SBG to Nowhere?

(Some readers may need to click through to view embedded videos.)

Warning: I make no attempt to present a coherent and tidy post. I’m just thinkin’ through some thoughts that I’ve been wrestling with over the last few days. And those thoughts got a big kick in the rear yesterday after our entire high school faculty watched Race to Nowhere. The movie hit home because the overwhelming majority of the students at my school are under the stress to perform and acheive academically just like the students profiled in the documentary.

I want to focus on learning rather than grades. SBG has taken me a long way toward this goal. But, having done some version of SBG for several years now, I am left wondering: Are students now just playing a new game? Instead of racking up points, aren’t they now racking up learning targets? Has my SBG system simply helped my students become better runners in the race to nowhere?

What is at the finish line that I want my students to reach? My course syllabus says:

This course utilizes guided inquiry and student-centered learning to foster the development of critical thinking skills. It aims to help you become: 

• A Collaborative Learner — You will complete cognitive and hands-on physics assignments in cooperative student groups. You will acknowledge and fulfill your responsibility to the group and actively contribute.

• A Self-Directed Learner — You will develop and demonstrate initiative and responsibility by always trying to complete tasks when faced with challenges. You will problem solve independently and create new solutions.

• An Effective Communicator — You will develop graphical, mathematical, verbal, and diagrammatical representations of the phenomenon being studied. You will present ideas to your peers and ask productive questions of your peers and of yourself, helping you to become a better thinker and problem solver.

• An Analytical Thinker — You will use observation, experience, reasoning, and communication in order to gather, interpret, and evaluate information and abstract concepts. You will utilize and apply these concepts in a variety of new and meaningful contexts.

This expectation doesn’t align very well with the “learn-quiz-reassess” version of SBG that I’ve been using. My students are racing to an empty finish line. This realization has me asking lots of questions about my assessment and instruction.

What does it mean to demonstrate mastery? Should I expect my students to become physics masters by the end of the year? Should they be able to solve problems and design experiments blindfolded while standing on one foot with the same ease and finesse as their teacher who has been doing this for 13 years? Hell, I needed to reference my own notes today about the second-order differential equation for the motion of a mass-spring system. Which leads to my next question:

Should students be allowed to use their notes on my assessments? I ask my students to do all their problem solving, lab analysis, and general notetaking in their physics journals. I make them use colored pens to color-coordinate their diagrams and graphs. They are curating the artifacts of their learning in these notebooks, but I ask them to put them away for quizzes and tests.  Am I worried that students could just transpose a homework problem onto a test problem? If that is possible, then I must be asking the wrong questions. Am I worried that allowing open notebooks would make the quiz meaningless? But aren’t most “real world” assessments “open notes?” Which leads to my next question:

Should students be allowed to work in small groups on assessments? I want my students to solve problems which force them to stretch their thinking. I want my assessment to be just as much a learning experience as any other group activity we do in class. Recent research shows that collaboration beats smarts in group problem solving. I want to give students the satisfaction of solving challenging problems, even if they can’t do it alone. And aren’t most “real world” assessments really group assessments? Which leads to my next question:

Should portfolios replace formal exams? Can a portfolio of work show evidence of learning just as well as a test? A portfolio would allow  students to display a wider array of skills (like those listed above on my syllabus) which go beyond mastery of content. Haven’t the physics students in the “Mythbusters” videos below demonstrated they’ve learned physics (and obviously much more) without taking a single exam?

I do not claim to have the answers to these questions. But, as a teacher who values learning and risk taking above all else, I must explore the possibilities. Today, I allowed my college-prep students to use their notebooks on their quiz. I am going to try to implement the “Mythbuster” model seen in the video with my conceptual physics students. I will allow for more group work to be used as evidence of learning.

I am not abandoning SBG. I need to take it to the next level. Learning goals are still needed so we have direction. But how we get there will be different.

13 responses to “SBG to Nowhere?

  1. This is awesome, and I find myself thinking about many of these same questions. I’ve been swamped with kids coming in to “demonstrate their understanding” because they want to improve a grade, but they really don’t understand. I’ve got 40 comments to write this weekend, so I can’t write too much now, but I think these are key questions to be asking. I think it is possible for SBG to be one part of a larger mastery based grading philosophy that really does pull the kids off the “race to nowhere.” I also think the UNgrading approach of Wisdom begins with Wonder is relevant here.

    Is there some way to help kids approach their learning in this more holistic way? Collecting lots and lots of evidence: try to make meaning of it, and, only at the last possible minute assign it a grade? This is sort-of what I was trying to get at when I was writing about the lack of wisdom in grading unfinished art.

    Great post. Will think about this more after I finish my comments, and assigning all those grades.

