioned committee discussion!  (And then I'd also likely get into a rant about the problems with the university stream being seen as the best stream to try to push everyone to enter, and we don't have time for all that!) But inside this system, as long as we need a mark at the end, then we need to provide transparent marks throughout. What I'm seeing from students with 'ungrading' teachers is profound and unnecessary stress from not knowing precisely where they sit all semester, sometimes followed by rage at the end when they guessed themselves to be at a much higher point than their final mark suggested. 

I'm also concerned with how students approach failure. In theory, we're all on board that we have to allow students to fail in order to develop resiliency and develop the coping skills to continue persevering in a challenging task. But in practice, we still talk about failing as a horrible thing. A student failing a class indicates teacher failure to engage the student significantly, which is bad. But it could, instead, point to burgeoning engagement by the part of the student in the beginnings of a strong learning relationship. Perhaps our endpoints are just too soon for some students. Unfortunately, school rankings and much policy focuses on failure rates, which seems similar to countries focusing exclusively on GDP to measure the prosperity of their people and missing many other markers including alternatives like levels of equity, sustainability, pollution, and basic happiness. Measuring school success with failure rates is like focusing just on wealth accumulation when there are clearly other important markers - I'd argue more important markers - like whether or not kids are prepared for life and whether or not kids are engaged with the world around them. But those numbers are so much easier to tally!! 

The questions being explored by the committee were about dismantling the fear of failure in students so they could focus on learning instead of focusing on being evaluated. That's a great end goal, but I had a different approach than the rest. I brought up the idea of shifting the way we discuss failure as an indicator of where we're at and how far we need to go, rather than as a problem to solve. And I offered a start at the board level (not always wise to do at an admin-led meeting) with a decreasing focus on failure rates in school. My grand solution: allow kids to attend longer (ditch the 34 credit cap) and enable them to take their time if needed. I was pulling from the old Outcomes Based model, that came and went with the last NDP government, and that looked at the possibility of allowing students to work faster than a semester if they were strong in a subject, and take a couple semesters if they needed more processing time. I still stand by that as a potentially powerful way to add flexibility into our structure to improve student engagement. How many are sitting bored because they know all this already?? Just let them demonstrate their knowledge and move on! How many are lost and giving up because it's going too fast for them?? Let them work more slowly with individual supports over as long a period as possible. To be clear, it's not that I want kids to stop caring about learning and succeeding in school but that I want us all to have permission to slow down

I've argued against the push to finish in four years before:

If they really want to shake things up, though, they could look at the Finnish system, which has a 2% dropout rate. They have no stigma around how long it takes to complete the upper secondary years. After grade 9, the three years of schooling are no longer divided into grades, and many leave and come back without feeling behind.

They replaced "age-cohort-based grouping of students with a nonclass organizational system...not based on fixed classes or grades (previously called 10th, 11th, or 12th grades). Students thus have greater choice available to them in planning their studies in terms of both the content and the sequencing of their courses....The academic upper secondary stream typically takes three years to complete, but many stay for a fourth year. 

And a couple years earlier I wrote more about that Finnish school system:

 "Upper Secondary starts after grade 9, after their 9-year "basic school," and has three streams to choose from: academic, vocational, or go to work. That's right - they can choose to walk away from school at 16. BUT only 2% (29) choose that route, compared to the 16% in Canada. I think drop-out rates have a lot to do with employment opportunities also, which can be seen at that link which shows the highest rate in Alberta where there are currently more unskilled labour jobs due to the tar sands. . . . They don't tie classes to age groups, so students feel comfortable taking more time to complete their studies. . . . They have increased the attractiveness of vocational education with at least one-sixth of the training on-the-job learning.  More than 40% of upper-secondary school students start their studies in vocational schools (26). They are able to shift to the academic stream later if they decided they made a wrong turn, and there's less stigma around it because their students aren't divided by age/grade after grade 9; there are students ranging from 16-20 in most classes." 
I went to school when people did "Grade 14" if they screwed around too much earlier on or if they took a while to find the courses that best fit their interests and abilities, and that was almost a badge of honour!

