You failed me.

A 35 year veteran physics teacher in Edmonton, AB has been suspended for recording zeros when work has not been handed in. His school’s policy does not allow for zeros because it is operating under the premise that students will show their learning in a variety of ways, and that if they are able to demonstrate their learning eventually during the year through some other means, they should be given credit. Under such a policy, whether a student hands things in on time or not is irrelevant. The only thing that is relevant is whether the student has mastered the concept by the end of the course. So in evaluating a student the question is no longer, “Did she do the work?”, but it’s “CAN she do the work?” Teachers are expected to use a variety of teaching and assessment tools to answer this question.

At the same time, teachers are under a lot of pressure to “engage” students. We are operating under the assumption that a big part of the reason that students are not completing assignments is because the  assignments are  not engaging. They’re not relevant in the students’ world. If teachers can “hook” students by creating “meaningful” activities that pique their interest, students will actively learn on their own. The teacher is now no longer trying to push concepts at the student, but the student is actively pursuing the concepts in her desire to accomplish a meaningful task.

So for example, if a student were engaged in designing a better bicycle, she would be more amenable to learning the concepts of force and motion. All of the physics equations involved in force and motion would be more interesting because they would have a real world relevance. Furthermore, in this scenario, the teacher (presumably) would have all kinds of means available to evaluate the student, as the student could make proposals, make hypotheses and test them, investigate historic precedents and theories of friction, motion, gear ratios – even as these relate to the human body. Any medium for demonstrating understanding counts as credit.

The theory is sound enough, but it is extremely hard to implement. In such a scenario, the teacher can look at the work of the student and describe her progress. He may even have a good idea about how well the student knows the concepts. But record keeping in such a scenario is a nightmare.

Can you imagine having individualize learning this way with a large class? The teacher would have to provide individualized scenarios for each student for each set of concepts.

And many concepts are very difficult to tie to practical models. When we learn about sub-atomic particles, the learning activities become harder to imagine.

One suggestion in these types of models is to put students into interest groups. But then it is almost impossible to evaluate the individual contributions of each student.

From time to time the media reports stories of kids who have accomplished amazing things in such learning scenarios. Quite often there is a beaming teacher standing behind them.

But in such scenarios, I often wonder what the other students in the class have done. And I wonder how the teacher has evaluated these students. Was it on the merits of the work done in the project, or was it on other more traditional evaluation tools, like tests, quizzes and assignments?

And I also wonder how many kids are in the class. This type of instruction becomes impossible when efficiency models come into play. The teacher who is monitoring this activity also has to teach six other classes. I don’t know if the school could hold that many bicycles. And after 25 years of teaching (and many workshops on the topic) I still don’t know how to convert learning scenarios like this into meaningful percentage-based letter grades.

Another problem inherent in this type of scenario is the fact that being able to build a bicycle does not guarantee a comprehensive understanding of the physics of bicycles. The goal of academic courses is not only to instil the ability to build a better bicycle, but also to instil an ability to articulate the physical principles at play, principles that can be generalized to other situations. These principles are expressed through complex mathematical equations. To understand intuitively is not enough. Academic understanding  assumes an understanding at a more general, theoretical level and the ability to articulate that understanding.

The assumption that teaching and learning can happen this way in schools is the driving force behind what the teacher in Edmonton is facing. On the one hand, he is expected to engage adolescents and individualize instruction. On the other hand he is expected to instil academic concepts that are very theoretical, and that to many students are less than engaging.

Furthermore there is an unstated assumption that a student’s failure reflects the failure of the teacher to engage the student properly. I have been to workshop after workshop on engaging adolescents. The very fact that these workshops exist suggest that it is a requirement of teacher to engage adolescents, and not just to teach.

In the 1950s Julian Rotter coined the term “locus of control” to describe individuals’ perception of what forces direct their lives. People with an internal locus of control sense that they are in control of their own fate, and therefore actively pursue goals, and tend to internalize failure. These people tend to be more successful in school and in career mobility because they “know” they can accomplish their goals, so they are more likely to try. On the other hand people with an external locus of control believe that they are in the hands of fate, so they are less likely to challenge the “system” over which they have no control. These people are less likely to do well in school, because they don’t see the point of trying. They’re going to get screwed by the system no matter what. Of course this is an overly simplistic model. People perceive their efficacy differently from situation to situation, but overall, Rotter’s idea has merit.