    • Looking forward to your thoughts, John, as always. I could see complete chaos at the end. I’ve been thinking some more this past weekend. Perhaps SBG is a compromise for the situation we are in. Whenever there is a grade, that will always part of a kid’s focus, some more than others. I found last year that SBG worked really well for the handful of kids who walked into class with a learning mindset in the first place.

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  3. I’m five weeks into my SBG adoption and I’m feeling exactly the same way; thank you so much for articulating it all so well. Shouldn’t “Communicate to me that you understand/can do …” be my assessment strategy if what I’m really concerned with is learning? Let the kids build a menu of communication skills and products; never work harder than your students, right? I’d love to be in on the process that you’re about to go through, for better or for worse.

    • I’m going to try the Mythbuster/portfolio method with my Conceptual class. I’ve added you to my Dropbox folders so you can see what we’re doing. For that class, I’d like to focus more on science process skills (experimental design, data collection and analysis, evidence-based reasoning, effective communication) with the content as a by-product of the process. I don’t know about having them come up with the standards themselves. I fear they might set the bar to low because they don’t really get what high quality _______ (fill in the blank) looks like. Maybe Tyler can fill us in….

  4. Since last year, I let my students use their notebooks on assessments. I also let them put whatever they want in their notebook. I figure if they don’t even understand what they’ve written/copied, it’s useless to them anyway. If they need a reminder, like we use notes for in the real world, then the notebook is a great resource on an assessment. If you’re an engineer, you might have textbooks/reference manuals laying around to help you on the job. However, if you dropped out of high school to sell hot dogs on the street, lied on your resume and somehow got a job as an engineer, those textbooks and reference manuals won’t do you much good.
    Last year I also let my students use the notebook, but not any worksheets/homework since I wanted them to think about if its worth copying into their notebook. A couple weeks ago I thought about it and decided if I let them use their worksheets/homework, it may motivate them to make sure they understand the homework or at least make sure the answers on them are correct. I don’t have any evidence of what effect that’s had. Overall I think the students who really get it won’t use the stuff, and the students who don’t get it won’t know how to use the stuff. I guess I’ll check next time to see who’s actually using their notes and worksheets during the assessment heh.

    • Mister,

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I know John Burk has been letting his 9th graders use their worksheets as well.

      I worry about cheating, but I guess I need to trust them more. Many teachers have policies that assume the worst from kids when it comes to cheating, deadlines, etc., and in the end, it hurts the honest kids. I’d rather help the good kids, even if it means some other kids take advantage of the system.

      Keep us updated!

  5. Frank,

    I think the biggest problem I had with SBG was that I was still giving kids grades (maybe even more frequently than before). Except, in SBG, they didn’t understand the grades they were getting or why they were getting them. I’d give them a 2.5 on an assessment and they had to ask me, “so what is that, like a B?” They always needed to translate my 4 point scale back into letter grades.

    I came to realize that grades, not matter what form they come in, are not feedback.

    • Tyler,

      I am giving more feedback in class and am grading less at home. I hope that the fewer assessments in class, when timed right, will lead to more success and less instances of reassessments.

      Perhaps John is on to something with not grading until the end, but lots of feedback along the way. I think the standards are helpful because it outlines what it is students need to know/do.

      I can see ditching the whole grading thing altogther and replace it with an apprentice/mentor model. But that could never work with a 100 student workload.

      I have been following your UNgrading posts with great interest, and would love to see myself there eventually.

  6. I think of quizzes as more of a self-eval thing. They’re good for quick and efficient ways to help a kid realize what they’re doing well on and what they need to work on.

    In SBG, the method of assessment is irrelevant (usually). You want to move away from quizzes? Go for it. Portfolios or lab practicums or whatever instead? Sure. But you need to make sure that the criteria for mastery is well communicated and you’ve agreed on a common definition. Otherwise, it’s back to norm-based junk.

    As an aside, I’m not a huge fan of portfolios for science. In theory it sounds good but I’ve yet to see it done well in a non-art class.

  7. Thanks for the comment. It has helped my “re-center” after the disequilibrium caused by the movie.

    I think portfolios could work well with SBG because the standards lay out exactly what is needed to know/do. The artifacts in the portfolio must be evidence to support that. Portfolios would be a disaster under a points system.

    The only problem with portfolios I see is that the do not address the “sustained/retained” aspect of most SBG systems. The kid has an artifact from October, but there is no way to see if said knowledge is still there in January, unless you add exams or require artifacts later in the year that build upon previously attained standards. That is why I think it works best for skills in art and writing, rather than knowledge things.

    The sad part is, in my Conceptual class, I don’t think long term retention of knowledge is a viable goal. That is why I am going to focus on science process and I think portfolios can work in that class.

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