Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fish Story

There's an old saying I recently read somewhere, and darned if I can remember where:

"Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day; teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime."

The more I think about the entitlement grading model (i.e., the student begins the school year with a perfect 100 average without having done any work or demonstrated proficiency), the more I think that it is the root of almost all of the problems we have in the schools when it comes to actual student learning. It is a product of the ubiquitous self-esteem movement, which is more of an underlying philosophy than an actual pedagogical policy which is explicitly manifested in the classroom, like the entitlement grading model. That 100 average with which the student begins the year is the "fish" we give him that in many ways prevents him from learning how to fish. By making him happy today, we fail to properly prepare and equip him for tomorrow.

Just to recap, the entitlement grading model:

- Promotes the false axiom that "everyone's a winner" until proven otherwise;
- Promotes the idea that all students are automatically entitled to high grades and lavish praise, without having to do anything at all to earn them;
- Gives students a strong disincentive to do their work, or even to understand what to do; i.e., makes it preferable to not do the work at all than to do it and receive less than the maximum grade;
- Creates a disconnect in the student's mind between his work habits and his grade average;
- Gives students illogical ideas, e.g., that they should pass their classes with high averages because of their intellectual deficiencies, long-term absences, subjective dislike of or disinterest in subject matter, or other conditions inhibiting performance;
- Destroys the meaning of failure, and the meaning of achievement;
- Prevents students from learning by fostering a "defensive" approach to school; i.e., the student approaches his classes, schoolwork and assignments from the standpoint of minimizing loss instead of maximizing gain.

It is very difficult to find a logical rationale for the entitlement grading model. The only thing I can think of is the idea that if students knew that they had a zero average on the first day of school, that they had to earn 65 points or more starting from zero, they might find that to be too much of an uphill climb, and -- here we go again -- be "discouraged" and "turn off to learning." Starting with a 100 average would "make them feel better," be "encouraging," and having to "maintain" a 100 average will seem "easier" than having to earn it from the ground up. (None of this, of course, is logical.) In addition, one does not need to use pure mathematical logic to arrive at a student's final grade; I've often wondered precisely how such teachers compute the number of points to be "deducted" from 100 at the end of a marking period or semester, based on the grades the child received on submitted work, and how non-submitted work factors in. Is there any way to do it without it becoming completely arbitrary?

Using the economic model which I prefer, the child's final grade is the result of a simple mathematical formula. I enter into an Excel spreadsheet the numbers corresponding to the letter grades students receive for their notebooks and essays, create a formula to compute the weighted average, and the computer does the math (the average of each field of cells, each representing one set of assignments collectively worth a pre-determined percentage of the final grade, added together). When an assignment is not submitted, I enter "0" (zero) in that cell. In order for the formula to compute a number greater than 65, the students must generate positive numbers for me to enter into the computer by submitting work which meets or exceeds minimum grade-level standards. If the work is not submitted, I must then enter a zero. A zero in any cell will substantially reduce the average value of that field of cells (the fewer total number of entries there are, the more a zero affects the average), and it becomes less likely if not impossible for the numbers to add up to 65 or more.

Students who do not do their work at all, therefore, have no chance of passing, especially early in the term when there are not that many assignments to average in. Yet year after year I find it almost impossible to get students to understand this, and I now think I understand why. A friend of mine who teaches middle school told me recently that he and his colleagues are instructed and required to start every student off with a 100 average at the beginning of the school year. I can only imagine that the typical student who does not do his work, even if he does know that he will lose points for not submitting an assignment (and again, I really think there are students who believe they can't lose points for not submitting work), he doesn't think he will lose very many, certainly not enough to fail the class. The student thus does not believe he is risking very much by not submitting the assignment; or, alternatively, he may think that it's worth the risk. He may believe that it is less of a risk to submit nothing than it would be to submit something which might turn out to be insufficient or substandard.

The difference, then, is that under an economic model of grading the students must first demonstrate proficiency and learning before they acquire the points which will ultimately determine their final grade. Using the entitlement model, the points are already there; it is up to the student to avoid losing them, but to do that she really does not need to demonstrate either proficiency or learning. At the very least, the number at which the teacher arrives in the end will likely not be an accurate measure of the child's abilities and performance. Put simply, the child can "pass," meaning avoid the loss of more than 35 points, without actually learning anything (i.e., demonstrating that he has learned anything), which would not be possible under the economic model. Actual learning, then, becomes merely a hoped-for by-product of an arbitrary numbering system.

At the end of the day, the point seems to be to create a grading system whose primary purpose is to arrive at a number between 65 and 100 for practically every student; whether each student actually learns anything or not, or is able to demonstrate learning in any of many various ways, is a separate and tertiary concern. Remember, the first priority is self-esteem, not learning. The things which actually make learning occur, such as pointing out deficiencies in students' work, bringing attention to things which they do not know, or tying grades to objective measurements of actual ability and performance, tend to hurt children's feelings and make them uncomfortable, so we have to avoid those. We abandon the techniques that actually make learning happen and replace them with a steady and exclusive stream of praise, reward and "encouragement," thinking, hoping, that some actual learning will occur along the way.

