Yesterday I went back through my notes on Gladwell’s text after a meeting on standard-based grading. The meeting was an effort to analyze trends in deficient grades at different district sites, to build upon successes while thinking aloud about next steps, and methodically inching closer to standards-based grading implementation. Pretty positive stuff.
One point of contention or at least consternation regarding SBG is what to do about participation and behavior. It is not a hard sell to staff to separate compliance from performance, to wean ourselves off of assessing and rewarding behavior instead of levels of mastery. The specific concern I have heard from teachers is by not tying behavior to points/grades we are giving up our deterrent threat. Which makes sense as a concern if you are Gen X or older: if the “Ruskies” aren’t afraid of us, what will happen to us? Draconian, maybe Machiavellian, but effective, right? Not really. Think about the assumptions made by trying to coerce or foster good behavior with grades. One, kids care about grades, and more specifically, the kids we want to straighten-up will care about the punitive measures we take with their grades. Two, kids fully understand the long-term consequence of their immediate reactions. We dock points immediately, sure, but the real consequence is not immediately (if ever) felt by the students. Three, students know how to exhibit the behaviors in a consistent fashion. We expect and demand, but we do not train, especially past fifth grade. These assumptions can be true, but we have reached the terminus of our educational evolution and will stay there until we catalyze new change: the same kids will misbehave, we will tinker with our late work policies, and we will have the same frustrations a decade from now. In The Tipping Point, Gladwell investigates the causes and the machinery of change. While he does not address education often, there are so many parallels to draw. His findings are based on research, not assumptions, not his bloviating perspective (that is more my wheelhouse). Here goes.
Many of us have heard of the “Broken Window Theory.” It is the criminology theory from James Q. Wilson and George Kelling that crime will be more rampant in areas where it is clear to criminals that the residents of the area do not care about the conditions of that area. To put a fine point on it, “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge” (141). The theory was put to the test in the ‘80s to combat crime in New York City’s subways. Consultants tackled graffiti, lighting, and cleanliness first before hiring hundreds of police officers. Crime dropped. The unconventional solution worked. The conclusion is that the environment, our context, plays a huge roll in our behavior, larger than we want to give it credit for, and frankly that is scary. I cannot control the environment of my students, but I need to deal with their behavior nonetheless. I can, however, control the environment of my classroom, and working together, staff can control the environment of a school site (where students spend at least 35 hours a week).
Here is where I want to make the pivot to SBG. I am not suggesting that we paint over graffiti at school, that is already taken care of; instead, I am asserting that we need to pay attention to the learning environment that students experience regarding our classroom policies and systems. By analogy our students’ minds are the potential criminal element and our teaching policies can be broken windows or a well-kept street. Environmental influence or the Power of Context shows that the criminal for Gladwell’s purposes and the misbehaving student for mine “is far from being someone who acts from fundamental, intrinsic reasons and who lives in his own world—is actually someone acutely sensitive to his environment, who is alert to all kinds of cues, and who is prompted to commit crimes based on his perception of the world around him” (150).
So, think about the “cues” we give to students who have a poor academic or behavioral track record. We give them a system that is academically indifferent to them (keep up or leave the pack), and we give them a system calls out their character for being angry at or despairing about said system (even wild animals circle back to save stragglers from predators). If you have not read Jesen’s Teaching With Poverty in Mind, you should pick it up. In it he illustrates the rewiring of the brain that is a result of growing up in poverty and the manifestations of that rewiring in the classroom: it is not correlative, it is causal. It is context making a behavior look inherent, but the truth is we are the puppeteers dumbfounded that the puppet is moving on its own because we don’t see the strings around our fingers. So the specific cues: we deduct points for being late. We deduct points for late work. We deduct points for not printing papers or printing them wrong. I could go on. But we also award points for bringing in tissues, food for canned food drives, saving bathroom passes, pretty glittery projects (“pinteret projects”) et cetera. These practices have nothing to do with skill but we affix them to success. Compounding the problem, we are obsessive about points but we are cavalier about our passive aggressive use of and student interpretation of those symbols. We are unintentional about what scientifically matters most: small actions that create context.
Standard-based grading helps to remove a great deal of the stress and anxiety for students, especially those who struggle to be good students, by allowing retakes and seeing education as a progression, not a conveyor belt. Moreover, it “unrigs” the system so that amiable and affluent kids do not get more than their due, like tax breaks for the rich. That prods the good kids (“I need to understand the inner-working of a cell more than I need to have perfectly color-coordinated Styrofoam pieces.”) and is seen as justice by the struggling kids. By reducing stress and thus of cortisol in the brain (see Jensen) and by being just—not punitive--struggling kids have a better chance at success.
When I circle back to the assumptions we make about grades and behavior (kids care about grades, see the link between short and long-term behavior, and students know how to act right), I see my own culpability in student outcomes because of those assumptions, but I also see a path to improvement for both of us. My students will care more about their grades when it is clear what their grades mean and do not mean. I don’t care it if is pretty, is it proficient? They will care more about their grades when they know that mistakes are recoverable, that I am not holding them to adult standards of responsibility while they are 15. They will do more homework when my homework actually prepares them or the summative assessment (smh at crossword puzzles and word finds). Moreover, when they stumble on the first assessment because they didn’t do the worthy homework and then I make them do the homework as a path to the redo, they will see the link between their behaviors regarding practice and measurable outcomes: the short and the long-term converge. And lastly, by taking into account that my misbehaving students are often expressing academic frustration born out of a lack of hope, I can speak their language and give them agency over the solution. Of course you hate English, why shouldn’t you considering your experience last year. This year is different and here how: you will always have another shot; I will not hold your life outside of these walls against you; you will always know where you stand and what you need to do to go forward.
As Gladwell notes, “The reason that most of us seem to have a consistent character is that most of us are really good at controlling our environment” (165). Students who struggle have no control so they try to get it with the tools that have learned. By changing the learning environment to respond to them instead of just demanding of them, we open the door to teach them the tools we assumed they had.