Sunday, April 5, 2015

Job Description

As we approach the end of the year, my email begins to fill with summer professional development opportunities that tend to come in a limited number of varieties.

The first type, and overwhelmingly the most common, is something along the lines of “this will help your students do better on tests.”  The PD is training in how to implement their program and use their materials.  Nothing in the advertisements for these opportunities mentions helping the students do anything other than pass tests, be they chapter or unit tests in the classroom or state or national standardized tests.  Testing is everything, and these programs are here to help your students succeed…at taking and passing tests, anyway.

The second type is something along the lines of, “this will help you keep your kids be quiet and well-behaved.”  This classroom-management type of PD focuses on keeping the kids quiet but engaged with the material.  The pictures from these advertisements show kids seated in rows or in front of their own computer, working quietly and independently, and the description of the PD emphasizes that your classroom can look like this…under the assumption that I want my classroom to look like that.

The third type is something along the lines of “this will help you present the material in your class in a better way.”  The emphasis of these is how to improve your method of delivery, how to be more clear in your lectures, how to produce better worksheets, and so on.

Notice that none of these opportunities mentions helping the kids actually learn the material.  Not one sentence in all of the advertisements mentions the kids comprehending anything.  It’s bad enough that people outside the profession think that the job description for a teacher should be dominated by keeping the kids quiet and giving them information.  But for the folks running these PD session - folks who are supposedly inside the profession - to be spewing this nonsense is irritating to say the least.  More disturbing is the idea that teachers are actually signing up for these sessions, which means, at least implicitly, that these teachers also see the job as primarily involving keeping kids quiet and giving them information.  Sorry, folks…that’s not what the job is about, and the job description I would give is essentially antithetical to everything being promoted by these opportunities. 

Teaching is about helping kids learn. Period.  The sooner we can bring everyone to the realization that testing, classroom management and giving information are not the focus of teaching, but instead are only useful if they help the kids learn, the better.

It should be clear by now that my idea of “classroom management” is very different than the one described in the PD advertisements.  It should also be clear that me giving the kids information is, in my opinion (and in the opinion of most current research), not the best way to help them learn.  But what about testing?

I still struggle with the idea that any test on any given day is the best way to measure how well a kid understands the material.  With that, I have really been struggling lately with the idea of putting a letter or number grade on every assignment, be it homework, quiz, test, or whatever, to the point that I’m questioning whether or not grades are good at all.  Let’s be honest: the kids and parents look at the grade first, and any comments or other feedback intended to help the kid do better next time are often, if not entirely, ignored.  Without a grade on which to focus, however, the feedback becomes more important.  And if the feedback is focused on improvement and resubmission of an assignment, then learning becomes the focus of the classroom.  We have implemented a strategy of this kind this semester with the review projects we assigned.  We gave the kids five broad topics from the first semester of the course, and the kids need to create an exercise that covers the topic, get the exercise approved by us, type up their solution, and submit it online for us to review.  The only grades possible are 0 or 15 (full credit).  If the solution as presented is not a “15”, the student receives specific feedback on what is missing, where improvements are needed, etc., and has the opportunity to turn in another draft of the project.  This process continues with each project until it is a “15”.

Admittedly, getting rid of grades entirely would require a massive shift the likes of which on teacher alone can't make.  But giving the kids more than one opportunity to "show what they know" and giving them a variety of ways to do so is making more and more sense the more I think about it.  For the time being, there has to be some sort of "happy medium", but I haven't found it yet.  Hopefully, between now and the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, I'll find a way to make this happen.  Even better would be for the PD to help teachers find a way to shift the focus from the grades and the testing to the learning.  I guess we'll see...


  1. Great post! For PD to satisfy post I'd recommend Rick Wormeli (Standards Based Grading) if you haven't seen him already. Do you think the following could work? (I'm toying with doing this next fall):
    * No grades for x weeks (let x = the first time your district mandates a progress report, for us that is 5 weeks into a 9 week period) - give only feedback on homework and in-class activities.
    * In the xth week give an assessment covering all the material for the first x weeks. This gets a grade that you can report.
    * In the x+1st and x+2nd week give a similar assessment over the same material, keeping the latest grade, thus giving students 2 attempts to correct their misconceptions, get help, understand what they need to learn still, etc. The results of this are their marking period grade.
    * Use the class time during this time "Reassessment" period to continue with new material that won't be formally assessed until 2nd grading period.

  2. Actually, Rick is coming to my district just before school begins in the fall, and I can't wait to work with him.

    As for the plan you are working on, my initial reaction is that I like it. I have a question, though: are you talking about getting all of the required material for the first marking period in by the end of the first five weeks?

  3. Good to hear you will get to see Rick, you won't be disappointed.

    (Disclaimer; We're on a 75-minute alternating block seeing students twice or three times a week.)

    I'm not sure I'll get through the whole 9 weeks of work in 5 weeks, but since math is cumulative I don't think that will matter. I should get through a little more than usual since I don't have to pause to test at all during the 5 weeks. Material in weeks 6-9 will get hit in 2nd quarter, material in weeks 14-18 will get hit on the final. Still ironing out the kinks but I'd hope to create my won "Panera Moments" if I can get everyone pulling together.

  4. Just saw you'll be at the Exeter conference. Look forward to meeting you in person and hearing more about "Harkness for Thirty". - Joseph mellor