3 Cans of Worms Standards-based Learning Opened Up in my Classroom

Can #3: One Size Fits All vs. Choice and Voice

After three years in our house, I finally tackled the “organic” trash pile in the back corner of our yard. Like an enormous living organism comprised of honeysuckle, wild grape vines, and goodness knows what else, it provided an ever-growing target for our watermelon rinds, corn cobs, fallen tree limbs, and autumn leaves. It also occasionally served as an emergency urinal for our younger boys.

The effort involved in dismantling this growing monstrosity was far more than I imagined, but after uprooting the hundreds of heirloom weeds bequeathed me by owners dating back to Adam’s fall, I discovered the fragrant, worm-rich soil. Having destroyed the huge overarching canopy that had spread above their heads for generations, the startled earthworms burrowed back beneath the decomposing leaves. Robin redbreasts gathered like vultures on telephone wires waiting to descend.

In this moment, you can literally smell the potential. The soil, shaded but not sapped by invasive plants, lies in wait. Will it fill up with more of the same, overtaken by the grape vines lurking just beyond the chain-linked fence? Will an unseen network of honeysuckle roots sprout leaves and spring forth? Neither the worms nor the soil seems to care. It’s up to me to make something of this little plot.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been exploring how standards-based learning and grading has opened up whole cans of worms in my classroom. I know from reading other people’s blog posts and books that this phenomenon is a universal one. My point is that we should welcome these developments and make the most of the opportunities they present. The revolutions of standards-based learning and grading are not the endpoint, but rather the fertile soil in which we can create a rich, sustainable ecosystem of teaching and learning.

In my first post, I explore how, by exposing outdated structures of seat time and coverage, SBL/SBG confronts us with the challenge of competency-based education. In my second post I show how, by eradicating penalties within the academic grade, it forces us to take seriously the power of positive behavior interventions and supports. In this last post, I hope to show how SBL/SBG, by placing the emphasis on standards, not assignments or curriculum, can open the door to greater choice and voice for students, allowing them to pursue their own pathways and passions.

Can #3: One Size Fits All vs. Choice and Voice

A couple years ago, an AP English student of mine turned in a “reduction” (my fancy word for an enormous, multifaceted book report) discussing the symbolism of sight and blindness in Sophocles’s Oedipus the King. Below is an excerpt of her writing:

Throughout the work, there seems to be a play on the idea of sight and blindness. Multiple words associated with sight and blindness are used from early in the play, beginning with Oedipus’s pledge to Creon to “start afresh and make dark things plain” (80).

Looks good, but I recognized the plagiarism immediately. These weren’t her words, they were mine. A couple years earlier, I had assigned the same reduction to her older brother — the only difference being that I had provided those earlier students with a couple “starter” sentences they could use in what would be their first attempt at this assignment. I chuckled to myself for having detected the violation.

With the advent of Google Classroom, I further extended my domination over student deceit. Now, a surprisingly nice turn of phrase from an otherwise clueless student could be checked instantly against multiple years of past students’ work. I felt like Jocasta Nu, Chief Librarian of the Jedi Archives, charged with the noble task of protecting the integrity of a vast and ancient culture. Empowered with my Google searching tools, I felt I had eradicated plagiarism from the galaxy forever.

Love is never having to explain your Star Wars references

Of course, this wasn’t true. Not a few unwitting students blundered into my web of detection and probably many more sneaked past through a creative use of synonyms and restructured sentences. Over time, the Mr. Burns-like pleasure I experienced from catching violations of academic integrity began to wane.

Other teachers, especially ones who assign common problem sets or worksheets as homework have an even greater problem. Who hasn’t seen students in the hallway copying answers off photographs on their phones?

Underlying all the problems of enforcement and the lectures on personal integrity is a question: why are students all doing the same work? Not only that, why are the tasks I am assigning simple enough to be replicated so easily? And why am I making my life an endless succession of the same?

The answer to these questions comes from a system that predates us by more than a century. This system, solidified during the Second Industrial Age, sought to prepare students to become cogs, workers along the vast assembly line of society. And the very techniques used on those assembly lines were applied to education itself, resulting in the current factory model.

Of course we now know that solely preparing students to perform a set of discrete skills — even forward-thinking ones such as coding — is to prepare them for almost immediate obsolescence. Additionally, by limiting students’ sense of autonomy and self-direction, we ensure that extrinsic motivation — carrots and sticks — will be a necessary and central component of education.