For some reason, education has moved from a knowledge-centred approach to a student-centered approach. What this has done, besides imposing on teachers the impossible mandate of individualizing instruction, is to create a scenario in which a student can blame the system for her failure. This plays right into maladaptive attitudes of students who have an external locus of control. Teachers must now accept the students’ failure to meet expectations as being our failure to engage them. Somehow, we, “the system”, have failed them. In many cases, the teacher is working harder to get an individual students’ assignment done than the student is. Multiply this by at least five students per class, and you’ve got a system in crisis. The crisis is reflected in the language. “I failed English” has been replaced by “The teacher failed me in English”.

For students who have an internal locus of control, the old school system works beautifully. If they know they will receive a zero for work not completed by deadline, they will complete assignments on time or willingly accept the consequences for not doing so. They will take responsibility for learning what they are expected to learn, and they will trust the teacher’s motives and competence. But for students who have an external locus of control, the system just won’t work. It never has worked. When dropping out was allowed, these were the kids who dropped out at 16. The student with the external l.o.c. will never meet expectations on her own. Instead, the teachers (under the auspice of “adapting” the curriculum) will push her through. She will never internalize the concepts that she is presented with, and when faced by a teacher brave enough to stand by his principles and give the kid a zero for work not done, the student will make a racket when she winds up with 45% in a course that she has not engaged in at all throughout the whole year, crying about how she has already bought her $1000 grad dress and now the teacher is failing her. The teacher will get dressed down by an enabling parent in front of the principal, who doesn’t want to open this theoretical can of worms, and therefore passes the problem onto the counsellors. Pressure is applied, and a last minute bargain is struck in which, somehow evidence is found suggesting that the child deserves 50%, (I’ve never understood why someone who has met only half the expectations can pass a course, but I digress.). The student’s world view is confirmed, and the teacher’s ethical stand is undermined. It must be June.


8 thoughts on “You failed me.

  1. Less tired now.
    I always try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they care as much about the growth and education of students as I do even if I do not agree with their practice or opinions. I hope everyone invested in any educational debate really cares about education and not training or indoctrination or falsely padding egos, but I know that’s naïve. But if (let’s just say) we all do fundamentally want the same end for our students in education and growth, then clearly our debates (whatever they may be regarding) are really about the purpose of school as a social contract, the definition of education, and the role of educators in relation to the role of parents, students, and society at large. In the attempt to obviate any undue assumptions, I’ll say that in these debates I often favour the philosophies of Postman and Nietzsche. These are incredibly worthwhile debates that clearly have spools of emotion tied up in them. For any of us to be effective in these debates, we need to respect diverse positions, avoid assumptions and finger-pointing, and think more than we feel (which is not to say feeling is bad, obviously).
    One of miner49er’s questions: are our needs as a society radically different now from what they were half a century ago? I’ve heard people try to make that case elsewhere, and I’m not convinced. For society’s needs to have changed, the purpose of society would have to change; and I hope that our purpose has always been to provide the highest quality of life to all while maintaining a noble global position. Obviously, there is bound to be disagreement in how we attain these goals. In my last post I tried to explain (though perhaps not very explicitly) that I don’t think the reasons a person doesn’t meet learning outcomes matter. Of course they matter to me as a human, hence empathy and support, but they don’t matter educationally. If, as a society, we agree that at such-and-such an age one should be able to do x, then (even or especially if one does not do x) one needs to show they can do x before they move on to y (especially when y assumes an understanding of x). This is comparable to a child needing to know how to chew before eating solids or an English teacher needing to know how to use a comma before assessing others’ uses of commas. Learning is a series of “hoop-jumping”, which is only a derogatory term if you feel the organized progression of certain concepts leading towards a set outcome is a bad way to do things. My children may see little reason in my insistence they sit on the “potty” for a set period of time each day, but they don’t have to understand it. They just need to trust that I understand the big picture of their needs better than they might. If I can’t say that I do, then I should not parent them—nor should I attempt to educate others in my area of “expertise”. I suppose that’s self-righteous, but everyone who has posted here—with the possible exception of miner49er who has admirably acknowledged his potential fallibility—assumes they are in the right: so we are all self-righteous.
    I will agree that much of what we do in school is for convenience’s sake: such is the reality associated with any system that attempts to address the needs of the many. The trick is to balance convenience with pedagogy; if the former out-weighs the latter, there is a problem (with the educator? the system? both? neither? Worthy questions). Thank-you, miner49er, for initiating a valuable debate.

