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One day, Adam Holman decided he was fed up with trying to cram knowledge into the brains of the high school students he taught. They weren’t grasping the physics he was teaching at the level he knew they were capable of, so he decided to change up his teaching style. It wasn’t that his students didn’t care about achieving — he taught at high performing, affluent schools where students knew they needed high grades to get into good colleges. They argued for every point to make sure their grades were as high as possible, but were they learning?

“I felt I had to remove all the barriers I could on my end before I could ask my kids to meet me halfway,” Holman said. The first thing he did was move to standards-based grading. He told his students to show him they’d learned the material, it didn’t matter how long it took them.

“The kids realized this made sense,” Holman said. He taught physics and math at Anderson High School in Austin, before moving on to become a vice-principal. His students were mostly well-off, high achievers, and they knew how to play the game to get the grades they needed. But Holman found when he changed the grading policy, students worried about grades less and focused more on working together to understand the material.

“It turned my students into classmates and collaborators because I didn’t have a system in place to deny the collaboration,” Holman said. His students stopped copying homework. There was no curve that guaranteed some kids would be at the bottom. Instead, the class moved at its regular pace, but if a student persisted at a topic until they could show they understood it, Holman would give them credit. “It turned the kids on my side,” Holman said. “I was there to help them learn.”

BUILDING TRUST

Holman didn’t just change his grading policies. He also changed his teaching style to focus on inquiry, good questions and independent discovery. Starting off, he knew juniors and seniors weren’t used to learning that way, so first he had to build trust with them so they’d understand why he was asking so much of them.

At the start of each class period Holman and his students did icebreakers and read and discussed articles about how human brains learn best. Holman knew he was asking students to be vulnerable with one another–to share their misperceptions about math and physics–and so he spent precious class time working to make sure students trusted one another and him.

The class read Timothy Slater’s article, “When Is a Good Day Teaching a Bad Thing?” which discusses the unspoken contract that can exist between teachers and students by which a teacher will pass a student as long as he or she doesn’t make trouble. Students recognized their own experience of education in the article. “It wasn’t meant to be a bash on teachers, but just to say we are aware that teaching is really complex,” Holman said. “It’s really difficult and sometimes we don’t know how to handle kids.”

Holman also asked students to read “Sermons For Grumpy Campers,” by Richard Felder, a graduate level professor who never lectured. In it, Felder describes his students grumbling that they hated group work and that it was his job to teach them, not the other way around. Holman’s students said the complaints sounded like they came from kindergarteners or themselves and were amazed to find out the complainers were graduate level engineering students.

Talking about these issues openly validated the inevitable complaints of students and helped them buy into the new approach. If an article was a little harder, Holman would use it as differentiated instruction, asking his best readers to take it on and summarize it for the class.

“It wasn’t perfect and it didn’t turn my kids into all physics majors, but for the kids who were on the border, it made a difference,” Holman said. Discussing their learning with them, switching grading policies and assigning more inquiry-based, hands on lessons all helped Holman’s students feel he trusted and respected them. And they rose to the challenge. “I think the kids were just waiting to be let loose and to be treated like adults,” Holman said.

STUDENT RESPONSES

Most of the students responded well to the new teaching style, Holman said, but he was most touched by his struggling math class. “I saw that my kids had been told they were stupid and failures, but I saw so much potential in them,” Holman said. They’ve never been given the time to master a concept through multiple tries. So when Holman opened his door to help them after school and during lunch for as long as it took, many seized the opportunity.

Holman remember one struggling math student, Isabel, particularly well. She was taking algebra, convinced she was terrible at math. But when the grading policy was changed and she had a little more time to work on units that were difficult for her, she became a top student in the class. “She said, ‘for the first time in my life I’m trying to learn everything instead of just get a 70 [percent],’” Holman said.

“Students clearly learned in Mr. Holman’s class, and he never pushed fear,” wrote a former student, Kate Nunke, in an email. She described the rest of her high school experience as one long fear fest: “Fear of not getting into college, fear of not passing, fear of disappointing parents, fear of looking like a fool in front of your peers,” the list goes on. But Nunke says Holman’s teaching style jolted students into thinking about their learning in a new way.

“I think many students didn’t realize that they could learn without a textbook or without step by step instruction,” Nunke wrote. “At times I felt that Mr. Holman’s physics class was the hardest class ever because I didn’t get a step-by-step instruction. We are used to being handed the answer, thus not necessarily learning, just being told.”

Nunke said she’s been thinking a lot about Holman’s approach now that she has graduated and is taking a gap year in which she spent a semester at an outdoor education school focused entirely on experiential learning. “A lot of the teaching that Mr. Holman did, now that I think back to it, was teaching his students how to ask questions and investigate by themselves,” she wrote.

TEACHERS RESIST WHAT WORKS

Despite his success, Holman has had a hard time convincing other teachers to try some of his more progressive approaches. He became a vice-principal to spread and support the instructional practices he believes work, modeling lessons and pushing teachers to step out of their comfort zone.

“We know how kids learn; we know what classes should look like, and yet our classes look almost the opposite,” Holman said. He says there’s a particular deficit in math, where teachers and parents expect things to be taught the way they learned them. Not everyone has experienced good math instruction themselves, Holman said, so they can’t even begin to conceptualize a new way of doing it. “Imagine explaining color to someone who has never seen it,” Holman said. “You have to show them, you have to model it.”

But all of these approaches require taking a leap of faith and many teachers don’t feel they have that luxury. Teachers often complain that more progressive approaches like this suck up time and they can’t cover everything in the jam-packed curriculum. These arguments are excuses, Holman said. He said he never covered every single topic in the curriculum, but he did delve deeply into the ones he saw as most important.

HOLMAN’S READING LIST

For those interested in building metacognitive moments into the day, here are the articles Holman found to be useful and more or less reading-level appropriate for his high school students.

  • Laura Weldon

    We continue to ignore research as well as common sense on how learning happens. When it’s imposed in top-down, structured, tested ways it doesn’t work. Learning is far more nuanced. When we look at math, for example, we see that competence is more closely linked to play, using naturally occurring math, even to character traits. Here’s more on that:
    http://lauragraceweldon.com/2014/11/19/the-benefits-of-natural-math/

  • Ana R

    Loved your thought process and self-critical approach. Its amazing that when we teach to the test, the students fail the test – when we teach concepts, they not only pass tests, they develop a love of learning.

