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The Dilemma of Do

Reflection’s Reality: A Summer Series from the Project 180 Classroom

“They won’t do anything. You can’t just give kids an “A” and expect them to do something.” Though I heard lots of reasons why I shouldn’t move away from traditional grading by giving kids an “A” for the year, this objection, raised by teachers, students, and parents, prevailed. Basically, boiled down, the sentiment was, “You can’t give to get.” Wait. What? Isn’t that what we were raised to believe? That if we wanted something, we had to give something? I wanted something. And I was willing to give a lot–everything–to get it. So I started thinking.

Education tends to stress an over-reliance on the to-get-a-grade-you-have-to-do-work approach. You work. I give a grade. Makes sense. But my 20 years of experience with this transactional approach wasn’t producing the learning realities that I desired for my kids. I wanted more. So I kept thinking. What if I flipped it? What if instead I took the I-give-you-a-grade-and-you-do-work approach? Would it work? Could I simply give kids an A for the year and find what I was looking for?

So I started to float the idea among my colleagues and students. Some thought it was great. Others thought it was absurd and were quick to point out the flaws in the approach, again admonishing, “They won’t do any work.” Of course, I heard them–couldn’t help but; they told me countless times, enough that it began to sink in and self-doubt chipped at my resolve. Fearing, then, the non-start, I jumped. I did it. I gave them an A. I believed they would do. And I also believed their “do’s” would be true. The do’s would stem from commitment, not compliance, for there was no grade to get, so I placed my bet, gambling that kids would do for the sake of learning, that they would enter a contract of commitment. I had already spent 20 years working from the compliance contract, but I often wondered and worried about the true of that do. So I took a risk, embarked on a yearlong journey, and made some discoveries about “doing” along the way.

The Do of Compliance

If you do the work, I will give you a grade. If you don’t do the work, your grade will suffer. Fear. I know this is a blanket statement, which does not fully cover the body of traditional grading, but it is the pervasive logic in most traditional classrooms. “You don’t get something for nothing.” In this there is truth. In my first 20 years of teaching, my kids did, and I gave. A lot of grades. And in those 20 years I made a lot of observations of kids’ doing.

  • Copy. The did-you-do-the-homework do. If I have seen it once over my two decades of being in the classroom, I have seen it a million times. Okay, maybe not a million, but it is a near-daily occurrence: kids copying each other’s work. And not to pick on math, but more frequently than not, it is math homework. Sorry math.
  • Do the minimum. The if-I have-to do. Whether it’s getting the D, being content with the C, or securing the A, these are the kids who always want to know, “What do I have to do to get…”
  • Cheat. The dirty do. This is the get-a-grade-or-get-caught-trying approach. When fear is a factor, even “good kids” can get sucked into this.
  • Do for the grade. The transcript do. These are the kids who have to have an A on their transcript. They don’t always care about learning; they are often minimum doers, too.
  • Don’t do/Won’t do. The no do. These are the kids who, despite any risks or rewards, just never seem to muster a do.
  • Do to avoid trouble. The hell-to-pay do. These are the kids for whom trouble is a reality if they do not meet the trouble threshold at home. These kids range from the just-get-a-D to the must-get-an-A.
  • Do Sunday. The procrastinator do. These are the wait till Sunday night kids, which often turns into Monday morning, which then turns to during lunch, which finally…well, we know how this generally turns out.
  • Do for the growth. The true do. These are the few who see all work as an opportunity to grow, even the busy work that they’re fed. They place a great amount of trust in the teacher, and do every bit of the work with fidelity.

The Do of Commitment

I already gave you a grade. You may choose to do the work. If you don’t do the work, you may  miss an opportunity to grow. Choice. “You don’t get something for nothing.” Still rings true. In my first year of Project 180, my kids did, and I gave. A lot of feedback. And in that first year, I made some observations.

  • No copy, no cheat. There’s no point, for there is no benefit. And in this, too, there is choice. Early on, I had a couple of kids trying to pull one over. I simply told them it was their choice. If they wanted to get feedback for someone else’s work, then I was okay with that. It didn’t take long to sink in.
  • Do what I can. Not completely unlike the “minimum” above, but in the 180 classroom there was a distinct difference. The work was discriminately challenging, meaning the work found the kids where they were along the continuum, which revealed their being in different places. And as such, I would encourage the kids to do what they could. An honest attempt yielded authentic feedback. Sometimes the challenge was such that it was beyond any “do,” but even honesty here gave us an entry point into the learning, allowing me to provide the necessary support for that kid, even if it meant starting over. Honesty is key here.
  • No grade. Did this intentionally. Gave them an A, so they would forget about grades. Even so, it was hard for kids to unlearn their grade-mongering behaviors. Later in the year, it became a joke. “It’s not like I’m gonna take your A away.” Or. “Man, I’m gonna give you an A for that.”
  • Don’t do/Won’t do. Not sure there is an approach out there that will ever fully resolve this issue. But, my approach, pushes no penalty, only responsibility. My kids have the responsibility to own their choices. I tell them that they need to make big-boy and big-girl decisions.
  • Still trouble. I can’t control the trouble threshold at home. As a means to keep parents “in the know,” I would report practice completion and performance scores in Skyward, our electronic gradebook. So, missing work yielded some trouble for some kids. This I believe is a remnant of traditional grading where missing assignments could often be catastrophic in the form of zeros.
  • No Sunday stress. Since there was no penalty for late work, the Sunday-night-turned-to-Monday-morning-until-time-ran-out approach vanished. I would take it whenever they finished it. But this was also a result of my carefully crafting practice, so that, regardless of when it was completed, there was benefit. No penalty. Just opportunity.
  • Do for growth. This was the sweet spot this past year. The desired, this-is-what-it’s-all-about culture that I was looking for. This is what I got for giving. This is where we operated for the majority of the year. Kids did to grow. Yes, it took them awhile to get there, but once they got there, most–not all–did the work, and in that doing, they grew, for there was really no other reason for them to do. My risk reaped the reward.

