In my role where I daily work with teachers, one concern I hear often is that students—at least a specific subset of students—are motivated mainly by letter grades (or, in some cases, are motivated by their parents/guardians, who are motivated by letter grades). This typically comes up in conversations surrounding Rochester Public School’s four big ideas on grading:
Headed back to the classroom next fall, this has also frequently been sloshing around in my brain.
How will I motivate students to focus on learning and growth, rather than on letter grades?
In my brainstorming, I was reminded of what Todd Rose notes in his book The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World that Values Sameness (2015). Rose explores the jaggedness principle: the concept that on paper many individuals might all appear much the same, while in reality they’re very unique.
Lory Hough, author of the 2015 Harvard Ed article “Beyond Average” captures it this way:
Rose says, “if we ignore jaggedness, we end up treating people in one-dimensional terms”—the struggling student, the good tester. “If we want to know your intelligence, for example, we give you an IQ test that is supposed to tap a range of abilities, but then we merge that into a single score.” Imagine two young students have the same IQ score of 110—the exact same number. One has great spatial abilities but poor working memory, and the other has the exact opposite jaggedness. “If we just want to rank them, then we could say the students are more or less the same in intelligence because they have the same aggregate scores. But if we wanted to really understand who they are as individuals enough to nurture their potential, we can’t ignore the jaggedness—it is the essential information for providing them with an optimal environment and matching them with optimal strategies for success.”
But acknowledging jaggedness, in my opinion, won’t alone motivate students. However, combine this principle with a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) structure, and we might be on our way…
Create a ROWE
I first learned about ROWEs in Dan Pink’s 2009 Ted Talk, and then read about it again in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In his talk, starting around the 15 minute mark, Pink states that a ROWE is when, “people don't have schedules. They show up when they want. They don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or any time. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them.” And, he goes on to note that what happens in a ROWE is that, “across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.”
The concept of a ROWE aligns so tightly with the four Big Ideas, it’s hard to ignore. To create a classroom version of a ROWE, students would have to show mastery of required skills, such as the established Prioritized Learnings. However, students will not need to do this on my schedule, nor by following my prescribed pathway. In a classroom ROWE, like the one I hope to create, students will be expected to meet the standards by the end of the grading period, not by some arbitrary date I choose. Likewise, students can get there via a path I map out for them, but if they want to take another route, I’ll welcome that. And, should they hit construction or a dead end, they can reroute themselves (with my help, should they need it) until they meet the required destination.
I recently came upon a statistic that surprised me: “the human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 percent of information transmitted to the brain is visual” (Eisenberg, 2014). When this set of facts is combined with the common belief that 65% of learners are more dominantly visual (vs. auditory or kinesthetic). Even despite recent controversy on learning styles, it’s hard to argue that—no matter the statistics—going visual with information can literally help us see more fully the material we’re trying to process.
So, in my quest for an answer to how I might motivate students without traditional letter grades, but yet still track progress that allows for jagged learning in a ROWE structured classroom, I found myself wondering the following:
One way I can see to capture each student’s (jagged) success visually, comes from a 2017 FIRST conference I attended. One of the speakers, Myron Dueck, illustrated a point in Todd Rose’s book by showing radar charts of various football players. He noted that while one player might be strongest in one or two areas, other players are strong in others; but, together the team fills out most, if not all, of the radar’s surface area. Additionally, Dueck highlighted that as a player works on his skills, he’s not going to be strong in every area from the start—some strengths just take longer to build than others.
Similarly, students can take their learning and go visual with it by using a radar chart structure!
Putting it all together . . .
With all this in mind, I mocked up a structure that I am thinking about using with my students when I return to John Marshall in the fall. Maybe something like this will work with your students, too.
| Part 1 |
Each assignment will be rooted in one or more Prioritized Learnings. For one of the courses I will be teaching, American Literature & Composition, these are:
Additionally, on all assignments where students will receive formalized instructor feedback, I plan to use a 3 point feedback scale. For me, three points make sense because it tightly aligns with our Proficiency Scales (but, should my PLC or building opt for a different breakdown, I’ll adjust). Currently, I am thinking it might break down this way:
| Part 2 |
At the end of first quarter, we’ll take some time to do some metacognition, where students can reflect on their learning.
Each student will:
The four steps above might look something like this:
Finally, once each student has completed the steps above, each will work through some self-reflection questions.
Possible questions might include:
| Part 3 |
Repeat ‘Part 2’ (above) at the end of each quarter. By the end of the year, a student’s chart will fill in. For one student, the progression might end up looking something like this:
Whereas, for another student, the progression might look completely different. However, the hope is that by the end of quarter four, all students will be able to color in the whole of the chart, showing proof of mastery of all Prioritized Learnings.
| Part 4 |
Utilize this year-round! Some possible ways I anticipate weaving this into my classroom throughout the year:
I am hopeful that this four-part structure will help students shift their thinking to skills and growth and away from letter grades. Ideally, it will motivate students in a way they can visually comprehend, while simultaneously honor each student’s unique (jagged) pathway to success.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in this structure. What are you doing in your own classroom to motivate students? To honor their jaggedness? To go visual with their learning? Please, share your ideas with me. Let’s reshape our classrooms and our grading structures so students can push beyond letter grades, and into the world beyond.