    I would trust schools and teachers more if, like you, they were willing to push for improvements in teaching – http://infinut.com/2014/12/08/backwards-math-teaching-at-school/ So far, I have not found that to be the case.

    • Atlas Educational

      Ana, we’re out there….or we retired because of constantly being labeled an outcast and being targeted. No, I’m not exaggerating. The pool of homeschooling former classroom teachers is growing.

  • DrPhrogg

    Agree in principle. I have taught Middle school & HS math & science. In Algebra II, students are confused, and can’t connect concepts week to week. I changed the question from “what is the answer, to what is the next step. In some cases, I gave the answer and asked students to show ALL steps to get there. No skipping steps. It worked. In science, I gave the concept and asked students what would be necessary to prove it. Evolution got tense, but it worked. What evidence has to be present to accept the concept of evolution? Once we had a list of required evidence, students researched to see if it existed. The idea of “rediscovery and synthesis” took decades or centuries for the original research. Schools don’t have that time, But science doesn’t require that students reinvent the wheel. I took 2 weeks for evolution either way. The second step of any research project is a literature search. There book became a jumping off point to other literature. They learned to use the text as references. They were invested and retained better understanding. More important, they learned research methods. Teaching Blooms level 1&2 is short term memory. Learning to use levels 4-6 became life skills. Since they did the work and I only guided, students were invested in the results.
    The down side is the lack of support from the administration. They didn’t believe this prepared for the standardized testing. Yet my students were always in the top 90%, Even weaker students. A revision of education to address how subjects were life skills is essential to education in general. Compartmentalized life skills is falling further behind.
    2nd story: I was teaching 7th grade physical science of motion. We have to measure speed in meters per second, and compare changes with different masses. Although previously taught, they didn’t retain it. I had to spend a day teaching metric & metric conversion. The administration called me on the carpet for teaching math in a science class. Seems the math teachers complained. Life operated across curricula subjects, and so should school. The question is; “do teachers have the fortitude to resist the system and do what works? Or do we just give in to the “experts” who have NEVER been in the classroom?

    • Kevin Wilcox

      DrPhrogg
      You could not be more correct. How someone who spent little to know time in the classroom is qualified to evaluate someone who has done it for decades baffles me. When learning is the focus, it doesn’t matter what kind of assessment is put in front of the students. If you know the material you will be fine. In addition to your last question, do the the administrators have the fortitude to let the teachers do what works?

    • Vernontnh3

      Love your approach. THANK YOU!

  • Ryan

    Holman’s getting warm. There’s a bigger question that wasn’t yet asked, however. Students do, indeed, treat school like a game, but why? Well, there are two ways of looking at it.

    The first is the perspective shift: Students are forced into this environment, an environment that dehumanizes them in so many different ways that would never be considered acceptable to do to a 30-year-old from essentially the first time they form memories until they’re already at physical maturity. They are, in essence, treated as if they were game pieces. As long as they are students, they are told that what they’re doing is preparing them for “the real world”. Well, if this classroom isn’t the real world, why treat it like it matters? You set up this game, so I’ll simply play it.

    The second would be to examine the characteristics of a game. A player is placed into an artificial environment, given a set of arbitrary rules, and told to accomplish a certain task within a set time limit. At the end, they are given a score for how well and how thoroughly they completed that task, and if they pass a pre-determined checkpoint, the player will advance to the next stage of that environment. In what way is that not exactly what schooling is?

    • Bruce Rhodewalt

      Excellent analysis. And since games are what students love — look at what’s happening on the Chromebooks when the kids think you aren’t paying attention — then intentionally and overtly structuring a course like a game is exactly what we need to do.

      • Ryan

        You’re missing the point. There is no “magic bullet” that can fix an inherently broken system. If you force a person to do something day in and day out, they will resent every part of that process and do everything within their power to avoid achieving the goal you seek. Schooling will, at its most basic design functions, make students view the very notion of learning as an obstacle to overcome, standing in the way of their autonomy and their happiness. That’s why they learn to play the game.

      • Ray Nadrencas

        The reason kids are playing games on the Chromebooks is because the game we’ve made for them is horrifically boring. If you tried to put most academic courses onto a CD-ROM and advertise them as a games, no kid would play them and no parent would pay for them. Of course the kids are playing on their Chromebooks — they get to experience more mastery, autonomy, and purpose in a Javascript game then they do in their own schooling!

    • slyman

      And if they’re like me, they’ll learn that it’s possible to do very little work and still get by. I think it’s an achievement in itself to pass while doing the bare minimum. In many ways, school is about creating good obedient workers, not creating intelligent people. Getting work done is rewarded more often than intelligence.

  • Vernontnh3

    The Science Curriculum Improvement Studies starting in the 1970’s showed most of this. Yet more than 30 years later, while we have had some change in the classroom, it’s not nearly enough. I’m generally a pro-union guy, but when I worked for a hands-on science and math curriculum company in the 1990’s, I asked the VP of Marketing and Communications why, if all this has been proven in studies, schools remain largely unchanged. He said a big part of it was that teacher unions fought it because it would mean retraining teachers which would require more work time for them.

    • segads

      And the VP of Marketing goes unchallenged? I have never known a teacher’s union to resist making education better for students and teachers. CHanges in curriculum, especially from a text company, means LOTS of money flowing out of a district. There’d be plenty of pushback from the bean counters — especially on a curriclum that is, as yet, unproven. And the professional development piece has to be there, and that’s also a district/building reposnsibility. Most teachers have no problem taking time out to learn soemthing that will make a long-term difference for their students — and, yes, the additional time in an overcrowded workday has to be considered — but even more importantly: why should teachers take valuable time away from grading, planning, family, etc., in order to learn yet another new pedagogy that will change in a few years?

  • Melissa Rivero Guillen

    These kids were from an affluent school ! The problem is this blanket statements like the title of this article. I work at a title 1 school, we base our learning on inquiry yet without food, shelter and low crime inquiry is not going to save us all, it hasn’t ! Stop making blanket statements and lying to society ! Improve living conditions= improve education= thinner achievement gap ! Tired of the lies, here one method will save us all.

