Make Them an Offer They Can’t Refuse

How to get kids to do stuff without carrots and sticks

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse. Okay? I want you to leave it all to me.”

In the movie The Godfather, singer Johnny Fontane comes to his godfather, Vito Corleone, for help getting a role in an upcoming film. Fontane laments:

I don’t know what to do, Godfather. My voice is weak, it’s weak. Anyway, if I had this part in the picture, it puts me right back on top, you know. But this… this man out there. He won’t give it to me, the head of the studio.

Since giving up the usual compliance-inducing measures in my classroom — late penalties, zeroes, and no redos/retakes — I’ve sometimes felt a little like Fontane. I need help getting students to get stuff done. Regardless of how pedagogically unsound the usual methods may be, we have trained students to respond to extrinsic motivators. Now, without those motivators, I no longer have anything to hold over a kid’s head. And I don’t have a godfather willing to put a horse’s head in someone’s bed!

But there are so many reasons why I continue to be committed to this style of instruction and assessment, known as standards-based learning and grading. One of the non-negotiables of this approach is that behaviors and work habits are never incorporated into the academic grade.

I love SBL/SBG more and more each year, especially as new ideas — universal design, passion-driven and project-based learning, choice and voice—seem to flourish within its more accommodating framework. But that’s not to say it hasn’t caused problems. As with most innovations, these problems certainly provide naysayers with plenty of ammunition!

How do I support students’ punctuality when I no longer rely on penalties within the subject-area grade?

The main problem I’ve run into with SBL/SBG is getting students to turn work in on time. It makes sense that they wouldn’t: in a school where many teachers assign late penalties and prohibit redos and retakes, why would they prioritize my class, which does neither of these things? And with all the reports we’re hearing about stressed-out students, I can see wanting to get a good night’s sleep and waiting until the weekend to put the finishing touches on a paper for my class.

So to some extent I’m okay with all that.

But there are times when this can get out of control, when too many students are taking advantage of the policy (and of me). And then it can begin to snowball on students as they get further and further behind. How do I support students’ punctuality when I no longer rely on penalties within the subject-area grade?

I’m going to limit my answer to my own experiences in a school where I am the only practitioner of standards-based grading. In a later post, I may talk about what’s possible when a whole school gets on board with the core principles of SBL/SBG and can leverage school-wide policies for the common good. But if you’re like me and have little support, perhaps we have a responsibility to show how well this approach can work such that others will want to try it. In order to do that, we need to highlight the strengths and mitigate the challenges.

Here are some of the the ways I’ve tried to minimize procrastination in a class doesn’t assign late penalties and allows redos/retakes:

  1. Create a context of personal integrity
  2. Make it meaningful
  3. Communicate behavior outside the academic grade
  4. Hold the line

1. Create a context of personal integrity

This is the least prescriptive but possibly most powerful piece of advice I can give. This concept actually resonates with a lot of students: Your word is all you have. When everything is said and done, no one was forcing you to do anything. Although I can’t necessarily elaborate on all the deep existential reasons for this, it’s important to make individual integrity the foundation of any collective endeavor, education included. This year, I’m going to be using Alex Sheen’s excellent “Because I Said I Would” TED Talk as a way to initiate this conversation.

Once that inspirational context is established, students are usually willing to make some kind of pledge. That pledge can be made through an email, a Google F0rm, even just by signing the syllabus, but it’s important to have some moment of commitment as well as meaningful opportunities to recommit when students fall short.

Now, I personally build in some room for the myriad of situations that can arise in your busy student life. In those cases, I ask you for some form of communication, a request for an extension. Beyond that, I interact with you according to what you’ve pledged to do. To do anything less is going to diminish the power of your word.

The power of this approach is that it substitutes a commitment to personal responsibility, an intrinsic motivator, for an externally imposed late penalty, an extrinsic motivator. My role then is not to punish, but to support you in accessing that personal integrity, which, as many motivational speakers have pointed out, can be built like muscle.

2. Make it meaningful

This is one of those unrelated cans of worms that standards-based learning opened up for me: I need things to be intrinsically meaningful to students because I’ve deprived myself of so many of the traditional extrinsic motivators!

Now, I’m not saying to just be the guide on the side. I’m not saying that this whole educational enterprise can be driven solely by student passion projects. I’m also not saying that I’ve accomplished this goal of creating a totally engaging environment. I’m just saying that not being able to dole out rewards and punishments in the form of points has continually sent me back to the drawing board, where I evaluate my curriculum and consider ways to make it less onerous for students. Choice and voice ends up being one of the more common revisions, where students can show their learning in ways that are meaningful and relevant to them. As my comfort level with passion-driven learning grows, I can only predict that I will move even further in this direction.

3. Communicate behavior outside the academic grade

Personal integrity doesn’t always carry the day. So, when a student fails to turn something in, how can I communicate that without muddying the academic grade?

Grades have seemingly always been used to communicate problems regarding student behavior. Accrue a few late penalties and you’ll see how it effects you. Message: Don’t turn things in late.