But it was the wrong answer for the committee.  

Worst than being wrong: I was admonished that it comes from a place of privilege to want kids to access free education as long as they see fit because it doesn't acknowledging that kids need to finish quickly in order to get jobs to support their families. I'd never actually heard the need to get kids to work as a reason to push them through in four years before, so my response could be considered from a place of ignorance, for sure. I know it's much cheaper for the government if we get them through faster, though, and I'm a bit suspicious that that's still the main concern. I do know that school kids working full time is a thing because I've had a handful of kids learning asynchronistically this year so they could go to work during the day after both parents lost their jobs due to covid. It happens, but IT IS SO WRONG!! No school-aged child should be at work all day! Every family should be ensured financial security through some type of Guaranteed Basic Income plan in a society as wealthy as ours. But, that's not for us to change or brainstorm about. So, if it's not within our purview to fix that part of the equation, then here's the question we're left with: Should we work to ensure no child fails any course even if time limits create incomplete understanding, or should we work to teach with excellence even if it means sometimes kids fail a course and have to try again in order to master the skills and content?   

Instead, what I'm hearing is that we need to rush people through their only access to free education, not allowing any failed courses in order to provoke them to persevere because they need to get jobs fast to help feed and house their parents and sibling. Considering the possibility of lengthening free education and making it more accessible for longer was perceived as acting against people who are struggling financially, which, in itself, betrays an attitude of school= money in a conversation geared towards an attitude of school=learning. The alternative is insisting that politicians must ensure the financial security of all citizens - coughUBIcough - and leave educators to focus on promote learning in as much breadth and depth as possible to each citizen. Shouldn't that be our job? Or is it our job, as educators, to churn them out quickly. Before we can fix mark obsession, we need to be less afraid about basic survival. I get to what's driving mark concerns in this 4 minute podcast from the Guelph Backgrounder

(Aside: Isn't it a bit ironic calling out privilege during a session that expected participants to have two meets open (whole group and small group) with cameras on, another tab with the slideshow on, then another with a jamboard, all open and accessible at once, and all happening during the day while my youngest has a meet open as well, so of course my system crashed. I call that bandwidth-privilege.) 

The argument presented to me for never letting a student fail is that failing just one class in grade 9 causes kids to drop out of school. Does it though??

This factoid is mentioned in many places without being cited, but this might be the actual study that finds a correlation between failing courses in grade 9 and dropping out. The authors decided that it's due to how "demoralizing" it is to fail (p.43), but offer no evidence for that conclusion. There is a correlation between failing a course in grade 9 and never finishing, but that doesn't mean that failure caused it. Prior to the credit system, failing a course meant being held back a grade to re-do everything. The credit system is brilliant for eradicating that. And now with credit recovery, students can finish parts of the several credits in one term, which is also a clever change to the system.

Similar to the notion that lockdowns cause mental health crisis, it ignores a significant confound: that a deadly virus causing sickness and death in family members, which provoked lockdowns, has an effect on mental health.  Dr. Tyler Black, an expert on adolescent suicide, shows that suicides actually went down this year, and this was his message to people who misread the data:

"I have studied suicide for 15 and pediatric suicide epidemiology for 12 years. . . . Prior to the pandemic, suicide rates were 50% higher during school days. So if your answer to distress is simply "go back to school" then you are neglecting how much stress and distress can be caused by school. . . . As if we can isolate one factor and say "THIS IS THE FACTOR THAT CAUSED THE HARM." These inept, ghoulish pretenders of knowledge. They are bankrupt souls, motivated thinkers, and you should NOT LISTEN to them. They do NOT know what they are talking about."

I've heard this in my online classrooms as well, anecdotally: stress levels went way down once they opted to learn online only. Part of that decrease in stress and ability to enjoy classes again was getting away from their peers. People can be difficult, even people we like.

