Why are we doing this?


I feel the need to come back to the question again. The other day, my school had its first all faculty PD in which we discussed the new school wide goal. The admin team did a great job coming up with the goal. They got ideas from each department, tried to look for commonalities, and then came up with:

What does it mean to “do your best work”?

artwork via: cieradesign.com (a former Lusher student)

I think it’s a bit vague (maybe that’s the point?) and I feel like I already have a possible answer:

You do your best work when you really care about the end result.

(implied -> “…not just a grade”)

For example, I am writing this blog with certain readers in mind: Twitter folks Dan, Anna, and Alex. We chatted about this earlier and I wanted to get some ideas out there, so I am writing this blog post. I care about what I’m writing here because I really don’t want to waste their time (or anyone else’s who might read this). It might be different if this was a class assignment, “Write a blog post about what it means to do your best work” for instance. (Side note, if this was that assignment how would it affect my writing to have a specific grading rubric attached to it?)

So I’m not writing this to “check a box” as Dan alludes to here (in reference to some required observation form):

Ok, so then my goal should be to create tasks for students that have this quality to them. They’re doing the task for some reason other than to check off a box (where in their case, they check the box because if they don’t then their grade might go down).

Hmmm, so I’m a little stumped on this one for my Physics class at the moment. Maybe connect my tasks to something from pop culture so it’s interesting? A Martian themed problem?

Or would that just be “dressing up the material”? Dunno. But I think one thing I have been doing that helps is to disconnect the grade from the process. As students move through the unit, they are learning certain skills in order to solve one big challenge problem. Here’s an example:


In the gradebook, they only get one grade for the unit. And it’s never 100% clear how their progress towards solving the challenge problem translates into this grade. Of course, their progress is tracked on the various skills as they go; they can see where they need to put in more work. So, I haven’t totally eliminated the “what do I need for a B?” questions, but I think I’ve started to shift away from it.

Anyway, I think I’ve had more success this year in my engineering class.  I have made up a few design challenges for them to work on. The first one was this:

And I didn’t have to do much else besides show them this page to get them working on it.

They were learning the design process and collaboration skills in addition to basic circuits and conductivity of materials. They were practicing their sketching skills and documenting everything they thought up and tried out.


I’m not gonna pretend that every kid was engaged the whole time OR that none of the kids were doing these things just to get a good grade. But I can say that I didn’t receive the usual “what do we do next?” or “how are you grading us on this?” or “what do I need for a B?” questions. I’d say that’s progress!

How do we get a culture shift away from grades and towards learning?

So I think this is what I have so far:

  1. The problem and/or purpose must be meaningful and/or real. I still don’t know how I would do this in Algebra 1, although I did try a story based class last year in which they were solving problems to save an alien race from extinction.
  2. The grading can’t be a focus when presenting a project. For example, I have a rubric for the project they are working on now, but they haven’t seen it yet. They’re just mini engineers trying to solve a real problem. Now that I think about it, even when they do see the rubric, it’s not clear from seeing it what their grade might be. It looks like it might be out of 24 “points”, but that doesn’t mean 23/24 is a 96%. I will have to stick a grade on it at some point (begrudgingly), but where the grade came from is not totally clear (similar to my physics unit grades). There’s a little bit of “magic black box” in there between completing the task and getting the grade. Maybe I’m on to something with this “magic black box”? Thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Why are we doing this?

    • Thanks! I’m gonna try to post every design project we do in engineering this year. I am also doing #teach180 on Twitter so I’ll be posting updates there.

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