There are a lot of problems with this approach, too many to discuss in this post. But it’s pretty clear that the academic grade is a poor communication device on a few levels. I want to point out two things in particular:

First of all, this approach obscures what students can actually do. A student who received a “C” or “satisfactory” on an assignment actually might be “proficient” or “expert” in terms of their mastery of the learning target, but received late penalties. Yes, the teacher can usually insert a comment explaining why the grade was lowered. But at some point we need to ask why we are using the academic grade to communicate these issues.

How big of a difference would it make if I were to actually follow up with you, rather than making you feel pain through numbers?

Secondly, this kind of communication does little to restore the teacher-student relationship, one of the main motors of motivation in the classroom. You didn’t keep your word, so I punish you. I communicate my disapproval by knocking your academic grade down by percentage points. How big of a difference would it make if I were to actually follow up with you, rather than making you feel pain through numbers?

Now, obviously, communication involves time, which further implies opportunity costs: when I’m conferencing with one student, I’m not available to my other students. Without giving short shrift to face-to-face communication, I’ve developed some ways of streamlining communication and accountability without resorting to using the academic grade.

One method I’ve developed is my Incomplete Homework Form. The day a paper is due, students are either turning in that assignment or turning in the Incomplete Homework Form. Depending on the frequency of a student’s lateness, I may or may not do anything but file this piece of paper away for later reference. If these begin to build up for a given student, I will look for trends and initiate a conversation with that student.

Another method of communication is the grade book. “Now, wait,” you say. “You’re not supposed to put things like punctuality, participation, and other non-academic things in the grade book!” That’s true, but whenever I go this route, I make it worth 0% of the academic grade. It’s pure communication. I assign a score and insert a brief comment (we only get 40 characters).

As many teachers have rightly noted, behavior and the academic grade do usually go hand in hand. So it makes sense to show that to students and their parents in the context of the grade book. But the calculated grade should communicate the academic grade alone.

Neither the methods I mentioned goes a long way toward shoring up the relationship with students, but it does keep the communication clear.

4. Hold the line

Finally, it’s not exactly true that I don’t use grades as a “stick.”

Once I’ve done all of the above things, I’ve got to be the one who signs off on whether students have learned (or are on their way to learning) what they were supposed to learn in my class. By “supposed to learn,” I mean that they have demonstrated the power standards of the class. Given that 50% of my professional evaluation is based on how students do on the post test, I need to ensure students apply themselves to the learning, if for no other reason than my own self preservation.

When students are below the acceptable threshold, I change their cumulative grade to an “I” or “Incomplete” in the grade book, regardless what the calculated grade may be at that point.

This is not punitive; it is communicative. It communicates the truth of the matter: the student has not demonstrated mastery of enough standards to receive a grade. Putting in a zero is not accurate because that’s saying they have zero ability or mastery of the standards in question. This grade simply states that I need more evidence to make a determination.

There’s a lot that goes into this and I don’t want to be prescriptive right now, especially regarding how grades can be calculated inside the standards-based paradigm. The rule of thumb is simply to ask yourself: what is the minimum acceptable number of standards mastered? According to Larry Ainsworth’s Power Standards: Identifying the Standards that Matter Most (2003), you can look to three places to answer this questions:

  1. What do students need to know/be able to do for the test?
  2. What do students need to know/be able to do to be ready for the next class?
  3. What do student need to know/be able to do to be ready for the world?
There is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor. — Albert Camus

You will probably never look to all three of these to answer the question of how many standards is “enough,” but the basic idea is to have an answer that is based in reality, one that can be defended and explained. Students, like everyone, want a rationale for why they are doing something. As Albert Camus put it in his Myth of Sisyphus, “there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”

Once you’ve identified a convincing rationale, one that can be defended and explained, you can communicate this to your students who have an incomplete: I need you to demonstrate these standards because [insert rationale], and I’m not going to let you or me off the hook until you’ve mastered them! Otherwise, the final/the next class/the world isn’t going to go well for you! How much more rigorous is this than passing a student on to the next level with a 59.5% D- in the class?

That said, be ready to discover that some standards no longer have a convincing rationale, given that much of what we teach was developed by the “Committee of Ten” back in 1892! Even so, we need to continue to bring accountability to whatever educational perspective we embrace.

Final word

All of these methods presume an environment without much system-wide support for the standards-based approach. That’s the situation I’m in and, from talking with many teachers, I know that’s the most common situation, although it is changing.

When an entire school is on board with these basic principles — especially not giving late penalties and allowing retakes/redos — everyone is on an even playing field. No class is going to get procrastinated more than any other. At first, that may mean that everyone’s class gets procrastinated. Remember, for years, we’ve trained students to respond to extrinsic rewards and punishments. At that point, we have the opportunity to look at some sound, system-wide responses to these issues.

Perhaps none of these responses will amount to anything that the average student “can’t refuse,” but they can make communication between teachers, students, and parents more effective.

No horse heads either.

What are some ideas you’ve had for keeping students motivated without the usual carrots and sticks? If you like what you’ve read, please share or hit the heart down there in the corner! This post is also crossposted at http://arthurchiaravalli.weebly.com