  2. It’s late, and I’m tired; my thoughts will not be brilliant, but I love the philosophy. Here goes: I cannot assess what is not submitted, and I do not believe that any student who has passed the grade level before my particular class cannot do the work I assign. If they cannot/do not, then I see two possible reasons: they were either not ready for this level and should not have passed the last grade or they are not trying hard enough (and, unfortunately, for some kids that means trying ridiculously hard). If I make myself fully available to help my students, if I accept work from September in May (sometimes June!), if I never take late marks, if I provide choice and various ways to access learning and resources, if I work to engage my students harder than I think I should have to, then the kids can do it. Sometimes a kid’s life implodes and the year is a write-off for legitimate reasons. I sympathize and support because I care for my students, but that kid will probably need to re-do the year. That’s not a punishment; that’s a gift. The same applies to many hard-line approaches, like giving zeros. I care so much about my kids’ futures and educational growth that I’ll be the temporary bad-guy and tell them this is unacceptable if it is. I refuse to condemn them to ignorance and a belief that they were incapable by saying, “I know you can’t do this. Let’s find a way for you to pretend like you learned something here.” As far as I’m concerned, it may not be the kid’s fault, but the kid is responsible (a statement I’ll be happy to apply to humans of all ages). If I avoid doing things sometimes because I’m lazy (which I can be), the same is true for students—not always, but sometimes, probably more and more frequently. If we want anyone to truly grow and learn, then we need to convince them that they can and accept nothing less than what is expected. Anything else is insulting and does a disservice to our most precious resource (excuse me, I’m choking on the honesty of the cliché).

    Did that make sense?

    1. Yes, you make sense in the paradigm we have- however, you don’t acknowledge how outdated our paradigm is.You are ignoring other reasons a kid may not do the work. He just doesn’t like your class, is not interested (at all) in what you are selling, does not see any value in what you are offering, and doesn’t understand why he should “jump through your hoops.” Why is that so hard for adults to understand? Why are we so self righteous to think that kids should just shut up and swallow what we force on them (because we care about their futures-gag- cop out-self righteous)? What if I told you that as a teacher you had to take 140 hours worth of actuary class or Shakespearean prose, or (something you would hate). Would you dive into into it thirsty for knowledge? What if you felt that the 140 hours kept you away from what you really wanted to do? Something that you truly believed was your future? So many reasons for kids failing- and adults want to make them all the kids fault. Outdated system. Unnatural learning environments. Forced education. Stupid testing. Compliance based grading.

  3. I’ve written hundreds of essays over the years. Maybe I should have been trotting out my repertoire to show that I’ve “mastered the concept”. Learning outcome done. Move on. I can hit a three-pointer on occasion, too. Why do more? Check, move on. I’m all for flexibility, but if we are so bent on motivating our classes, allowing students to demonstrate learning any way that suits them and permitting them to skip assignments because they have “mastered” that learning outcome earlier, then we are failing our kids. Not allowing teachers to give zeros for work not handed tells the student that the best way to get something accomplished is to look for ways to avoid the work. Not the kind of message I would want my child to get from her education.

  4. Ramona,

    You’re dead right that in an inclusive setting there must be a way to look after the kids who for whatever reason just can’t do the work. We always look out for the stray, and we can never lock ourselves into one-size-fits all thinking. Points very well made.

    Some serious questions:

    Should we exclude kids from courses that are too hard for them?

    What is appropriate pacing for a course?

    Should we offer courses to anyone if they are too advanced for some kids?

    Are we teachers responsible for engaging kids?

    Are teachers responsible for teaching the same curriculum to everyone?

    Are teachers accountable for how much students learn? or just for the opportunities we have provided?

    Do kids take advantage of us if we are loose with deadlines?

    If we insist on a deadline for one kid, is it ethical for us to enforce it for another?

    How can we be sure that the kid who is by all indications, perfectly capable of getting things done on time, is not struggling with huge personal issues that render him/her just as incapable as a kid with coding?

    Is it possible to be too easy going so as to send a maladaptive message?

    Should we keep kids in an academic setting if they are not ready for academic learning?

    What is a school for?

    What is a teacher?

    How are we different now from half a century ago?

    If we are different, why are we different?

    What are the implications of how we bring up our children on our future as a society?

    Are we doing our children justice?

  5. All right, Ima be on everyone’s shit list for this but here goes:

    Zero should never be an option.

    There are always ways to assess and get kids to produce examples of their knowledge in some way. Deadlines are killers for kids whose lives are not within their own control – even as teenagers. The kids I work with are hostages to the lives of the adults who run them. It is not their fault if their lives are chaos because they have grown up in chaos, starvation, and poverty. Giving a zero to a kid like this because they can’t get to school or succeed in the rigid, antiquated system that didn’t care about them in the first place is criminal.

