ramblings, SBL, thinking

Focus on Thinking

It’s been a while since I grabbed my soapbox and megaphone and shared some thoughts. I’ve had some time to think and reflect over this past year, and really all my years of teaching, and I have realized that we have created point-gobbling monsters instead of individuals wanting to gain knowledge to solve problems and be better humans. I also feel like these point-gobbling monsters get more hungry each passing year and their appetite for thinking and learning is decreasing at an even faster rate.

For those of you who have been around for a bit, you know I love standards-based learning. I have written about it on this blog here, here, and here, presented on it, and will talk to anyone about how much it changed my classroom and the willingness of students to learn.

I still LOVE the idea of standards based learning. But I realized a few years ago that it focuses on content, content that is readily available on the internet. See, I don’t just want students who memorize a process and try to meet a check box in a category or standard. I want students who can find information and use it to solve a problem. The problem with our current grade-gobbling situation is that students will memorize the process to regurgitate it on a test and then move on to the next topic. No thought process, just memorization.

This niggling thought in the back of my head smacked me square in the face this past year. Two different situations collided allowing me to see a clear picture of these point-gobbling monsters we had created. One, because of a shift of teachers at winter break, I took on a class from another teacher. I teach very conceptually, without formulas when possible. I allow students to use formulas, but I don’t when demonstrating and encourage them to think about what is happening and solve things using concepts they know. My new class DID NOT LIKE THIS! They wanted formulas. To be fair, my original class wanted formulas too, they just knew they weren’t going to get them from me. They at least played along with my explorations and conceptual understanding and then looked up the formulas to use later. The second was a students so obsessed with grades it frightened me. She would try to calculate her score on every assessment and freaked out if she score below an 94% (A in our book). She wasn’t as interested in learning, she just wanted an A. I get this sentiment from parents too. The last week of school, this particular student frantically asked to see another teacher because he had entered an assignment as a zero. I taught her early in the day and asked if she had already attended class with this teacher. No, she would see him in two class periods. I encouraged her to visit with him during her class time. She nearly broke down because she “couldn’t have a zero in the gradebook for that long.” Another student in the back of the room asked her if it lowered her grade and she said “yes, from a 98% to a 97%.” Her class let her have it. She still had an A but was so obsessed with grades that a zero in the gradebook was going to ruin the next two class periods until is was removed.

WE DID THIS! And be we, I mean the education system. WE created the point-gobbling monsters. We said GPA is more important than learning by creating scholarships based on this point system. We said GPA is more important than learning when we recognize the top 10 and valedictorian and realize those who challenged themselves with harder classes aren’t always represented. We said scoring well on a standardized test is more important than learning when we create awards for those who are proficient and advanced and give scholarships based on these tests. We have said point-gathering over thinking and learning is what school is about.

So… how do we change this?

I can list many, many things that need to happen to make our system better, but most of them are not in my control. I can’t get rid of standardized tests, as much as I want to. I can continue to ask boards of education to stop awarding based on grades but I can’t make that decision alone. I can ask universities to stop awarding scholarships based on a test score or GPA, but I can’t change their policies.

What I can do is shift the focus in my classroom. I attended #VirtualMath21 organized by Howie Hua and watched a session my Nolan Fossum (@NolanFossum). When I heard him speak about this same issue and his drive to change it I knew instantly, in the depths of my soul, this was the direction I needed to take also. Nolan uses a method he is developing called Pillars and Practices. The practices is part are the Standards for Mathematical Practice that I already use in my classroom. The Pillars part (see the image from Nolan below) is what I plan to add in my classroom. He was kind enough to Zoom with me and brainstorm ways to use this in my classroom.

copyright Nolan Fossum

This coming school year, I plan to implement Nolan’s Pillars along with self-reflection and conversation to assess students. There will be no points to chase but thinking and evidence of learning to show. I’m finishing up the book UnGrading by Susan D. Blum and also have Hacking Assessment by Star Sackstein to read. When I have a solid plan (right now I have small pieces of the puzzle put together), I will share how I implement it in hopes of helping others break the chains of the point-gobbling monsters.

I want a classroom, school, and nation of thinkers and problem solvers. I we don’t shift our focus, we, as an education system, will be harming our future. If we have a nation of people who can only follow a recipe, how will we ever have new and creative ideas to push us forward and make life better?

Stepping off my soap box and putting away the megaphone. Thanks for sticking with me!

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