Saturday, May 21, 2011

Opposing Pedagogies

Here is a post by an anonymous Alberta teacher who is frustrated by how different her teaching philosophy is compared to the teachers in other grade levels.

by Anonymous

I am a Grade 8 middle school teacher in a K-12 school. My biggest challenge is that I have a distinctly different pedagogy from my high school counterparts.

For years I’ve been struggling with the notion of grading. It seems to only serve two purposes to me: reward/punishment, and ranking/sorting. Over time I’ve made baby steps towards change within my school. The first was to eliminate final exams in middle school (though not Grade 6 PAT’s of course). The second was to eliminate our percentage based grading system and follow a different model. I understood that elimination of all grading wasn’t going to be possible but I saw this as a step forward.

Now I’m moving forward with the final stage of implementing my true pedagogy, elimination of testing and formalized grading (with the understanding I still need to do report cards).

My beliefs:

  • I can assess without “grading”
  • Students should be able to argue for the mark they think they’ve earned
  • It is possible to show learning in a variety of ways, not just with tests
  • That if we are preparing students for tests, we are not preparing them for life
  • Student engagement increases exponentially when you present them with projects that ask question they feel are worth answering
  • Critical thinking challenges students far more than a multiple choice question
  • I am paid to teach students to think, not to “cover” curriculum. I teach thinking through curriculum.

What I have been told by high school teachers:

  • My students are not prepared for the realities of high school
  • That it’s my fault when they get an actual grade and are devastated because that’s not what they thought they would get
  • That they have no understanding that a 45% is a bad thing
  • They are stressed when it comes to tests because they didn’t write any major exams in Grade 8
  • They have unrealistic expectations about how they will do academically because high school is about tests and exams – not about projects.

I find it depressing that another high school teacher has told me that in the end, it doesn’t really matter what I teach them. I have to make sure they can sit still, take notes, be quiet, not interrupt with questions and just learn what “is going to be on the diploma.”

I’m on the front lines. One administrator supports me, one doesn’t. One high school teacher is interested in my thoughts but shrugs and says he can never do it because he has to make sure his students do well on diploma exams. He stands with the rest of the high school when he says it’s our duty to make sure these kids are ready for high school diploma exams since that is what “sets them up in life”.

I’ve been told that if I don’t give final exams they will not be prepared for the pressures of Grade 9 PAT’s and therefore will suffer in their marks. If I don’t give grades I’m doing my students an injustice because they will be shocked when they get to high school about where they truly stand. They will experience frustration, disappointment, and may be more likely to drop out (seriously, someone really told me that). Parents will be furious because they will find out for the first time their children are not actually the “good” students they thought they were in middle school.

I, however, am prepared to fight the battle. Twitter has connected me with other like- minded teachers, such as Joe Bower, and other professional education authors such as Alfie Kohn and Diane Ravitch. I may be an island within my school, but I am not alone in the profession.

Someone on twitter once told me that I am successful in life now because I knew how to take exams in high school and university. Well, if my Math Diploma mark, or the D+ I got on my first year philosophy course, or the C- I got in my introductory chemisty course are examples of the grades I had, then they had little to do with the success I am experiencing now.

What I struggle with now is how to fight within a system that has teachers and parents so entrenched in the idea that the grade on the report card determines everything. I got a 56% on my Math 30 diploma exam despite the fact that I had an 89% walking into that exam.

A grade does not determine who you are or what you are capable of.

Nor should it.


  1. Dear Anonymous,

    I'm also a teacher in a K-12 school, teaching L.A. 7 to English 30-1. I completely agree with everything you talked about in your beliefs. Since I've seen both sides of the coin, I'd like to take the opportunity to interpret what your high school teachers have said to you.

    "My students are not prepared for the realities of high school"

    I'm pretty sure that what they mean by this is that they're not prepared for *their* classes in which tests and in-class essays constitute the bulk of the grade. I know quite a few English teachers that essentially give students practice diploma exams as the bulk of their in-class mark. Where's the viewing and representing? Speaking and listening?

    "That it’s my fault when they get an actual grade and are devastated because that’s not what they thought they would get"

    What they're saying is that they don't like to deal with students when they're upset about their mark. Who doesn't? Behind this statement lies the underlying belief that junior high teachers are only there to prepare students for high school -- by the time students reach grade 10, they should be 100% invested in the grading system and shouldn't complain about getting bad grades, but should be working harder to get better grades. The statement also says, "I'm the senior high English teacher and I know what I'm doing. How dare these students question my authority when they say that their grade isn't accurate!"

    "That they have no understanding that a 45% is a bad thing"

    I don't know what to say about this. 45% at the beginning of the year doesn't mean a lot, especially for students transitioning from jr high to sr high. 45% in June is a problem.

    "They are stressed when it comes to tests because they didn’t write any major exams in Grade 8"

    I love this one, because my own admin (to a lesser degree) look askance at me when I say that I don't give final exams, even to 10-1 or 20-1 students. I was marking diploma exams a few years back. At the Alberta Ed building I was on the elevator with a teacher who was marking the 30-2 exam. She asked me how the marking was going, to which I replied that I was seeing a lot of mediocre papers. She looked at me sideways and said, "What do you expect in three hours?"

    The best writers and authors don't madly dash down words and throw them at an editor; they take their time and write over the course of weeks, months, years. Teaching students that good work can be turned in over three hours is, in my opinion, doing more to harm students in our English classes than anything else.
    "They have unrealistic expectations about how they will do academically because high school is about tests and exams – not about projects."

    To me, what this really means is that you, as a jr high teacher, should do your best to crush those "underperformers" before they get into senior high so that they'll learn their place. As a high school English teacher, I give exactly two exams over the course of English 10-30: the Diploma part A and the Diploma part B. I spend perhaps three or four hours over the course of those three years talking about these tests. The rest of the time, we're engaged in *real* writing. My English 10-1 students are writing a novel as a class right now. My grade 8 and 9 students have collaborately created a single character and are each writing a short story about that character - the amount of learning and discussion that took place in order to create those characters was astounding! My English 30-1 students took two weeks to create stories and tell them to elementary kids in our building. And none of the above has been remotely related to tests or exams.

    Have faith, Anonymous -- the attitudes you see in your high school English teachers are from a different, obsolete era. I sincerely doubt we'll see English teachers in Alberta who are obsessed with tests or exams in a decade.

  2. Great post! You are a beacon that will save many-a-soul who would otherwise flounder and wreck.

    I've bounced back and forth between the elementary and secondary schools in recent years and I have often heard high school teachers complain that elementary teachers are not preparing the students they're sending for high school. I truly believe it's not the students that are not prepared but those teachers that are not prepared for the kind of students that are being sent.

    You've got it figured out, hopefully they will too (and sooner rather than later).

  3. Dear lover of learning,
    I do hope you will have support. I believe in this cause with all my hart. Grading is not about learning. It does not make sense.Exams are counter-productive and can cause long term harm to unsuspecting children.

    « Nous acquérons par l'éducation, des connaissances éphémères et des répugnances tenaces » (Jean Rostand)


Follow by Email