Thursday, April 16, 2015

The value of marks

I am struggling right now with finding the right amount of stress to place on the value of marks at school.  Innately I don't really care much at all about what marks Elli gets.  I care that she learns, but if she picks up all the concepts and is happy and developing and gets all Ds that just doesn't bother me.  If the reason she is getting Ds is a problem itself I would be concerned, but if it is just that the teacher decides to do that for no reason I wouldn't much care.  I care about Elli, not the letters someone attaches to her on a document.

But marks usually do reflect something.  They aren't so great at predicting anything but generally it is true that people with higher marks have greater understanding of the subject matter.  The trouble is that Elli is one of those kids that has a much greater grasp of what she is being taught than her marks reflect.  Her teacher recognizes this and is up front about it - she learns well, but doesn't produce work that he can give her credit for.  He knows she gets it, but if she hands in blank sheets he has to give her low marks.  If school report cards were divided into "Understanding" and "Does work" she would get a B and a D respectively and it is hard to resolve those when the categories are not organized like that.

I get it.  I had trouble in high school in particular with being able to easily grasp all the concepts and do all the work but I just didn't care to push hard.  I wasn't interested in getting 99s, though I could have if I had really wanted to.  I could have put in four hours a night on homework and studied like crazy but there was nothing in me that wanted to do that so I cruised through.  Elli's struggles are familiar to me, which makes me very aware that we can't just find some magical technique that will fix it.  My parents never figured out how to get me to work and I don't think there was anything they could possibly have done to achieve that.  I think my situation as a parent is very much the same.

I want Elli to have opportunities and many of those opportunities are gated by marks.  Learning to produce material even when you aren't interested is a good thing to do.  The world is full of work people hate but which has to get done.  For these reasons I want her to get good marks, to help her get used to doing things that aren't fun themselves, and so that she will have more choices later in life.

But it is tough to get myself worked up over those grades on the report card when I just don't care.  It is sort of like Wendy's PhD - I supported her through doing it but I just never came around to caring about it myself.  I care that both of them are happy, that they can pursue their goals, but whether or not they have letters after their name or a report card full of As, Bs, Cs, or Ds, just doesn't matter to me.

1 comment:

  1. Good perspective. You've hit it right on from where I stand (for those not in the know, I'm a high school educator and an education nerd). Marks are not important.. learning is important. Marks are a crude tool that gives an impression of the overall weight of evidence that a teacher has been able to gather. It should be noted, however, that a teacher can, and is encouraged to, gather evidence in lots of different ways. If you have a conversation with a student where they demonstrate a clear understanding of a topic that can count as evidence. It doesn't have to be written work. This is quite different from when most readers of this blog likely went to school and is, really, not practiced by every teacher although it should be. We are encouraged to have very differentiated assessment tools and find ways of assessing that fit best with our students.

    An example from my science classes: last semester I taught grade 11 physics a unit on waves and vibrations. In groups students created boards demonstrating concepts and then the bulk of their mark for the unit came from interviews with me where we talked about their boards and I got them to explain their understanding verbally (it should be noted that although they made the boards together I assessed them individually and wasn't assessing the boards. The boards were simply a tool to make their explanations easier).

    On report cards it's best to value the comments and not spend too much worry on the single number that a mark represents. At Elli's age, jumping through hoops should only be undertaken literally I think. You may want to ramp this up as Elli gets into highschool as doing well in the top 6 grade 12 classes can be important if she chooses to do post-secondary studies.

    I'm hopeful that soon we will get to a place where all we send home is good descriptive feedback and no number or letter grades at all. I feel that they force us to focus on too general a picture and train students to focus on a number instead of on the specifics of their learning. Of course, some will decry "But what about the Universities!? How will they know what students to let in if we don't force all of their learning into a single, poorly reflective number!?" My answers: 1) Why should the public school system warp everything that it does (to the detriment of best learning practices) to provide some level of convenience for post secondary institutions? 2) I think that senior HS students should have to created a portfolio of amazing, big-picture work that they have done and interview using that to get in to post secondary ... ("but the university!!!! that's not convenient for them!!!!!!......"). That's for being so thoughtful about your daughter's education.

    P.S. My new #1 piece of advice to parents - Don't text or call your kid during class time;)