    • Deb

      Mazlow’s heirarchy definitely needs to be met before anyone can get to work on the heavy academics for sure….but at the same time, neither this guy’s approach NOR “traditional education” is going to be terribly effective if kids are hungry and cold and traumatized. 🙁

    • nicola de torre

      I have worked in a variety of schools. While the trust may take a little longer to set up in a school that performs lower on the testing measures, I have found that this style of learning was even more beneficial for students who feel like the educational institution is setup to make them fail. There is no reason they should not be treated with the same respect as the students who are the focus of this article. If you do not have control over their living conditions, you can at least work with the few hours that the kids are in your room.

  • Joris Heise

    My own experience has been significantly different from the tenor of this article. I have taught in college (both postgraduate, undergraduate and community college) in high school and middle school, and in multi-handicapped classrooms (including very young children and very, very challenged individuals of various ages). In virtually all of these circumstances, I found that the integrity of the teacher, the respect a teacher has and inspires, the humility to adjust a presentation when students rebel against what I know is the truth (and realize that the Medium has become the Message instead of the means to it). My own teachers–and students–pushed me all the time to find the contract which is mutual learning. I have found involvement helps, dialogue and respectful disagreement help, much quick laughter and twists of words to show another side–helps–and my attitude that I am NOT filling a tabula rasa helps. All of this formed the ambience for my “Literature: Discovering Ourselves through Great Books” textbook–whose introduction includes the remark that you (the reader) and i and “great books” are all in dialogue with one another.

    • Atlas Educational

      Sounds heavenly. My last year of teacher, pressure from my principal (with almost daily pop-ins) required that I not only plan with my “team” of 6, but also follow the identical worksheets on the same day. Nightmarish and my last year of teaching.

      • Joris Heise

        two things: You have my sympathy because my own principals (and deans) tended to stop by to encourage, participate, learn from students and share in the process of learning (they were not afraid to correct–but it was collegial, impersonal and definitely helpful) ; and, secondly, my wife–a fellow special ed teacher at another school–maintained that her principals, supervisors and the like, after leaving teaching, were required to take “stupid pills” to prevent remembering what it was to be a teacher.

  • AConner

    I’m currently in graduate school and I can tell you that the “read and regurgitate” complex is still going strong. My most valued instructor (in both undergrad and grad) constantly battles the “will this be on the test” mentality. It has to be incredibly frustrating to try to help adults gain the skills they’ll need for their jobs, but being asked for extra credit and bad mouthed for not using the book (the book is supplemental for your own benefit. Act like an adult). He has, for those of us who were willing to leave that comfort zone and do some real growing, been instrumental in helping shape strong, confident, and competent practitioners. If all my instructors were willing to branch out like this, I feel like I would have done more real learning.

  • Scott Weber

    Excuse me, but teachers, at least the ones I know, do not “Resist What Works”. We RESENT being told by people who haven’t set foot in a classroom in 20 years and weren’t successful when they did, that THIS is the new way that you must do things exclusively, and everything else you were doing before was completely wrong. And then, 5 years later, a brand new philosophy emerges that is the new “best way”, that we must use, or we suck as teachers. ALL tools; inquiry, content-driven, narrative, differentiated and homogenous grouping, must be made available for a teacher to be able to develop what works best for THAT teacher and their students.

  • Atlas Educational

    I went more holistic, discovery, and inquiry back in 2009. Unfortunately, my test scores plummeted. I consider it my best year of teaching since students knew their subjects more in depth, but the breadth was hard to cover and as long as testing is tie to a teacher’s job, I don’t see it changing. Many, many, many teachers would LOVE to do the same. I did bounce back to top test scores the next year by mostly sticking to my previous plan and adding daily 15 min. drill types of questions that testing demands. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked.

  • tmb

    Grades are like a credit score. It’s a completely bogus way of evaluating someone, but we use it for giving out awards, allowance money, sports eligibility, scholarships, college acceptance, etc. Students don’t ‘play the game’ because they don’t want to learn. They ‘play the game’ because they know they have to in order to get to the next step.

    And re: “He said he never covered every single topic in the curriculum, but he did delve deeply into the ones he saw as most important.” That’s a nice luxury that most teachers don’t have anymore. Autonomy has been slowly taken away from teachers to use their professional knowledge of curriculum and their students needs to decide what they should be teaching (thanks Bush II and Obama!)

    As long as we have high stakes testing where teachers’ jobs are on the line for covering EVERY SINGLE TOPIC in a curriculum (designed by someone who has no teaching experience or concept of developmentally appropriate)—this approach will be resisted not because it doesn’t work, but because you’ll get fired for not doing it the way Bill Gates thinks you should.

  • JoEllen Bursinger Zacks

    This is what Montessori schools have been doing with great success for a century. http://www.public-montessori.org/resources/does-it-work-what-research-says-about-montessori-and-student-outcomes

  • Mathi Bear

    This is probably a lovely example of the Hawthorne effect. Change your focus, change the student’s normal learning environment a bit and get results. For a while.

  • Andrew

    I have no idea what this looks like in practice. I can see that he does not like evaluation, but what teacher does? So what is the deal here? Does he just say “Figure out why this thing moves the way it does” and then let them go off and search Google? I teach college and find this article useless. Of course, the intended audience was probably not fellow teachers, but we’re the only ones who will own up and actually use it. If it weren’t so…. useless.

    • Googling is not a form of scientific inquiry. That is not what inquiry learning is about. One major research-based physics education pedagogy, Modeling, introduces a concept with a demonstration, the teacher helps students have a discussion about how and what can be measured, and the students propose investigations into one or more variables. The teacher serves as a resource, guides the students inquiry, and prompts them where necessary to help them evaluate the information they are generating. Then the teacher provides opportunities to test and refine the model. And eventually, with a fleshed out model and experience using it, the teacher may show them something or guide them to a test that breaks the model and requires new physics.

