They Need Us to Encourage Them

The most heartbreaking experiences I’ve had over the years were when a few students who had achieved so highly and proudly all year were deflated after receiving their lower-than-expected scores on end-of-year standardized tests.  Why do we allow this?  Imagine being the student who has been engaged, productive, motivated, and proud for an entire year, only to be downgraded by a percentile and a scale score.

Encouragement is a powerful instrument in an educator’s toolkit.  It doesn’t always have to be praise and pats on the back; in fact, the most effective encouragement is usually of the “try one more time” variety. This means giving students meaningful feedback from which they can grow and continue to learn.  Percentages on tests and averages in class provide neither meaningful feedback nor encouragement—they deliver little more than a final message.  Either you passed or you failed.

One old approach to providing better feedback is the rubric, which any teacher who uses McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design (UbD) knows how to use and has used many times.  Starting with the end goal in mind is relatively easy when a rubric for the end goal is created.  This practice is a pragmatic way for teachers to make sure that learning is happening and that the objectives of the unit are met.  Many teachers claim success with this format of instructional design.  But there is one major problem—not with the tool itself, but with the practice.

Too many educators who use UbD as their primary design tool inadvertently trap themselves into using the rubric as the means to assess students in a summative approach (we were trained this way, right?).  In other words, no matter how hard the student worked or how well she showed progress and achievement during the unit, the summative use of the rubric becomes the end measure of her work.  Instead of finalizing the grade for the unit, the rubric should be used as a platform for improvement; it should be the basis for the teacher’s feedback to the student and the basis for the student’s improvement of her work.  A rubric should never be used as a tool to offer a final grade without first providing feedback and an opportunity to revise.

Failure has been compared historically to success as its opposite—when you fail, you have not succeeded, and that’s that.  Apparently, Gene Kranz never actually said, “failure is not an option” when Apollo 13 was in trouble, but the phrase has been adopted as part of an anti-education buzz lately.  The trend among social educator networks is that failure should not only be an option, but even a requirement, since the perseverance to rebound from failure leads to strong achievement.  I believe that this trend has its merits, and students should never throw their hands in the air and say, “Screw it! I failed!”

Let’s make sure that our students are trained to recognize failure as the prompt to try again, to try a little harder, and to revise the work in which they did not show proficiency.  Perhaps we should remove the words “fail,” “failure,” and “failed” from the classroom lexicon altogether.  Try replacing these with terms like, “emerging,” “getting there,” and “needs revision.”  We should tell students that failure is not an option, because we will expect them to keep trying until the failure lends itself to success.


About Kris Nielsen
Kris L. Nielsen has been a middle grades educator and instructional leader for ten years in New Mexico, Oregon, and North Carolina. He is a graduate of Western Governors University’s Master of Science Education program, with emphasis on child development and instructional technology. Kris is an activist against corporate education reforms and has had his writing featured in several online magazines and blogs, including those of the Washington Post and Diane Ravitch. Kris currently lives in New Mexico with his young son and beautiful wife.

2 Responses to They Need Us to Encourage Them

  1. Fawn Nguyen says:

    Students have 5 to 6 classes a day starting in middle school, and this continues for at least another 6 years — that’s a lot of grades and standardized test scores that they get, not to mention the bi-weekly quizzes that they take in almost every class! It’s difficult for these kids to not let these numbers and letters define who they are.

    Teachers have an enormous impact on how students view tests and grades. But unless we revamp our entire system of grading, from K-college, it seems all lip service. Colleges continue to look at SAT scores and GPAs, thus calling an F grade something else is still “grading” their coursework.

    It is rare for a student to earn an F and not know that she needs to try harder. But maybe she doesn’t want to try any harder because the class is boring and pointless and the teacher makes it difficult to learn. Unfortunately, these classrooms exist! We have teachers who fall asleep in class, are head-to-toe incompetent, care more about the bell than the lesson.

    What I’m afraid of is “try one more time” applies more to the us teachers than to the students.

    Thanks, Kris.

  2. Kris Nielsen says:

    You’re absolutely right, the challenges are enormous! And it’s going to take the professionals–the good teachers, like you–to start shaking things up, from the bottom up.

    I would love to see the dedicated teachers turn their practice into activism, and not the stand-outside-school-buildings-with-signs variation of activism, but the lead-by-example variation. Let’s open our classrooms when they work, so other teachers can observe; let’s collaborate with coworkers to design more effective practices; let’s get leadership on board by energizing them and showing them the efficacy of our means. Let’s talk to our parents (the most powerful asset, if used correctly) about the difference between grades and skills. Let’s be a growing population and force for the reform that we seek and we know our kids need.

    I know I’m speaking anecdotally here, but the signs that colleges are changing their ways are becoming more widespread. Several “high-caliber” universities have already begun to decrease their bearing on SAT/ACT scores for admissions (since around 2004), including the Ivy League. In fact, based on the trends I’ve seen, the universities will be leading the charge into the 21st century by emphasizing the need for 21st century skills (they already have). There’s even a growing number of universities (and high schools) that no longer use A-F grading…at all!

    It will be up to the K-12 teachers (not leaders) to keep up with what the colleges want from us.

    Finally, there are bad teachers everywhere in this country. Again, it’s up to the good ones (you and me) to try to bring them around or encourage them to find something else. This is another good place to bring our principals into our collaborations.

    The only part I don’t agree with is that “one more time” applies more to teachers. Bad teachers won’t ask for it, since it creates more work. Good teachers will ask because they know it’s good for the kids.

    Awesome comment–I love when people make me think and work for my theories! Keep ’em coming!

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