Thursday, October 17, 2013

Emails From the Front - What kids focus on vs. what we know is important; a mismatch

Because I teach a modeling workshop class over the summer (with my amazing teaching partner Laura Ritter from Troy Schools in Michigan) I get a lot of email from participants that encounter both everyday problems and unique problems in their classrooms and at their schools.  Normally I respond and the responses end their existence in my "sent items" folder.  But I've decided to put some of the questions and responses here so that they live on in infamy.

Ben Lampe from University Ligget Schools described a class period where he did a practicum/challenge - the buggy crash actually - and instead of high-fives and cheers there was only anger and dismay.  Also - he described an interaction with a stubborn student who wanted to "get a point back" because she used the wrong vocabulary word.

Here is my response.
Even during the workshop this summer – not all groups were able to get the cars to hit.
It really is harder than we think it should be.
Nonetheless, when you combine traditional learning, grade conscious kids with a new activity…it is kind of a dicey situation.  Unfortunately you ended up on the bad side of this. 
Let’s see if we can’t figure out why they sucked at this and didn’t like it.  This may be their first ever activity of this type. 

High school kids today are always looking to mitigate the results – so if they do bad on something they have a way to get out of it.  For example if a kid does something bad and you call them on it they often respond with, “but what about the other kids doing it too?”  It is hard for them (mostly because they are high school kids) to take full responsibility for anything!  They often don’t put in their full effort because if they do and then fail – they think they really suck.  These ideas extend to the challenge.  They – unlike us – don’t really expect to succeed and they don’t do everything they can think of to make it happen.  Therefore the pass/fail thing doesn’t work for them because they can’t get out of it.  We think it should make them more motivated but it goes the other way and then they want to argue their way out of it.  When did grading become a dialogue? 
So what’d we do next time?  Maybe (and I’m just brainstorming here) you don’t grade it.  Will the less (apparent) pressure on the outcome will they relax and do better (or at least not bitch about the outcome)?  Or provide an extrinsic reward – apparently kids love candy!  Or go radical and have them come up with their own challenge and carry it out.  Not that they’ve shown enough independence yet to do it.

As for the girl with the points; ugh I remember those days and that kid.  There is really nothing you could have done to placate her, really.  It seems like her issues are with so much more than “position”.  She is clearly frustrated and taking it out on you and  your grading system or the class structure; all things that I’m sure have nothing to do with what is actually bothering her.  That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with her, especially if you’re trying to hold on to a certain standard of work.  Think about this; if she really does understand it then does she maybe deserve another opportunity to show you that she does?  Or what is the harm in giving her the “point” if she really does get the concepts?  These are complicated issues!

I really think, however, that both of these stories asks a bigger question; what are points and is there a different way to grade that focuses on the things that we know are important about teaching and learning?
I don’t have a good answer to that question but I’d rather argue about learning than about grades and definitely never about points.

Anytime we change something that we are doing its going to suck at first.  The kids have to buy into it as much as you all did this summer.  My question is, if the kids are feeling unsuccessful, what have you done to show them what it is like to be successful?  Have you employed any strategies that put them in a cognitive conflict position and helped them get out of it?  Have you created any lab scenarios where they are concretely able to see how doing it on their own leads to success?  These are all huge questions but ones for thought.

Remember we do the right thing because we know it’s the right thing to do; not because it’s the easiest.

The original email is below.

I had a depressing day.  First, I handed back quizzes from earlier in the week in my honors class.  Then we proceeded to do our first practicum lab.  We were crashing fast cars into slow ones from behind.  I had two lines set up, one about 3 meters from the x and one about 4 meters.  Some groups were told to start both from the same line, some were told to start one on each.  I have 8 groups of 3 in this class.  Only 1 group succeeded in the first try.  Almost no one succeeded until the third try otherwise.  Instead of high fives and cheering, there was anger and dismay.  The pass/fail thing was no good (even though it only counts for a point out of a few hundred in a marking period).  I was very surprised by a few things, first, the fact that so many groups failed.  They had solid plans, but their ability to make it happen was horrible.  Second, once they failed and I asked whether they thought it was a launch problem or a design problem (stolen from Real Genius) they all agreed it was a launch problem and did no work to figure out what could have happened on the calculation end.  One group determined they had grabbed someone else's cars, and another group went back to their work and figured out they had miscalculated.  All in all 3 groups passed.  I was shocked at the failures, bummed out by the lack of high fiving, and generally I was depressed by what I had planned on being a fun day.

After this wonderful class, I had one of my students come up and argue with me for 20 minutes about a point I had deducted for using the word "motion" instead of the word "position."  She claimed they meant the same thing and that I was being overly punitive.  After 20 minutes I said, "It is clear I am not going to convince you of my position, but this conversation is not going to continue.  These two words do not mean the same thing, and the point was deducted because the word position was required here."  She got that message.

Anyway, sorry to vent, but I know you feel my pain on this one, and meeting you and the rest of the crew this summer has helped because I can email someone who even gets what I am saying.  On the good side, Spirit Week is over here, and as a class dean and general "involved" guy, I am glad to be able to go home and relax.

Have a good one,


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