Unfortunately, it often doesn't. The plain fact is that people of all ages need to "feel bad" in order to learn. Learning comes from experience, particularly negative experience; when we fail or are hurt, we learn how to examine what happened and prevent it from happening again. Actual learning comes from an awareness of what we do not know and what we cannot do, an acknowledgment that we can and must know more and perform better than we do now, and a commitment to engage with the mental and physical processes that will get us from where we are to where we need to be. A person learns nothing by starting at the finish line and then being congratulated for winning the race.

Why do we feel the need to play these psychological games with kids, and more to the point, ignore logic and reason along the way? As I've written earlier, when we do things like this we become enablers; we actually encourage precisely the kind of self-indulgent behavior and narcissistic personality traits we wish to avoid. The idea is to promote "achievement," but in the long run it has the opposite effect. We prefer, bizarrely, to give kids a false sense of achievement, because a system which has the potential to give them a true sense of achievement down the road would "hurt their feelings" in the here and now.

The saying about the fish which I cited above reminds me specifically of the so-called "writing process" which I was forced to employ in the Long Island school where I taught briefly several years ago. As I mentioned in a previous post, this "process" was only one step removed from having the students take dictation. Allow me to illustrate.

Session Two, Part A of the ELA Regents Exam is called "Reading and Writing for Literary Response." The task provides students with two short literary passages sharing a common motif or topic, which is enunciated in the instructions (e.g., "...write a unified essay about the nature of friendship, as revealed in the passages.") The students need to read the passages and develop a controlling idea about the topic (i.e., e.g., what do these two passages tell us about the nature of friendship?), then write a detailed response to each passage discussing how each author conveys that idea using specific literary devices. The task is neither easy nor simple.

My approach to instruction on these tasks has always been to provide students with a thorough understanding of how the essays need to be constructed and what they need to include, but only in the abstract (see the Plan of Action on my website for details); it is up to the student to actually read and understand the passages, find a controlling idea, develop a thesis, identify the key literary devices and write the actual response. The reason for this is that the ELA Regents is a test of "first-encounter;" whatever passages appear on the actual exam which the student takes, she will be reading them for the first time. There is no way to know or predict what the passages or the topic will be on the next Regents exam. Therefore, students need to learn, and gain actual experience with, reading, responding to and writing about literary texts in general, on their own, in such a way as to be able to apply those skills to any text they may read in the future.

However, in that particular school, I was expected and required to do essentially all of the students' thinking for them. For each Session Two-Part A task I gave them, my supervisor expected me to: explain what each passage was about and what it meant, tell students what their controlling idea and thesis should be, point out the important literary techniques and tell them which ones to write about, pick out direct quotations from each text and show them how to cite them, and tell them what ideas to include in their introduction and conclusion. In other words, it was my job to actually read and respond to the passages, think through the task, plan, develop and write the essay, and then give the students whatever I had come up with so they could score well on their essays. If they did not score well, then my explanation must have been inadequate; any deficiency in the essay was attributable to my not specifically telling them to include whatever was missing. If they did not write and submit the essay at all, it was because they "didn't get it" or "didn't know what to do" because I had, again, not given adequate explanation and instruction on what to write.

My supervisor, of course, rejected the idea that the students should be reading these passages themselves and coming up with their own ideas for these essays; she was entirely unmoved by (or possibly unaware of) the "first-encounter" nature of the Regents exam which I discussed above. Her position was that the students could not do these things on their own, could not be expected to do them on their own, and could not be faulted (i.e., could not be given low scores) for being unable to do them on their own. The idea was that if I gave them the solution to this particular problem (i.e., gave them a controlling idea and literary response details for this topic and these passages), they'd be able to solve whatever problem would appear on the actual Regents, with a different topic and different passages.

I strongly disagreed; my doing the students' reading, thinking, planning and composition for them, allowing them to skip those processes altogether, might earn them higher scores on these essays but would teach them absolutely nothing, let alone provide an accurate or reliable predictor of Regents performance. One cannot study for the ELA Regents; one can only practice. They needed to work their way through the task, reading material and thought process in order to learn how to do it on their own, without someone there to "explain" everything, as they would do on the actual Regents. But, naturally, the lower scores they were likely to receive as a result would -- once more, with feeling -- make them "feel bad" and "turn off to learning." So, since according to that supervisor it's "not his fault" if a student "doesn't get it," once again I had to give the students the proverbial fish, and just hope that when they actually found themselves out on the boat alone, they could operate the bait and tackle well enough to catch one.

In a self-esteem-based academic environment, not only can learning not possibly be the primary goal, it really cannot occur at all, because the things that actually make learning happen are antithetical to the preservation of fragile self-esteem. For some reason, we have chosen to give kids a false sense of accomplishment and enable the kind of self-indulgence and narcissism we wish to avoid, because a system that produces real winners would also have to produce, I'm sorry to say, real losers. Better to simply call everyone a winner than actually teach children how to win.

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