So, I wonder if it isn't more accurate to say that failing a course is a symptom of an underlying issue, which could increase the chances of dropping out. To solve the problem, then, doesn't require pushing kids through each course, but instead requires looking for that other deeper issue. A credit loss alerts us to reach out in any grade when a student isn't hitting milestones, like we do with infants, to look for any potential problem getting in the way of development. From my many years, I'd say it's one of three things: something preventing the brain from understanding the work or from doing the work or preventing the student from caring about the work enough to give it top priority: 

1. If it's a problem with understanding the concepts, then it could be the case that we've found a limitation in the student's abilities that can't be moved regardless a variety of efforts or supports in place (provided we've tried a variety of efforts and supports). That just is, and sometimes we have to accept it and find a program that's a better fit. 

2. More frustrating to me, and something that has me considering a second career in psychometrics, is the dilemma of students who seem to understand the concepts but can't demonstrate their understanding once we get past the conundrum of differentiating between this issue and the former. This inability to produce could be from ADHD, ASD, OCD, OCPD, or any number of other undiagnosed acronyms. I've seen kids take days to choose a topic for a simple exercise because it's vital to them to choose the absolute best topic possible, and they end up researching them all first. You can tell them that it's not the priority of the task, but that doesn't help them feel that it's not important. Sometimes, for some kids, I don't let them choose because I know it will send them spiraling to nowhere. The big one these days is internet-provoked addictions. Anecdotally, I'd guess that many more kids these days (and adults) can't manage sustained work like was once expected. We can't just continue with the same expectations knowing that it just can't be managed regardless the ability to understand the curriculum. Well, that's the direction we're heading in, at least. The other option is to ignore how much our world has change and continue to hope for out-dated projections.

3. What sometimes seems easiest to solve are external issues - sometimes: things like no place to do homework, no routines, not enough food, an expectation to manage childcare or contribute financially, friend distractions in the classroom, much more interesting alternative activities elsewhere, or just being uncomfortable in the setting, etc. There are nutrition programs and drop-in lounges in my school now that address some of these external issues, but this is where our flexible learning strategies practiced this year can actually help. It's definitely the case that some kids do much better in the building, but it's also the case that some do much better working from home. Here's my final unpopular opinion: I think this should continue to be an option - not an external schooling system, like e-learning, but an online actually tied to an in-person class, where learning in person is still an option but isn't mandatory. I've found numerous ways I can teach without each student in front of me at a specific time each day. I'm prepared to use this in future for any students uncomfortable coming in for any reason. Yup, I'm taking about the dreaded hybrid teaching. It can be a disaster without supports, but, with the proper equipment and a few modifications to general practices, it can make school much more accessible. It's far more important to me that all my students can access learning than that I can walk up and down the aisles as I teach. 

I didn't finish high school, but not because of failing a course, which I almost did in grade 9 geography and did with aplomb in grade 10 Latin. I left because of so many little rules that kept me from wanting to be there. In March '84, I had more detentions than there were days left of school, largely from momentarily letting my butt or knees hit the floor when I was digging through the bottom of my locker. Sitting in the halls is a fire hazard, I'll have you know. School was a punishment, not an environment to thrive and grow. We still take a punitive view of many behaviours that are not a threat to learning, like needing a walk mid-class, or wanting to leave class when we're done our work. We keep them in the room for policing reasons, not for any pedagogical reasons. As much as I loved my classes, I hated feeling policed in the building, and that's something we can improve. However, on top of this, I fell in love. No possible intervention could have kept me in class when the alternative was so enticing. 

Anyway, what was the committee's solution? Don't let kids know their grades until later in hopes that, by not revealing grades, they'll removed the desire for good grades, and focus on the learning instead. I've written before about why that doesn't work. In a nutshell, obsession with marks isn't because marks exist, but because of what they represent. High marks mean access to universities and scholarship money, so not letting them know their mark on an assessment just stresses them out. 