  • Richard Felder

    I’m flattered that Mr. Holman included one of my papers in his piece (“Sermons for Grumpy Campers”),
    and I totally support the
    approach he recommends–lots of research backs it up. However, I’m also sympathetic to the people who
    commented cynically, arguing that the years of “No Child Left Behind”
    made it almost impossible for teachers to teach in the way he advocates.
    If you’re constrained by “This is Tuesday, so we have to cover pages
    226-229,” and your worth as a teacher and maybe your salary depends
    entirely on how well your students do on a low-level standardized test
    of tons of “math facts” or “science facts,” you can’t use his free-form
    approach. Common Core moves away from NCLB, fortunately, but it also has
    problems–like trying to cover too much too fast for many students, which also keeps teachers from using a self-paced inquiry-based approach. These
    are tough times for public school teachers–it’s a miracle that there
    are still many who are dedicated and caring about their students enough to continue teaching
    under the working conditions they have to endure.

    • Well said, and thanks for commenting! I love your writing and share it with all the teachers I work with!

  • Thanks for sharing my story! The main thing I want to stress is the importance of being intentional when creating your learning environment!

  • I’m flattered that Mr. Holman included my paper (“Sermons for Grumpy Campers”) in his piece,
    and I’m all for the
    teaching approach he recommends, which is supported by lots of research. However, I’m also sympathetic to the people who
    commented cynically, arguing that the years of “No Child Left Behind”
    made it almost impossible for teachers to teach in the way he advocates.
    If you’re constrained by “This is Tuesday, so we have to cover pages
    226-229,” and your worth as a teacher and maybe your salary depends
    entirely on how well your students do on a low-level standardized test
    of tons of “math facts” or “science facts,” you can’t use his free-form
    approach. Common Core moves away from NCLB, fortunately, but it can cover too much too fast for most students, which also makes it hard for the teacher to use self-paced inquiry-based methods. These
    are tough times for public school teachers–it’s a miracle that there
    are still many who are dedicated and caring enough about their students to continue teaching
    under the working conditions they have to endure.

  • I always learned the material and intentionally didn’t do the work out of a crusade against the hypocrisy of our grading system. It was a dumb choice but I learned a lot more than the other students.

  • SusieQue

    Good grades, high-status colleges, and high paying jobs are not that important. What is important is being a responsible citizen who cares about other people. Children need to be taught the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic in the primary grades. When that isn’t done, as it often isn’t, everything else is uphill. Not everyone has an aptitude for math. Not everyone can sing. No everyone can lay bricks. Deal with it. Each person should develop his/her own particular gifts, all of which are essential to society. It’s not about the money, folks.

  • SusieQue

    The “A” students end up working for the “B” students anyway.

  • RockyRose

    My last year of teaching before retirement was spent with elementary school age children with multiple disabilities who were to be exempt from the regular standardized testing. We challenged each other to think of different solutions to everyday life situations. We used math, science, logic every single day. In the final quarter of the year, the district decided that most of these children would have to take the test after all, albeit administered orally at the 3rd grade level. Of course I was closely monitored to make sure I wasn’t giving any clues to them. I told the kids not to sweat it. Because the test was about things I had not taught them, there was no way they could remember the material. They not only passed the test, but as a group they outdid all of the other 3rd grade classes.

  • kjrj

    I went to a local Waldorf school. At the time, and still, it is not the greatest of Waldorf schools, as it doesn’t have the means of other schools in many ways and was just forming. There are many fabulous Waldorf schools out there though, many of my friends have Graduated and taught at outstanding Waldorf programs around the United States. As a human being, I feel sound fundamentally as a result of my childhood education. It was not just about the education itself, but learning how you actually learn. When I entered public school, I was at an age where at my previous school, the work load was not as tough (as you enter middle and high school, the courses are rigorous, but they prepare you for that), so I stubbled to transition. The entire public school system should be reconstructed, because with the way it is set up you are not treated as an individual, you are treated as a number. I did not do well on standardized testing, but I don’t believe you can truly pass judgement on someone’s intelligence based off of some linear schooling. Please watch one of the best given TED Talks about “How Schools Kill Creativity” by Sir Ken Robinson. With the way that this system is set up, only certain people will ever do well. Then you will have great students who begin to doubt themselves and feel as if they have no hope. I also believe that other subjects should be included on a daily basis and held to a higher standard instead of being brushed off as a nothing elective. Everything should be valued equally. As a student, you really don’t feel valued as it is by the time you finish out the public school system.

    • kjrj2

      I apologize for the typos, *struggled to transition*, as well as a few others.

  • Jeff

    I enjoyed the article. The fear being used in classrooms today is becoming extinct. Fear is used to set the order of communication in the classroom. Education is communicating understanding. Fear is lack of understanding, as understanding increases, fear decreases. The system described is respect based. If teachers spend their time listening to understand what their students understand, it becomes easier to place information within the vision of the student in order to help the student grow. The more a teacher understands their students the better the teacher becomes at teaching.

  • Eljeffe05

    At my school, instead of us giving our learners grades, we ask them to, “Show us what you know.” When it comes time for report cards, we then show their parents what we
    know about their children with written narratives and a scale that shows where
    they are on the road towards mastery of content areas. We don’t give grades; we see them as an artificial way to demonstrate learning. Holman’s point that a sense of “classmates and collaboration” appeared once the barrier of grades had been removed rings true for me. Students were no longer competing with one another for the best possible grade, but rather they were working towards the goal of learning and understanding, and not just getting a letter, or number, that shows how smart, or not, they are. Studies are not completed once a test is taken, or it’s time to move
    on. No, studies are completed once a learner “understands” the concept regardless of the timeframe it took them to get to that understanding. This is learning.

    As for “building trust,” again, I’m with the author in their call for developinging trust with your learners. When a student transfers to our school from a more traditional
    environment, they struggle the first few months to adjust. They have to learn to trust their new teachers, their new classmates, and a wildly new system. Often they report that they thought we were “tricking them” by telling them to work at their pace, do their best, and take ownership over their learning. By January, they’ve typically figured out what we are asking is no trick. Our newer students will sometimes report that they thought an environment without grades would be a breeze; this feeling doesn’t last long. They way we learn is often fun, but rarely “easy.” I know it’s more difficult to teach this way!

