No prizes in points

April 6, 2008 at 4:40 pm Leave a comment

Sierpinski triangle tee-shirt
WHEN I was training to be a math teacher in Britain some years ago there was a popular satirical BBC radio program called I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, presented by legendary jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton.

Humph arbitrarily awarded points for no apparent reason. The rules of the games were far from clear.

And although the audience shouted “points mean prizes…” on cue, no one ever knew what the prizes were. The only real prize for all concerned being an addictive dose of hilarious nonsense that was also a biting weekly commentary on current events.

Reflecting on the issue of grading, I’m reminded of this farce.

Three years ago I decided to completely abandon all grading based on points, marks, percentages or letters. The only numbers in my classroom would be in the math my students and I were working on, and not in any assessment. I felt naked.

But since then, this simple decision has lead me radically to re-assess everything that goes on in our classroom — from testing, homework policies, seating plans, late work, make-up work, behavior management to the really important question… the very essence of what it is my students and I are trying to achieve in our thinking laboratory.

Now my assessment focuses on observation, listening, discussion, collaboration and increasingly on students’ own assessment of progress. I hope the result is a focus on what we’re trying to think about in the classroom, free of the diversion of worrying about some ill-defined percentage.

The prize is the achievement of just trying to get it.

Feedback is verbal and descriptive, striving to help the student find some way of constructing their own meaning and paths to mathematical thinking.

I changed career to be a math teacher at the age of 50. UK educationists were encouraging new math teachers to abandon the traditional mark-book full of numbers. Numbers have no place in assessment and feedback in the math classroom was the argument.

It was summed up: Students who get nines and tens out of ten, nearly always get nines and tens. It may make them — and their parents — happy, but the points don’t motivate them to seek out new challenges or how to improve. They coast, complacently.

Those who get sevens or sixes… well, they’re passing. They just need to survive the you-could-try-harder talk. But how to try harder? To do what, exactly?

Those with the fives, fours, threes… confused, disappointed, frightened, feeling an inexplicable shame, they give up and cover-up as best they can. I was given a class into which such kids had been herded: “Hi,” they said, “we’re the dumb class.” I felt ashamed.

Numbers in assessment de-motivate, set student against student and encourage assessment as a process of ranking and sorting.

Adding some words of encouragement to the numbers also seems to make little difference. Students still focus on the numbers, despite their lack of any real meaning. Changing the numbers to letter-grades, doesn’t shift the focus to learning either.

Only when you take away the numbers, and letter grades, and replace them with phrases such as, “well done, now you need to work on… the distributive property” does motivation get turned round.

A target, a goal, something to focus on finally clears the clouds of confusion for the student. Now the student can see just what to do to improve. With student self-esteem no longer punctured by the stark moral judgement of a number or letter dripping with blood-red ink, students are free to focus on what they need to do to improve… and work cooperatively together to collaborate and help each other.

Advertisements

Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Barack, me… and institutional racism in schools Open learning targets

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Trackback this post  |  Subscribe to the comments via RSS Feed


Categories

Recent Posts

The PiFactory archive


%d bloggers like this: