Wednesday, January 14, 2009

the interviews

It's finally the time where I had to sit down and negotiate a mark with my gr 10 students. The whole idea made me nervous as who knew what they would say. Would they have greatly overinflated perceptions of their abilities? Would they not take it seriously and just randomly pick a number hoping I would do the "hard part" for them?

I'm about halfway done, and neither of the issues have come up. What have come up are different issues, ones that simultaneously make me feel terrible about the whole process and reassure me that though there are a whole lot of changes that need to be made, this is a step in the right direction.

It had been my observation that marks often get in the way of students really focusing on what they did or didn't know. The number was all they would look at when I gave them back a test or assignment. This semester, my gr 10s had a lot more conversations about what they knew, and what they were still working on. In a class of 33, a very minimal number or students shirked the task of "doing more" when they didn't fully understand a concept, the vast majority of students were quite proactive about redoing questions, getting help, and redoing evaluations. I don't think any of these students are functioning at a level where they would not be successful with traditional evaluations. Anticipating this from the beginning, it never occurred to me just how terrible I would feel asking them to numerically quantify a learning process. Especially when I think about how incompetent I felt helping them along.

I have one student who has not been able to give herself a mark. When we first sat down, I could tell she was very uncomfortable, so we talked a little and she eventually told me "I'm an 80-85 student." A large part of her identity is wrapped up somewhere between those 2 numbers. Anything less than an 80 is cause for a mini-identity crisis and she has no real desire to try to push herself. A 90 is nice, but elusive and almost magical. When I tried to get her to look at her portfolio to talk about what she had been able to show mastery of, she was absolutely lost - not even able to identify what were concepts we spent more time on as a starting point.

Another student's performance was all over the place, but he's had many difficulties with exams - making evaluating his performance more difficult since there are discrepancies between what he does during class time, and what he does on exams. He did a whole lot of extra work at home, and I honestly believe he understands more than he has shown. That considered, I'm not sure he can produce work to quite the level he imagines - yet. He too has a large part of his identity wrapped up in these numbers, and having to assign a number based on performance this early, relative to his learning seems like it will cause more harm than create motivation.

Many teachers, parents and students will argue that grades are necessary and difficult as it may be to believe, I used to be a student who would fight for every last percent and always wanted to know the class average. Once you start looking at the alternatives however, it seems the numbers really fall short of communicating much of anything.

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