To get students college and career ready?
To help students achieve their highest earning potential?
To get an A?
It might sound a little strange, but I like to think that my goal as a teacher is to work myself out of the job. When I say this, I am picturing the tradition of an apprentice learning from a master in his or her craft. Eventually the apprentice learns enough to take the show on the road alone and no longer needs the instruction of the master. This is how I I would like to view my relationship with my students.
If that’s really the goal of my teaching, then my students need to be ready to do everything that I am teaching them without me. They should not have to constantly run to me for validation, “What do you think? Am I doing this right? How good/bad is this?” Let’s think back to those pre-teaching years of our adult lives, when we first entered the world of work. In our time as employees, imagine if we did what I’m describing with our bosses. Imagine that we constantly knocked on their door to run everything by them. How frustrated would the boss be? And, as bosses, how effective would they be at their job if they had to stop and assess every little task their employees were performing? I imagine that company would go under pretty quick.
But how is grading every little assignment the students turn in any different? Grading each discrete task submitted makes us micro-managers. No wonder we’re frustrated in those seasons when grades are due!
Another important point to make is that grading each assignment that our students turn in teaches them a learned helplessness. Instead of equipping students to build their own self-efficacy with the skills and concepts we teach, we are training them to constantly seek an “expert’s” approval. If this becomes our culture, we are moving them away from academic pursuits and identity. Rather, students are put in a position where they have to negotiate if they want the credit in the culture we are creating in our classrooms. Many do. Some are indifferent. Others don’t care.
In his book Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning (2012), John Hattie defines self-efficacy as “[T]he confidence or strength of belief that we have in ourselves that we can make our learning happen.” He goes on to profile a student with high self-efficacy as a person who, “Sees hard tasks as challenges rather than tries to avoid them,” and, “Sees failures as chances to learn and to make a greater effort or to look for new information next time.” Essentially, students who are equipped to learn on their own, to learn apart from the teacher, have a high estimation and confidence in their own ability. I contend that if we grade less, if we teach students to do their own assessments, they will be better, more capable learners.
In my experience there is an inverse relationship with the amount of grading I do and the efficacy of my students. When I recall those times in my career when did the most scoring and assessing of student work, those were the times when my students were the neediest in terms of their academic standing in my class. The more I graded, the more they and their parents asked about grades. My students exhibited the traits Hattie describes as having low self-efficacy:
- more likely to avoid difficult tasks,
- low or weak commitment to goals,
- sees failures as chances to dwell on personal deficiencies,
- slow to recover a sense of confidence, etc.
And I’m not only talking about my low-performing students. If you remove the descriptor of “weak commitment to goals,” the above is a textbook profile of an honors student. For instance, I once taught a bright young lady who had a meltdown over a novel approach to a vocab lesson. She didn’t get it and refused to try! This straight-A student was so distraught at her inability to perform a 15-minute lesson in my class that she called home, and later I had to have a 30 minute conversation with her dad to smooth things over.
If we want to work ourselves out of a job, if we want students that take full ownership of what they are learning, then we need to stop being the only people in our classrooms who assess student work. We need to develop our students’ capacity to examine their own and their peers’ effort, thought-process, and performance. The goal for all of us should be to grow students who are not only confident in their ability in the skills and content we teach them, but also confident in their ability to face hardship, seeing their own deficits and figuring out how to skillfully work out a productive way forward.
Some students come to us this way, ready to own their learning. Many don’t. So what are we prepared to do about it?
To what extent do you grade “too much” of your students’ work? What is a way you have asked students to shoulder more of the responsibility of their own learning?
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