I don't ungrade or delay grades. In fact I do the opposite and use a marksheet (explained in an 8 min. video here) to show students precisely where they sit in my course at any given time. Many students have told me, as you can see in that video, how much it has helped with their stress load and with their motivation. It's fully transparent and allows students to be really clear about what will be assessed in the course and how everything is weighed, so they can make wise choices if, for instance, they're overwhelmed with work from other classes.

My interest is in shifting the way we discuss grades to make it clear they only reflect demonstration of knowledge, and not something of value in each person, but, without dismantling meritocracy, we have scant methods to tackle the economic forces that make marks matter so intensely. Here's what's on top of my marksheets, just before explaining my weighting system:

"Keep in mind that your marks are JUST a measure of how well you communicated your understanding of the curriculum, and ABSOLUTELY NOTHING MORE; They’re not a reflection of your intelligence or usefulness or potential or general wonderfulness. 

do think it helps a bit to hear that over and over, and to be told that school is about finding your limits, but many are still desperate for that scholarship, and that won't shift without economic supports. 

About two years ago, I wrote in opposition to the idea of refraining from giving marks or letting students know, clearly, where they fall against a set standard. Students self-reflection isn't content-rich enough to know if they're mastering the material or not, so it's up to well-educated teachers to let them know how close they are, and what they're missing.

"The teacher is better able to calibrate the nearness to perfection of a student's demonstration of ability in a course. This does affect their future, but that's because each of our abilities and limitations dramatically affect our future plans.. . . The attitude of mere curiosity and joyful learning, in a classroom of students entirely intrinsically motivated, can't be fostered in a competitive atmosphere where marks can make the difference between stability and struggle." 

Marks have been commodified. The only way to completely break that conditioning and make knowledge and wisdom something to strive for in itself is to provide a more secure pathway towards financial security and take education right out of that equation. Sandal makes it clear that the correlation between education and salary falls apart once we control for the SES of parents, and only about 5% of people raised in a low-SES home will get out of that status with increased education. That game is rigged. Ours doesn't have to be.


Owen Gray said...

The system can get pretty frustrating, Marie.

Marie Snyder said...

It can. The fact that I'm in a clear minority could mean I'm completely wrong about all this, but I haven't seen an argument that's convinced me yet - and I've been reading all the big guys on this (Jesse Stommel, etc.)

Andy in Germany said...

I certainly would have appreciated the opportunity to learn from home alongside others in the class, and the occasional reminder that grades aren't everything. I’ve been deliberately doing this for my kids. I’ve regularly looked at an “average” set of grades and encouraged them because they were commended for the way they respectfully helped their peers.

Thankfully where I now work, training vulnerable adults and refugees, we don't deal with grades; we're preparing our clients to be ready when grades become important later, while helping them recognise and define their other skills and abilities for prospective employers, so that when they reach the next stage they will be confident in their abilities.

This comment struck me:

“I was admonished that it comes from a place of privilege to want kids to access free education as long as they see fit because it doesn't acknowledging that kids need to finish quickly in order to get jobs to support their families. “

This is frankly frightening, and it’s increasing. Since I started training to work in social care and working in education for vulnerable adults, I’ve increasingly felt a gulf between me and my colleagues on the one side, and certain “activists” on the other. These “activists” are very quick to call out “Privilege” when they hear about something they don’t like, seemingly to the complete exclusion of actually doing anything about the problem raised: it seems to be more about silencing dissenting voices.

Marie Snyder said...

Hi Andy,
I love the idea of ignoring grades in order to focus on skills, but I can only see the benefit of that if there's no future-defining grade attached to the end of the course.

I also found that privilege comment frightening! I want labour laws to prevent students from being allowed to work during school hours paired with legislation that ensures all people in school have their basic needs met so they can fully concentrate on getting the best education possible. I'm also annoyed at the directionality of that statement - that we have to make school years shorter for the kids who need to work instead of removing that need and enabling school to take as long as it needs to take. Lots of work to do on this one!