There is another problem with the one-size-fits-all approach. In my current subject area, English, choices about what content and tasks are privileged and prioritized have been determined by the dominant culture. Thus, as our school’s Black Student Union has pointed out, very few of our intrepid heroes are nonwhite. We have Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jim from Huckleberry Finn, and the hapless, nameless Arab who Meursault shoots halfway through The Stranger. Our book lists, like the weeds bequeathed to me by generations of former homeowners, reflect a dominant narrative of privilege, not easily uprooted. Seen from this perspective, one size fits all takes on an even more troubling dimension.

It’s official: the Industrial Age is over. Without neglecting the important problem solving and communication skills needed to succeed, how can we eradicate the entrenched roots of the one-size-fits-all approach? And once we have, how can we replace them with something that is richer, broader, and more hospitable to student needs and interests?

With this last can of worms, the answer will necessarily involve the students themselves.

Get rid of uniform homework assignments

Due to widespread copying, homework cannot be used to accurately assess student learning and should not be incorporated into the grade. On top of that, much research is now questioning the effectiveness and fairness of homework. All too often, complete homework is a reflection of a stable home life, a clean uncrowded work space, reliable Internet access, parents who succeeded in school, and other elements of privilege. Inasmuch as homework prepares students to practice the skills they will need on more summative assessments, it may make sense to still assign it.

Part of the one-size-fits-all approach, though, is the unnatural notion that students should all proceed at a uniform pace, completing the same number and type of assessments. Is this uniform approach uniformly appropriate for all students? Could a certain student succeed with less practice while another student need more? Could we use homework, not as an element of the grade, but as a basis for deciding whether a student is ready for a summative assessment? We need to work with students within their circumstances without enabling bad habits. And since we are unable to evaluate each person’s circumstances, we need to build in commonsense flexibility and supports for everyone.

Provide a variety of performance and content options

Forget for a moment about the dates of battles, the towering literary figures, the packages of frogs preserved in formaldehyde. Ask yourself, what are the generalized skills and concepts of your content area? Standards-based learning — since it doesn’t prescribe any specific assessments or content, just whatever it takes to demonstrate the learning — encourages us to take the emphasis off uniformity. Focusing on the core skills of your content area, is there more than one way of demonstrating them, more than one topic or setting in which they can be applied?

For instance, in English 12, we like students to familiarize themselves with the characteristics of various literary movements, such as Romanticism or Modernism. Originally, the only performance option was to write a brief paper analyzing one of several poems or stories, pointing out evidence of those characteristics. Now, I allow students to approximate those characteristics in their own creative writing, writing a brief fictional vignette or poem. I also allow students to perform the analysis on modern texts influenced by those literary movements, like music videos or video games. It all achieves the same standard of recognizing the literary movement’s characteristics.

This leads us to the sticky question of “the canon.” In literature, it’s the writers’ “Hall of Fame,” populated primarily by people who look like me, white and male. Bonus for being dead! Every subject area has some version of it and a lot of systemic elements keep it firmly in place. We need to actively reconsider the treasured texts, concepts, and even skills enshrined in our current system, but this time in a way that empowers student choice and voice, not as an opportunity to promulgate a new dogmatism. As we uproot or at least destabilize entrenched “anchor texts,” we can use our subject-area expertise to guide students toward more relevant, inspiring options.

For my part, I have written a grant request that will provide alternatives to the time-honored mainstream texts. To make this possible, I am taking the emphasis off the particular content — being the undisputed expert on the one book — and instead hosting conversations around a particular genre, central question, or theme. More skill-based classes might consider the amount of material covered. Could scaling back the amount of skills, content, or concepts — in other words, determining the “power standards” of a course — allow time for students to demonstrate and deepen their understanding of concepts through self-chosen projects?

Institute Genius Hour

According to expert A.J. Juliani, Genius Hour “gives learners time in class to create their own learning path.” In the context of an employee’s or student’s 5-day week, this is sometimes called 20% Time. It means I’m going to take one of our 5 weekdays and give it back to students this fall, starting with my English 12 class.

I’m not an expert, but having learned a lot from the likes of A.J., John Spencer, Don Wettrick, Angela Meiers, and Joy Kirr, I’m convinced this is a big part of the answer. As a Language Arts teacher, I want to harness some of this intrinsic motivation for my own purposes, having students learn about and demonstrate reading, research, writing, presentation, and online publication skills. But even in that, students will have choices: my standards-based grade book isn’t pre-populated with assignments to complete. Each student will expand their skills and abilities while pursuing projects that inspire them and the community at large.

So much of what’s rooted in schools has sapped the soil of student motivation. Standards-based learning and grading clears the ground for something different. Are sensible hostas, unassuming ivy, and carpet-like grass the best and only way to landscape a yard? Who cares if someone wants to plant pumpkins instead?

Worms don’t.

On Friday, August 26, I am leading a session at Michigan State University’s School of Education on the 3 cans. Contact me to bring them to your school.

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