    My whole career, has been fight after fight with teachers about deadlines and assessment and, “if s/he can prove to you they know and understand the concepts behind the material, why do they always have to write it on paper?” Deadlines are for us, not the kids. What does it honestly hurt if one or two kids (which it ends up being…not 20 or 30. Even if it’s one or 2 per class, that is still only 14 kids) hands in stuff past the due date? The kid still did the work.

    I find that the biggest discouragement to kids who struggle is: “Why should I hand in the work when they are going to take late marks off anyway?” For kids with learning disabilities (I have one…my youngest) reading and writing takes him 2 to 3 times longer than his peers who do not live with dyslexia and dysgraphia. I am here to tell you that if, he ever gets late marks taken off because he is past due date on an assignment for the reason that it took him twice as long to do the work, I will sue the school board. Period. Especially because extended due dates will be in his IEP.

    It is our moral responsibility to educate all students. Some don’t learn in the same rote, head down and obey fashion that most students do. These kids deserve a chance at success just as much as the “good” kids do (whatever that means).

    I have found that kids are not “lazy” they either don’t get it or they don’t want to attempt an assignment because they are afraid of failure…again.

    We talk about due dates and assignment completion as a meter for measuring their ability to survive in a job…I thought we were against training workers and “making widgets.” Kids are not mini-workers. They are human beings; many of whom have been shoved aside by their mothers and fathers, their schools, their communities, or all three. Sometimes we are the last hope for kids who have been utterly abandoned by everyone. I choose to be the one who stands with them and for them. I choose to help them find ways to show them that they have all the power in them to be successful. As a result of this and more, I choose to be alone as a teacher many times because very few of us make these choices.

    I know my stand is not popular. I know that lots of teachers look at me and think I sacrifice rigour in my delivery of curriculum. I know that many teachers have even said that I am not a “real” teacher. I have 2 words for all of that: Fuck them.

    As a teacher I have decided that kids are more important that the opinion my colleagues have of me, more important than curriculum, and more important than the Ministry. My kids lives will not be destroyed because they didn’t really understand balancing chemical equations or the difference between a simile and a metaphor but their lives will certainly be destroyed if they feel one more person turning their backs on them because they didn’t hand in a piece of paper or take another test.

    Zero, to me, means “I didn’t care enough about you and your life circumstances to find a way to help you get through.” Zero, to me, is a cop out, the easy way out. Zero, to me, means I don’t see the human, I only see the work. I, personally can’t do that.

    I could rant forever, to which point Jim could whole-heartedly attest. I am just riled about teachers getting in a snit because some forward thinking person in upper management forced teachers to look at other options beyond zero.

    …and I know this is TLDR but …whatever. I feel better. lol

  6. Your complaints are stregthening my argument that most things we do in education are for adult convenience. How will the adults grade the students? Why wlll this be the adults fault? How is an adult supposed to teach all these kids this way? “They will take responsibility to learn.”
    The truth of the matter is : it is much easier for an adult to grade completion. Did he do it? yes he did or no he didn’t. Now we get into did he do it correctly- if he did not then should he get a final grade on the due date? Whos job is it to teach? Is the student mandated to learn? What is learning?
    Unfortunatley, with the advent of the internet, the teacher is no longer the content expert- the computer is. So the teacher has to facilitate the use of the knowledge. The teacher has to do what the computer can’t..which is to get the kids engaged, thinking, and activated. It is hard. If it wasn’t, the computer could do that too.
    Also, the system needs to change, because it does put teachers in an unfair position.

  7. As a followup comment, I should say that I’m trying to speak in generalities, and I’m not trying to indict anyone. Teachers, counsellors and administrators are doing what they need to do given their mandates. The frustration they experience in their respective jobs just affirms the need for discussion about a more cohesive vision. I believe that discussion of good pedagogy first requires discussion of philosophy. I am tired of feeling like a fraud in education. I’m ready to “come out of the closet” so to speak with my ideas. Rather than take offence, please enter the discussion.

    I am comfortable in the following preconditions for discussion.

    1. That I myself can be wrong.
    2. That someone who does things differently can be right.
    3. That a climate of surveillance and finger-pointing will only suppress real discussion.

Note: Comments must focus on issues. Any comments containing derisive tone or insulting language will be deleted. You may disagree vociferously, but you must be respectful. For example, no sarcasm is allowed.

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