    Looking at Holman’s reading list I see Alfie Kohn listed twice. Not surprising! His books “Punished by Rewards” and “The Schools our Children Deserve” are some of my favorites. Inquiry, discovery, and a top-down approach to topics, I love to teach, and learn, this way!

  • Sonia

    Hello all!!

    I have been reading previous post from several of you and as it may be obvious; there are mixed opinions. As I was reading I found it hard not to agree with both sides. I can understand with the ones that say it’s hard to have an inquiry based classroom and meet with all the requirements imposed on us both by local and federal mandates. Teachers are pressured to pass standardized testing because their jobs depend on it. There for teachers teach the way they think is best given that the feeling of freedom is limited. I do not know if this is happening in all stated but in our district test scores are going to be attached right along with evaluations. This in my opinion is not fair. Like some of you posted kids come with so much baggage from home we really will never know if they tried their best. Or they just decided to fail the test! As we all very well know if basic needs are not meet then learning will not take place. On the other hand as research shows inquire based is a good pedagogical approach in the classroom and will show results in deeper learning. This goes right along with Common Core which is asking for deeper level on knowledge from students. This quote from the article caught my attention right off the bat, “We know how kids learn; we know what classes should look like, and yet our classes look almost the opposite.” I strongly believe this is due to teachers being pressured to pass standardized tests. I have no objection on making teachers accountable for what they do in the classroom but we must find a better way to assess our students to give them and the teachers their peace and love of learning back.

  • Kyle Jin

    I do not think grading can be counted as a way to reward studetns. Students would not be motivated simply because they are graded. Grading is just a measurement of performance. I totally agree with Alfie Kohns argument in “From Degrading to De-Grading” regarding what classroom teachers can do while grades continue to be required: “the short answer is that they should do everything within their power to make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible. Helping students forget about grades is the single best piece of advice for creating a learning-oriented
    classroom.”

    If a game is to place players into an artificial environment, and they are given a set of arbitrary rules, and told to accomplish a certain task within a set time limit; at the end, they are given a score for how well and how thoroughly they completed that task, and if they pass a pre-determined checkpoint, the player will advance to the next stage of that environment. It sounds to me that every game, if not all, is played in this way. But do we know why some games are more popular than others, and some game are just dead boring? What make this deference?

    If the mechanism of schooling works just like a game, I think the bottom line is making it fun. It is the content of the game/schooling that really matters, not the general format. It is the content and how players are interacting with the content that make the game fun and the players willing to play it, instead of being forced to play it along.

    Just like Adam Holman said, teaching is very complex. Teachers are not factory workers dedicating to produce identical products. I would argue that a good teacher can certainly be a very good game producer in modern game industry. On the other hand, teachers might get some useful hints for their teaching from the success of nowadays top hot games.

    After all, teaching theories and strategies are always changing, but at least teachers should do whatever possible to make the content of schooling fun and interesting so students are willing to engage schooling and actively learn the content provided in school.

  • MrsK

    After reading the article and all the comments that follow there are a few points I can agree with. 1- From teaching experience, yes, students do treat school as a game… I feel that the older the students the more game like the experience. 2 – I do agree with Holman’s approach of allowing the students more time to master concepts. I don’t know why we haven’t been doing this all along. The point of education should be learning new concepts, not the fear of the grade for not having learned that concept by such-and such day at a specific time. If we want to evaluate a students knowledge and understanding, we as teachers must be will to accept demonstration of knowledge in a variety of ways, at anytime the learning has occurred.
    My biggest questions after reading was… how do these results change as you use the same method with a group of students, unmotivated by grades. The article mentions that these students were at a high performing, affluent school. In my opinion, didn’t the students just have to change the way of earning the grade? In working in a high ses school, with little to no parent support of their students education, do you think the results would be different. Didn’t the students in the article still care about the end point-the grade?

  • Katie Larson

    I agree with Holman’s approach for teaching Science and
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    Kansas Soybean Commission. This institute taught me how to teach using inquiry.
    I’ve been using metacognition techniques for reading for years, but I hadn’t
    thought to apply them in science and math. There was always a process. After
    teaching 2nd grade with this approach for two years, I do see a
    difference in how students approach the unknown of math problems and in
    science. They aren’t as afraid to learn in this fashion because it’s becoming
    accustomed. It was scary to teach at first because some control needed to be
    put into their hands rather than me telling them what to do and how to do it.

    I did take some offense to the section called “Teachers
    Resist What Works.” I have not met a teacher that would resist a strategy to
    help a student learn. Other times, this style of learning isn’t appropriate. I
    completely understand why this type of learning does not match standardized
    testing techniques. A teacher cannot afford to have just inquiry-based learning
    with high-stakes testing as our basis of achievement. Do I believe this strategy
    works and works well? Yes. Should it be the only way to teach? No.

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  • Laura Weldon

    How about deprogramming the adults? School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we’re all born motivated to explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again—continually gaining mastery. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how we have advanced the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment. What we need to overcome is the school mindset. http://lauragraceweldon.com/2014/01/02/five-ways-to-transcend-the-school-mindset/

  • LadyPack

    I believe this is called the “knowledge-use gap.” We have a great deal of knowledge about how people learn but this knowledge is rarely used in schools.

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  • Kimberly McWilliams

    I really enjoyed reading this article but was shocked at the diversity of the comments.
    The modeling and inquiry learning techniques seem to be the new trend in education especially for NGSS. At my old school a peer of mine who taught Physics and Earth Science used this approach. I was very intrigued by this teaching style I’d often pop in her classroom and observe. Through out the semester I’d check in and ask her questions to see if this teaching style would be something I’d like to integrate. I concluded that this technique worked well in a science classroom settings. Similar to Holman it didn’t catch all students but did manage to snag a on edge. For me what was so wonderful about this style of teaching is that it practices everything our students need to be able to do when they graduate. In this century students go to school to learn, question, express, and think about knowledge NOT to memorize formulas. The model teaching helps them instill their learning with a deeper understanding an a longer take away knowledge. However, for the students who didn’t buy in it was the same as any other old teaching technique.
    I also like that Holman educated his students on what it is that he was doing. When students understand a teachers reasoning they are more apt to buy in and support the process. Students want to be a part of the learning process and have as much ownership in their learning as possible and this style helps support that.
    A con to this teaching style is that it requires a HUGE amount of planning and preparation. For teachers who are not great planners this would be a hard fit for them.
    It noted that he became a principal to share this new technique. I’d be interested to hear in the future how other teachers do at his school implementing this style.

