Monday, July 19, 2010

Why Bother? My SBG Manifesto

So, in some of the blogs regarding the burgeoning enthusiasm for SBG, there have been calls for caution. Maybe not caution so much as a reality check. Blogs at Questions and ThinkThankThunk, among others, are reminding those of us who are new converts that SBG is not a panacea for all that ails our classrooms. There is also a fear that the rapid proliferation of the SBG practice will result in a watering down or bastardization of the philosophy, ultimately causing more harm than good to what has the potential to be a very useful tool in changing classroom culture. These are definitely well-founded and legimate concerns in an educational climate that is replete with fads and buzzwords which shift with the changing winds of our political and social context. So, I want to start by thanking them for speaking up about something that had the potential to offend those of who are a bit more new to this environment.

So, in that vein, let me offer my ultra-defensive reaction to their posts. Just kidding. This will have the potential to be read as defensiveness, but it is really meant as my touchstone. Why am I stirring the waters in my own classroom? Why even bother? So, when I have those moments of, “Ugghhh, things were working okay before. Why did I do this?” I can reflect on this. Even more important, when I find myself getting caught up in the minutiae of the implementation details, I can keep from losing sight of the ultimate purpose for this whole adventure. [Sidenote: On a totally personal level, the adventure is part of the thrill. I like pushing myself in new directions and down new avenues in my teaching. This is gonna be fun. :) ]

OK, but I digress. What then are my reasons for attempting to shift my grading philosophy:

Reason #1 – Why do we learn?
Be it a little bit of overdosing on Dan Pink, Alfie Kohn, and the like, but I truly believe human beings have a natural drive to learn, grow, and achieve. This runs counter to the experience in my classroom every day where I am supposed to prod and push students who play their appointed role as apathetic adolescent perfectly. How do I reconcile what I believe philosophically about our innate motives and the conflicting reality of what I see? Well, there is research out there that has shown that the use of extrinsic rewards can ultimately have an undermining affect on motivation toward the task itself. If you haven't seen the RSAnimate video, definitely worth the eleven minutes.

This is precisely the affect that I see of our current grading/points system. It is one of the reasons that I think the young children who enter Kindergarten so full of curiousity and eager to learn digress into the almost catatonic beings that often sit before me. The “best” we hope for our Honors students who have simply learned to play the point game well, yet they often still show little appetite for actual learning. Curiousity has been replaced by grade achievement.

Reason #2 – Fight the Man
I also had the fortune/misfortune of dealing with a school climate this year that created a lot of us vs. them mentality between faculty and staff. Obviously this wasn’t a good thing for our school, but it made me really look and think differently about my students. What was it in the administration’s approach that was elicited such a strong negative reaction from the staff? Was it really that different than what passes for our typical classroom behavior plans? They were essentially treating us just like we treat our students. It was a carrots-and-sticks attempt at behavior modification. And we were ticked. I mean, the reaction was profound and angry. [Disclaimer: If you one of my administrators are reading this, go easy on me. I’m trying to make a point here about what we can all learn from each other.] The point is, they were acting just like us. And we didn’t like it! Not one bit. There was a lot of “We aren’t being respected.” And “They don’t trust us to be professionals.” And then sometimes, it got even worse….with a “I’ll show them. I’m not going to do one iota beyond what is absolutely necessary and required.” Whoa! Intensely negative. And not at all unlike what I see from students often. So, what was it we were wanting from our bosses? Why weren’t we giving that to our students? If we were wanting a context where we were given the benefit of the doubt, trusted to be self-driven, encouraged as we pursued our own paths of growth, why weren’t we attempting to create the same kind of culture in our classrooms that we were demanding in our workplace? And I know that adults are allegedly more likely to be driven internally and that kids need to be taught to be intrinsically motivated or whatever. But yea, not really. That’s kinda bullshit. I didn’t have to promise my son an ice cream cone if he learned to ride his bike. There wasn’t candy waiting when he took his first steps. Achievement and the desire to master skills is innate to us (See Reason #1). We just have to make the “skill” something meaningful enough that they want to achieve it (whether our current curriculum does that is another blog entirely), and then stop pounding that curiousity out of them with all these crazy reward systems that undermine the beauty of learning.

Reason #3 – A Perfect Marriage
The last reason is a bit more personal and more suited to my actual job situation. I am blessed to work with partners who have extremely varied techniques, approaches, and philosophies to teaching. I love that. It forces me to work and grow in new directions all the time. I am a chameleon and I adapt to the individual classroom culture and then push it forward. This SBG thing isn’t something I would try with each of my partners. It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t fit in their classroom philosophy or their approach to teaching. Am I hoping that success in the one class where I am attempting it will ultimately lead to a bit of a contagion? Well, yes, I kinda am…but that’s beside the point. I am attempting it in the particular class I am in because it is with a partner who would throw away grades completely if he could. He and I work hard at what we consider the more important aspects of teaching the particular students we have in that class (low performing Freshmen)
- help them to overcome their learned helplessness and be willing to attempt and risk failure
- motivate them to think math is something to be enjoyed and to empower them
- give them a sense of confidence in their own abilities to learn and master difficult stuff
These metagoals are something that we kinda hold as supreme over the content of the math itself. That’s why creating our skills list wasn’t much of a stress to me. I used what we already taught and didn’t worry too much about the details of it. That will work itself out. Some of the grading component, admittedly, has me stressed because I am trying to figure how to fit this approach into our district mandates and the current CYA culture in my school, but that’s another issue entirely. When they leave our class, we want them to have a different attitude about math, about the process of learning, and ultimately about themselves as learners. That trumps whether or not they can successfully factor a quadratic function…although, kinda hope they can do that too…y’know, for the ole’ teacher ego [insert thump chest here] SBG seems like it fits better in this perspective than in the classrooms I have created with my other partners that have a slightly different (although in many ways equally valid) focus and approach.

So, there is my declaration of commitment – my SBG manifesto. I think that the philosophical shift absolutely must precede the implementation or David and Shawn have reason to be leary. We should all ask ourselves why. Not just once, but periodically…every day…so that our focus becomes on the idea of changed classroom culture and a truly formative feedback experience, rather than getting too caught up in a system that starts to revert back to the status quo which is probably our default mode.

1 comment:

  1. Nicely said. I like how your reaction to feeling defensive was not to justify to others, but to justify to yourself. Your post nicely points out that we need to justify to ourselves the rationale we have for change and for what we hope it will do for our students, not just at the start but in an ongoing manner.