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
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