  • Jen F

    I can appreciate the move to standards-based grading to motivate students to master the material, not just regurgitate and forget. So many students have anxiety related to the endless testing we seem to have now, so moving to the idea of focusing on the material not the “outcome” would be a breath of fresh air. I can also understand how this may be unsettling to parents, as they do have the expectation that their child will be taught the exact same way they did when they were in school. Change is hard, but necessary for us to grow. These students were probably had supportive, involved parents. Not all students are as fortunate.

    I don’t think teachers “resist what works,” but are don’t always have the freedom to upend their teaching/curriculum as the Holman did. All teachers want to see their students understand the material and make connections between concepts, but there are limitations to what they can do. As someone who has worked with the special needs population, I would love to be able to do more inquiry based learning experiences but my time is already strained between meetings, paperwork and working with students, it isn’t always feasible to make these “leaps of faith.” I can also see barriers with administration in making these huge changes. Not that I don’t think those leaps can be made, but maybe we need to think baby-steps instead of huge leaps! Many good points in this article to think about.

  • Jessica Bauerle

    This article poses many pros and cons in the minds of educators as I can already see by reading through the comments below. One question that has stuck with me is whether or not teachers have the gumption to work against the system set in stone and try something that has potential to work better than the current methods? My thought is that each teacher should be prepared and confident enough to do whatever method necessary to best meet the needs of those students in their classroom at that time. Whether those methods are traditional or mirror what Mr. Holman practices, I believe learning can take on many various forms and yet be effective. Once we know our students learning styles, we simply need to cater and adapt our instruction to meet their needs.

    I can see how some would prefer Mr. Holman’s focus on inquiry-based and independent discovery style. I would love to see my students worry less about grades and more about simply learning the material. I am also a huge advocate of hands on learning and building a great rapport and relationship with my students. This trust between students and teachers allows the opportunity for academic and personal risks that lead to greater rewards.

    However, I also see how some recognize the time we have in the classroom with our students is severely limited compared to the amount of standards we are required to meet. It seems we have only a tiny window of flexibility and these more progressive approaches just take too much time. Standardized testing and the pressures that are put on the shoulders of teachers can often jam-pack our day with more traditional schooling methods. I am really not a fan of the last section of this article titled “Teachers resist what works”. I do not think that is a fair statement. What works for one teacher may have the opposite affect with another. As I stated before, it all depends on what our students respond to the best. We should take the necessary measures, either traditional or progressive, to best meet the needs of our students.

  • JandeeK

    I appreciate Holman’s willingness to go out on a limb to try a new approach. It takes a lot of courage and scaffolding to build a new learning style and without the support of administrator and staff, nearly impossible. Times are changing. Students are requiring new learning styles and new ways to present material. It is the teacher’s job to promote a positive learning environment and Holman is on to something. Currently our district is struggling with implementing a new grade card system. The district is proposing a blacked out card that only lets teachers teach specific items each 9 weeks as a way of keeping teacher synchronized across the district. I am really struggling with this idea as a teacher and a parent. I believe wholeheartedly that teachers should be given the freedom to make professional decisions regarding the content that they teach and when they teach it. Holman’s approach would not be accepted if the proposed grade card dilemma was implemented. I love that Holman took time to scaffold the new learning technique. He communicated the changes well with his students and helps them build confidence in themselves and their abilities to grow as students!

  • Jennifer Boss

    On some levels I agree with the points portrayed in this article. On some levels I think the ideas expressed would not be appropriate for all students. I do wish and hope for the day when we can afford to move away from teaching to the test and being so focused on the end result (test scores/student grades). I would love to see a world where teachers are more focused on teaching skills and standards in a way that ensures that all students are learning and able to apply their learning in the future instead of having to worry about whether or not those students are going to pass a test. We want to ensure that our students are genuinely learning in a way that will be lasting and worthwhile allowing them to effectively apply what they have learned in the future. That said, if we let every student take their time at learning a topic allowing them to stick with it until they understand completely there may be some students who may miss out tremendously. The students who have difficulty with retention or suffer from a learning disability that prevents them from learning in the same way as others may not completely benefit from this teaching style. In my kindergarten classroom our grade card is very different from that of other grade levels in that we have a checklist assessment instead of just a grade for each subject taught. I try to teach in a way that ensures that each student successfully masters each skill before moving on to something new, but for those students who are struggling to retain/understand even after weeks of repeated instruction provided in many different ways I have to just move on so that the other students don’t miss out on valuable instruction due to one student not making progress. I can provide extra interventions and accommodations in another form,but it would be a disservice to others if they were forced to continue practicing a skill they had already mastered.

    In short my opinion of the author’s ideas is that this teaching style would work great for some, but not for others. The success of students with this style of teaching would be dependent on the students being taught, as every child is different.

  • Kara Stucky

    I’ve been on a similar journey as Mr. Holman! About two and a half years ago, my principal brought me a book A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades and asked if I would read it. I agreed, knowing that the middle school students in my math class were struggling and our current grading system wasn’t working. Middle school students can be very forgetful and more often than not, less than half of my class would return their homework each day. This resulted in strict penalties for late work and lowered students grades, some so low there was little hope of passing. Reading this book has transformed my philosophy of grading and challenged me to determine what it is that grades should communicate. I’m now in my second year of standards based grading and I’m seeing similar changes in my students as Mr. Holman did in his high school students. Students more readily collaborate and help each other to understand the content, not just get a grade. I do still have some students who are struggling to take ownership for their learning. I think it takes time to “deprogram” students from what they have typically experienced in school. One piece that I do not have in my classroom is the “metacognitive moments” of the day. I’ve talked to my student about why I have changed my grading policy and why I use inquiry based learning but I haven’t given them a chance to read about it and think about it for themselves. I’m going to start including this at least once a week! I’ve also recently come across this video from Youcubed at Stanford about how to learn math. Helping students to cultivate a growth mindset will help them be successful in learning and life, not just “doing school”.