The Do Dilemma

“They won’t do anything. You can’t just give kids an “A” and expect them to do something.” My critics were neither wrong nor right. Some kids did not do. Some kids took advantage of my “give,” and I did not “get” what I wanted for all. But the majority of my kids took the gift of freedom and did what I hoped they might: they took responsibility for their learning. Still, Project 180 was not a success for every kid in the room. But, as I reflect back on my first 20 years of traditional grading, the same was just as true; it was not a success for every kid in the room. What’s more, I was not–and still am not–convinced that the “success” of my kids was not suspect. Were they really learning? Were they really growing? Were they committing? Or were they simply complying? Not sure. But I was suspicious, so I made the leap to learn.

In the end, with either approach, there is doing and there is not doing. No escaping that. And while that has been the dilemma in traditional circles forever, with too much emphasis on the don’t and won’t do’s–the impetus for my critics’ admonishment–there is perhaps a different dilemma to ponder. How true is the do? And if our wonder leads us to suspect the do is not as true as we’d like, then we are faced with another dilemma. Do the same? Or do different?

I chose to do different. I chose to take a risk. And I would encourage others to do the same. However, I am not suggesting that you leap as far as I did with the give-em-all-an-A approach. I never intended to stay on that far end of the pendulum swing. I expected and desired that it should find its way back to the middle. I only did the “A thing” as a radical first move to call attention to our grading practices, to take grades completely off the table.

Next year, I am moving to a select-and-defend-a-grade approach, an approach that still gives my students the keys to their learning, an approach that still allows them to make big-boy/girl decisions about what they do and don’t do. Of course, I want them to do everything. But more, if they do, I want it to be true. That is the culture I want for my kids. I can give them that.

3 Replies to “The Dilemma of Do”

  • The conversations Project 180 stimulated in our classroom this week were fun to be part of. This idea of giving every student an “A” really struck a chord. The kids questioned mirrored many of my own:
    – Are you even allowed to do that?
    – Did the students like it?
    – Why would students work if they didn’t have to?
    – What happened to the kids who didn’t do the work?
    Some other interesting comments were along the lines of:
    – I don’t think I would like that because I wouldn’t feel like I earned it.
    – I’ve never got an “A” for anything.
    – I think it would make you work harder to earn it.
    They weren’t looking for answers, just enjoyed kicking around “what if we did that?”

    I find it such a brave decision to fly in the face of conventional thinking. That you jumped and believed even when there was doubt.

    Your ability to reflect over the entire journey amazes me. I’m not sure how you made the time and maintained the discipline to keep it going. Working smarter? Or just genuinely working harder?

    I’m looking forward to seeing what your “do better” will end up looking like. I’ve seen too many classrooms where fear is the motivator and compliance is the goal. I hope your journey can serve as inspiration for others to take a risk.

    • Love the talking points in your discussion with your kiddos. I love that they and you are thinking about possibilities. It seems like so much of our existence in the conventional classroom focuses on the “impossibilities” created around the topic of grading. “You can’t get credit for late work.” “You can’t retake a test.” “The grade book says 59.4%; it’s impossible to pass you.” And the list goes on. One of the major reasons I moved first gradually, then abruptly, away from convention was to get away from the arbitrary artificial grading culture that seemed to hinder rather than help learning. And as I looked closer into conventional practices, I came to realize there was no real basis for it, and there certainly was no research to support it. So, for lack of a better expression, I said, “Screw it. I’m gonna do it.” I checked my state and local policies on grading requirements, and discovered that I had to provide a grading system that provided an end mark reflecting the outcome for the grading period. It was more “gray” than I thought it would be, but I used that to my advantage (though no one ever challenged me). If they had, I, out of fair play, was going to demand that if they were going to audit my system, then they had to audit everyone’s (all 80 teachers in the building). In truth, I expected more push back, kinda wanted it, so we could have some hard, honest discussions about grading practices, but it never materialized. In part, the “A” was just to show how much autonomy teachers really have–probably too much, especially with our lack of, nearly non-existent, training around grading.

      I, too, am looking forward to my “do better.” I think it will make more sense to my kids who have been traditionally conditioned with grades, and I don’t feel like it will impact the culture of possibility that I so desire to create for my kids. Think I am writing a “Culture of Possibility” piece for TG2 next week. As always, thanks for connecting and sharing. Rooting for you, mate. (Does that sound too American?)

  • Monte,

    Part of me wants to try the “give them all an A” approach. It is commendable. My biggest hesitation is that it is I who gives the grade. This still places the power in my hand rather than the students’.

    I did the “select and defend” this year. And was very happy with it. I did set floor criteria to pass, or get the C. I let students define what it would mean to get the A or B beyond that. I really liked it. Thus, I held students to be accountable to make an effort (and some still did the minimum) but I absolutely loved the self-reflection of students defining what it means to go beyond.

    I feel when excellence is defined, it limits people to fit into a box (which is really the antithesis of excellence). Einstein Bell, Airhart, Jobs, King, and others paved the path because they could not be contained inside the box and the world is a better place because of them.

    I believe it is best practice to allow the individual define what is excellent. Let them set their own goals. Let them chase their own dreams. Not all will do this, as they are apprehended by fear. Our job is to help them overcome this fear so they can become who they are meant to be.

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