This post brought to you by Heather Lyke, Secondary Implementation Associate
If you know me, you know my husband and I are shopping for a new home. Wanting to downsize (I want a tiny house, he wants no yard, so we’ve compromised on looking for a condo), we’re slowly filtering through our belongings. We’re pulling items out of closets that we forgot we even had: placing in boxes the linens not used in years, the sweaters we no longer wear, and the camping gear we’re not even sure why we purchased in the first place.
Perhaps the hardest part of this downsizing escapade, is that we sometimes run into those items we should get rid of but struggle to part with. Those items that served a purpose in their time but no longer are of use. Items like:
Again, if you know me, you also know I love a good extended metaphor. As I see it, downsizing our course content is much like downsizing a home. Fourth quarter, and on into the summer months, we often find ourselves with a bit of extra time to focus on what’s next—and with no fifth quarter on the horizon, this often means making adjustments for the school year to come.
In our classrooms, just as in our homes, there are items that are easy to donate or toss:
However, also like with our homes, there are items that are hard to part with, although maybe we should:
To get inspired to downsize our home, my husband and I (along with much of the US), have been watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondō on Netflix. Having read her first book a few years ago--The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—this new Netflix series has served as a reminder of many of Marie Kondō’s key ideas. Ideas that, of course, work great in homes, but that also can be used to help create even more magic in our classrooms.
However, if doesn’t spark joy, set it aside. Consider making three piles or lists for those items that no longer spark joy in you and your students:
This, at least for me, is the hardest part of tidying up. It may help to keep in mind what Marie Kondō notes in her first book: “when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
| 5 |
Finish discarding before moving on.
Likewise, in our classrooms, we have to get rid of—or least commit to revamping—those items that no longer fit our students. Only then, once we see what remains, do we know what new format or structure might work best for the year to come. Only then, do we see if we have any gaps in our instruction.
| 6 |
Organize by category.
| 7 |
Designate a spot for everything.
This step reminds me of what I did about ten years ago when I revamped the American Literature course I was teaching. After having purged a few novels and some grammar units that were no longer sparking joy in my students, I rearranged. Because I figuratively laid everything out on the table, I was able to then see that my remaining content, texts, lessons, etc. fit into six themes. Embracing that fact, I rearranged from teaching American Literature chronologically, as I had always done in the past, to teaching it thematically. But it also meant I had some holes to fill: I was suddenly able to weave in a new book group unit and adjust how I taught grammar by embedding into our reading and writing tasks. It was a lot of work, but, ultimately, it lead to more effective learning in the years that followed.
As my husband and I are experiencing firsthand with our home, the act of downsizing can feel overwhelming while in the process of discarding. However, we look forward to placing all our remaining items back in the best order (ideally, in our perfect-for-us condo in downtown Rochester).
As Marie Kondō states, “the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming...not for the person we were in the past.” This is true for our classrooms, too: we need to make them a place where students can grow into who they will become in this ever-changing world...not for the students we taught in the past.
Mr. Knipshield, 'Nipper' as we called him, showed us movies, told us stories and had us read articles about driving. Along the way, he would give us quizzes to ensure that we were ready to pass our permit test so that we could graduate from the parking lot driving to the open road. My guess is that he would adjust his lessons based on what we still needed to know.For this portion of our learning, the permit test was the summative assessment. If we did not pass, we would be stuck in the parking lot.
As we were driving back and forth or in an oval in the parking lot, Nipper was talking to us over the radio in our cars. “Slow down, speed up, car #6-leave more space between you and the car in front of you.”
On the road, he was continually giving feedback and was even equipped with a brake in case of an emergency. We had to do our part, but we knew exactly what we needed to work on at all times.
So, what does this reminiscing have to do with classroom teaching? Everything. When we think of the power of formative assessment, it is incredible. Many educators argue that this is the most integral part of effective teaching. With regular formative assessments, both the student and the teacher know the next steps for teaching and learning. The student knows what they know and don’t know, and the teacher knows what to do next. By gathering this information, classrooms become less of a “string of activities” and more of a direction on a clear path.
As an assessment expert, Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s the formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s a summative assessment.” One definition of formative assessment can be found here.
When I think of Nipper, he was continually individualizing our learning based on what we were doing at any given time. He would adjust our classroom lessons based on our quizzes, questions, and answer during class. He would adjust and give feedback on our behind-the-wheel lessons based on our driving performance. Depending on our need, he interacted with us differently. We all had the same goal in mind-passing the driving test! We just may have needed a different way of getting there.
In this article , there are 10 examples of formative assessments. By choosing the appropriate one for the situation, a teacher will be able to adjust instruction or practice to fit the needs of a learner or group of learners.