  • E. DeMars

    I think a lot of the steps that Mr. Holman took to develop his classroom were amazing! It is so great that he was able to create that kind of atmosphere with his students. While I agree with many people who have commented that this may not work in every classroom, there are many modifications that can be made to adapt it to the students in each class. I think the most important steps that Mr. Holman took were making sure that his class understood his grading system change, and then allowing them to be a part of the process. His classroom created an environment of mutual respect, and that is so powerful. His students understood that the teacher wanted the students to succeed not just in his classroom, but beyond. He wanted to teach them the important concepts that would help them learn the things that would help them push forward in their education. I think the atmosphere presented an opportunity for the students to have a voice; they weren’t just there to sit, listen, take notes, and pass a test based on that. They were able to experience these different things for themselves and set concrete cognitive structures to continue to build on.

    There are things that I do believe can make this type of structure very difficult in the classroom. One of these would be a lack of support from school staff and administration. I have not personally had the experience, but one of my friends has a curriculum guide that tells you what to teach on what day. The principle pops in often to make sure that it is happening too. The teacher is still able to teach the way she likes, but is unable to devote the time that some students may need to completely develop the concepts. I think it this kind of structure that really fails the students. When we have administration that wants us to pound out the lessons and just get through all of them before a said standardized test, how is this in the best interest of the child. We can expect all of our students to fully understand a concept after one or two days. We have to be allowed to continue to work through concepts at a pace appropriate for our students; this may not always fit the the cookie cutter curriculum developed by administration. We have to give our teachers the ability to decide what is best for the students,

  • Jiayi Li

    I agree with the author that students are learning not only to pass tests, but also learning for fun and adapt to society when they graduate from school. There are a lot of skills can’t be learned by teachers keep telling them what to do, but students have to explore by themselves. To have a student centered classroom, students need to build trust with students, so they will have freedom to share their ideas. Anther thing that teacher may hurt students’ learning interests is that teachers may have a stubborn mind to let students explore things. Teachers need to be willing to accept challenges out of lesson plan and be creative themselves. Students will be inspired by their teachers when they have different games and activities to do in classroom.

    In my classroom, I will let my students learn math by playing games and do crafts. For example, students will learn fraction by cutting cakes. They will find learning is part of their life and they love to explore knowledge from their life. They will also be encouraged to find new things and learn things that they don’t know by themselves. I will give them rewards if they learned anything outside of classroom.

  • Jinhua Wang

    Different people have different fusion of horizons. So, I was not shocked at all these mixed comments while I was reading the previous posts. Sometimes I feel “Great minds think alike.” And sometimes I feel “Debates create greater minds.” I should say, the new approach that Holman
    advocates has both pros and cons. Based on different teaching philosophies, teachers could have agreed with him in one way, but disagreed with him in another way.
    I personally think Holman is brave enough to try out a new approach which is supported by many other peers and administrators. The first thing he did was changing the grading policies, which eased students’ pressure on grades but made them more focused on working together to understand the materials and solve problems. And He did allow students more time to work on the material that he was going to use standard-based grading for. I like this idea of not making students feel stressful about the grades but cooperating with their peers to work things out effectively. This makes me reflect on my home country’s education. In China, schools make students stress out themselves too much due to the severe competitiveness. Students have no freedom to decide what they are interested in but to work hard on the required courses and get as high grades as possible in order to advance to better schools starting from kindergarten to college. I don’t like the grading system and the assessment system in China at all. I always hear people say, “The education in China is killing child’s nature.” That is why I think Holman’s attempt to use a new grading policy stood out to me.
    Another idea in the article that attracted my attention is building trust and respect between teacher and student, or among students. Cooperation happens when trust and respect is built. As a teacher, I always want my students to trust and respect me. If students do not trust and respect their teacher, they usually keep a certain distance away from the teacher and question the teacher, which is not good for creating a relaxing and comfortable learning atmosphere. Meanwhile, if students do not trust and respect each other, it is hard for them to perform well in group work and then effective cooperative learning cannot be guaranteed. I like one of comments that says “Fear is due to lack of understanding. As understanding goes, fear decreases.” I would also say, fear is due to lack of trust and respect. If every one in the classroom
    can be held accountable for doing group work, effective learning proceeds. However, it does cost time for both students and teachers to build trust and respect on each other.
    The last thing I want to say is “Teachers resist what works.” I don’t think this is true and I do believe teachers will not say no to any methods
    that work better for students. The only concern is that sometimes teachers probably don’t have that freedom to make a professional decision due to the strict school curriculum, high-stake tests, stubborn administrators and limited classroom time.

  • JENNIFER JACKSON

    I really enjoyed this article. I have felt my own teaching shifting, particularly over the last 5 years. As I’ve gained experience, I’ve become more comfortable in trying out new instructional strategies that release more of the responsibility to the student. This type instruction is not always easy to shift to, as there are so many expectations of classrooms teachers, that I think some feel pressured to make sure everything is happening a certain way at a certain time. However, when you release the control of learning over to students, your plans, your day, your schedule all have to be more flexible.

    Colleagues often discuss how many kids have certainly “learned to play the game.” There’s always a group of kids who are compliant enough to slide by unnoticed, whether they have learned the material or not. To be honest, during those really long weeks when things are making you feel like a zombie, you pray for the kids to be compliant, and you’re not about to rock the boat. In truth though, we want all of our children to be successful, and if that means it takes them a little extra longer to master a standard, then we should be looking at how our days and plans are structured, and thinking about how we can change our approach in order to support all learners.

  • Elizabeth Reicher

    This article reflects the way educators need to be teaching in order to create lifelong learners who can only benefit the society in which they . One of the statements I have made to my students over the years is, “It is not always important to know all of the answers, it is important is that you have the skills to aid you in finding the answers.” Knowing facts has little use if one does not know how to use this information in meaningful ways.

    I am very passionate about standards-based grading. I want my children and my students to have a deep understanding not only the skill, but also how to use the skill in various scenarios. I cannot seem to get this across to stakeholders in my community. They fear change and want to go back to the Victorian system of spoon feeding our students and cookie cutter education which they experienced.