As I think back to Mr. Knipshield and his many classes of 15-year-old adolescents, I am thankful that he gave us all the feedback that we needed along the way. We needed to learn and practice in many different ways in order to become roadworthy. I am also aware that my learning is ever present. I am now the one that is formally assessing my driving. After 37 years of driving, I still need to check myself to ensure that my practice is up to par. This is the highest level that we can hope for our students to attain; to internalize the process and using it through life.
[Also, check out this blog for a peek at how formative assessment and self-assessment go hand in hand. This topic just may appear in a future blog post!]
I recently had the opportunity to collaborate with a biology teacher who was having his students investigate the contribution of scientists who helped to discover and reveal the structure of DNA. We decided this activity could best be assessed using the Biology Proficiency Scale for "Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information." In order for students to be considered 'proficient' in this Prioritized Learning, they would need to meet the following criteria as listed in the Proficiency Scale: "Students can evaluate and interpret the validity and reliability of claims, methods, and designs. Then they can synthesize a synopsis of the material and communicate that information (eg. orally, graphically, in writing and/or mathematically)."
This Proficiency Scale is at the 'Apply' and 'Evaluate' levels of Bloom's Taxonomy and thereby requires a different type of assessment than a multiple choice or short answer structure. In our planning sessions for this activity, we found that we would have to tailor our assessment strategy in a way that is different than the traditional objective type questions that are often asked of our students.
In the article "Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning” (Education Leadership 2018), Jay McTighe attends to the idea that as educators change their focus from knowledge based assessments to skill based assessments, they need to adjust their measurement tools from objective type questions with simple point values to subjective questions that level a student along a proficiency continuum. To show proficiency in a skill, students need to use knowledge to perform that skill and show their understanding. In this particular activity, students would need to show that they could communicate both orally and in writing that they are able to synthesize the information about our understanding of DNA. We decided on the following structure for the lesson and assessment:
The Lesson Plan for our “Jigsaw/Gallery Walk” Framework
Students were assigned to a scientist and given one of three questions to answer about the scientist's contribution in the discovery of DNA. The students were informed that their contribution was critical for their group's success.
Day 2 | Research Group - Synthesize ideas, evaluate information, and create the poster:
Students brought their research to their group for a collaborative poster design project. The groups were given a criteria for questions that needed to be answered on the poster. Students were encouraged to be creative in their poster design.
Day 3 | Research Group - Finalized the poster and presentation:
Students polished both their poster and planned how they would present to their home group.
Day 4 | Home Group - Gallery Walk Communication:
The home group consisted of six students. Each student had the opportunity to present their own research and poster to the other students in their home group. The presenter was given a feedback template consisting of four parts:
- Things to polish
- Questions you have
- Tie presenters research to your own research
Day 5 | Individual - Assessment:
The students were asked to communicate in writing a synthesized synopsis of the material.
In summary, one can see that this lesson pushed students to move beyond knowledge acquisition into synthesis. The use of a Jigsaw/Gallery Walk where the students could get feedback from peers and the final written assessment where the teacher could give feedback helped to drive student learning and move the students toward proficiency on the Prioritized Learning.
The practice I am talking about is the powerful practice of developing and giving a common formative assessment, and then analyzing the collected data in Professional Learning Communities.
A Snapshot of How This Might Look in Practice:
My PLC teammate and I meet to discuss what we will be teaching and assessing coming up. We agree to focus on the Prioritized Learning related to creating a strong argument with text evidence.
We agree on a formative way to assess this skill: we’ll both use an outline format called a fishbone analysis. We decide how we're going to score it using the Proficiency Scale that aligns with the Prioritized Learning.
Individually, we both teach the lesson, give the assessment, and score our students' work.
Individually, we look for trends (areas of student success, student struggle, pockets of students who have excelled, pockets of students who seem to have really struggled, etc). Then, we each collect a high, medium. and low example of student work to bring to a future PLC meeting.
Together, we bring our student work to the table and analyze collective trends using our Proficiency Scale.
- What do our students who were partially able to demonstrate the skill have in common? What kind of reteaching and additional practice do they need?
- What characteristics do our high samples share?
- What do the low student work samples have in common? Which skills need to be retaught?
We create a reteaching and reassessment plan, as well as decide how we're going to continue to challenge those students who have already found success.
We repeat the process. Focusing on the plan created in 'Step F', we loop back to 'Step G.' Eventually. we bring student work back together again and look for new trends, improvements that still need to be made, or additional needs that have arose. The cycle continues until the whole class has mastered this Prioritized Learning and/or until the course comes to a close at the end of the year (or semester, in some cases).
Using and analyzing common formative assessments in this way is a research-affirmed practice. PLCs who engage in this practice consistently see higher student achievement and less of an achievement gap in their classes.
If your PLC is beginning this journey or deepening your practice and would like support, please reach out to any member of the secondary Curriculum and Instruction team. We’d love to help support your work!
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