    Educator are fearful as well as delivering this type of instruction is a risk in our data driven educational system. Administrators are saying that this type of instruction and assessment is powerful, but so is the funding that schools receive based on their testing. When presented with new types of instruction you have to lay the groundwork so the learners understand the procedures and can model them as they navigate through content. This front loading takes time and may not show results immediately, but when implemented consistently, it will deepen the learner’s understanding of the content.

    I look back at high school as a time when I was never challenged to think. I achieved at high levels without really studying. I do not feel that I remember most of the information that was covered. I tested well, so I was seen as successful. This is not enough for my children and students.We need to raise the level of rigour and educators need to act as facilitators who guide learners as they move towards mastery and synthesis of their knowledge.

    Luckily, I went to a university that challenged me to think. It was somewhat difficult to adapt at first, but it enabled me to become a lifelong learner. Isn’t this what we want for all learners?

  • Leah Wisdom

    Great read! I really appreciate his commitment to being a facilitator of student learning versus being the expert imparting knowledge. Many students are “successful” in school because they have learned to play the game, this does not assist students in learning HOW to learn or in taking ownership over their learning. Helping students develop agency is a powerful skill and will stay with them in life. I believe strongly in standards based grading, moving to a system of showing mastery through conceptual understanding and application. Traditional grading practices fall short and do not reflect the value of engaging in the learning process and mastering content with grit and persistence.
    Developing an environment of trust is essential to allow students to feel safe in the learning process. I appreciated his commitment to building trust. I especially liked his ideas about providing students with information about teaching and learning, this involving them in the shift to enhanced instructional approaches. We often forget to be explicit with students about the process of learning and the process of providing instruction. There is great power involving learners in understanding why various instructional methods are utilized.
    For students to be engaged in the learning process and become problem solvers in life, we must provide inquiry based instruction that allows them to learn content in a variety of ways through application.

  • amyesrb

    I enjoyed reading this article and the comments following it; similarly to others’ thoughts about the changed teaching style, there are parts of the article that I agree with, but also some parts that I do not necessarily agree with. As I read about Adam Holman’s efforts to improve the learning in his high school classroom, I became intrigued about his background and teaching experience prior to this change in teaching style. I explored his website and resume, and quickly learned that he is very passionate about his teaching and administrative career. I especially like Mr. Holman’s four Administrator Pledges; it is clear that he truly cares about improving teaching and learning in his school.

    “Discussing their learning with them, switching grading policies and assigning more inquiry-based, hands on lessons all helped Holman’s students feel he trusted and respected them.” Like many others who commented, I agree that this teaching strategy does have a lot of potential to help many students. I like Jiayi Li’s comment, “They (students) will find learning is part of their life and they love to explore knowledge from their life.” Similar to Holman’s experience, when I taught middle school math, my students loved to work with hands-on manipulatives, exploring and learning in a new way (other than just me lecturing to them). I agree that this independent discovery learning motivates students, and presents a sense of pride, trust, and respect for themselves and one another in their learning. If only we could “play”
    all the time in school and not worry about state assessment tests.

    I agree that teachers sometimes need to “step out of their comfort zone” to improve the learning in their classroom. However, one concern that I have from this article is the statement that “Teachers resist what works.” Something that I believe very strongly in as a teacher is getting to know your students. Every student learns differently; there is no cookie cutter strategy, method, or theory that will work for every single student. As others have commented also, while this discovery learning and grade policy change may work for some students, there is no guarantee that all students will find success with it. I do not believe that “teachers resist what works;” I believe they get to know their students as best they can, and they use different teaching and learning strategies as necessary to influence all learners in their classroom. If they are still challenged to help some students, then they need to get creative and “step out of their comfort zone.”

    My last comment is more of a question of curiosity: how was Mr. Holman so easily able to change his grading policy to standards-based grading? I am not saying I disagree with this, I just wondered how he was “allowed” to do this. When I taught middle school math in Ohio, my district had very strict guidelines on how we were to grade our students. There was a set percentage scale for each letter grade, allowing for consistency across grade levels and all teachers. While we were allowed to choose most of our grading categories and percentages, some categories had restrictions (for example, homework grades could only be up to 10% of the final nine-week’s grade). I believe these
    standards were in place to allow for consistency and fairness through all grade levels. Therefore, I am just curious, did Mr. Holman’s district not have a required, consistent, grading policy? How did his grading policy compare to grading policies of other classes in his high school?

    Overall, very interesting article providing an excellent teaching and learning experience. Although it is not cookie cutter perfect for all students, it is refreshing to read the positive effects of a teacher thinking outside of the box and getting creative to help his students learn!

  • Trish Raymond

    I couldn’t agree more with the theories outlined within this article. As a second year teacher, I am open to trying new ways to reach kids through methods of differential learning techniques. Many of the more seasoned teachers within my school district are set on older methods of delivering the material and meeting standards. When they are presented with an alternative way to deliver the material they become stressed and the feeling of burden comes over them. It can be seen all over their faces and expressed during faculty meetings. Within my classroom, I offer the students a form of what is discussed within this article, however I find it interesting that Holman is grading based on achievement of meeting individual standards, as opposed to using curriculum to meet standards. I find this method intriguing and I will give this more consideration for the 2016-17 school year.

  • Nicole Naditz

    Yes! Yes! Yes! I am a French teacher based in Sacramento, California. I began steps several years ago in my grading and assessment practices that ultimately led me to make the complete shift to standards-based grading two years ago. It has been several years since my students asked me, “how many points is this worse?” Or “will this be on the test?” We must change the culture of learning, assessment, and grading so that students are no longer seeing points as the goal instead of acquisition and evidence of meaningful, authentic application of knowledge and skills. I spoke about this topic at a national convention for language teachers last year (https://youtu.be/UYQpqWwStCw) and have been supporting other teachers to start with the initial steps to transition away from a culture of points to a culture of empowering students to learn, and relearn if necessary. Those who influenced me the most include Myron Dueck, Tom Schimmer, Jan Chappuis and others.

    Just for you at KQED, I thought you may be interested to know that I am also a 2016–2017 PBS Local LearningMedia Digital Innovator.

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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