Monday, January 17, 2011

Standards Based Grading and the Circle of Courage

There's a movement growing in the edu blogsphere called Standards Based Grading [SBG, twitter #SBAR]. If you're not familiar with it yet - Think Thank Thunk's posts are a great starting place. In this posting, and the next few to follow, I would like to show connections between SBG and some of the educational ideas that have inspired and influenced me. But first - what is SBG?

SBG in a nutshell: Instead of doing a test at the end of each topic and giving a student a mark for the whole test, dissect the topic into individual concepts and skills ("standards"), and then, over time - during the teaching of the topic - assess competence in each discrete standard using a simple scale such as "developing, developed, mastered". Make the process visible to students, and give them opportunities to be re-evaluated on standards - with the proviso they can show they did something toward getting a better result. At the end of the topic, the overall student grade is derived by aggregating their current level of achievement on each standard. The goal is to have meaningful formative assessment that supports an ongoing learning conversation with students, providing visible and timely feedback to students and teachers.  (I think I got it all?)

SBG resonates with a model of student psycho-social needs which I find insightful and practical: the Circle of Courage, developed by Dr. Larry Brendtro, Dr. Martin Brokenleg, and Dr. Steve Van Bockern, derived from Native American concepts. They argue that young people, indeed all people, have needs in four key areas:  Belonging, Mastery, Independence and Generosity.

 Circle of Courage medicine wheel by Lakota artist George Blue Bird
via Reclaiming Youth International - poster available for purchase'

So where does SGB fit in with the Circle of Courage?
  • Belonging: We have the opportunity to present SBG as a class journey through the topic - a development of the whole class - to which we all belong. By allowing  students to be reassessed, we are telling students that even if they did not achieve mastery of a subject, they will get another go - they are still in the class, still part of the effort - they haven't been left behind!
  • Mastery: is the most obvious factor that SGB caters for: we emphasise student mastery of skills and concepts. It's not a number, a score we are aiming for - it's a specific mastery.
  • Independence: I love SBG for this: we offer students choices - choices to try again, choice as to which skills to try again, choices as to when they are ready for reassessment (within reason!)
  • Generosity:  SBG offers a unique opportunity for generosity. Once you have identified which students have mastery of a standard, make them the teachers for this standard - provide them the chance to be generous to other students by helping others learn how to master the standard.  Form students into small groups, assigning an 'expert' to each group - and have them lead the group in an activity.  You will be staggered at the student response - from both the experts and the developing students - and the research evidence is very clear on benefits of peer learning - for both the teacher and the learner.  Students really do seem to learn so much better from their peers. And unexpected things happen too: once one of my expert students - who was normally very talkative to the point of disruption, started telling off his students for talking too much and not listening. Priceless.
In the next few posts, I'll be exploring how SBG fits in with Andrew Martin's work on student motivation and engagement and John Hattie's Visible Learning.

Update Jan 22, 2011: This series continues with Standards Based Grading: helping eliminate academic fear and failure


  1. I really like the connection to the Circle of Courage that you describe. Very cool. I've only recently appreciated the Generosity side of SBG, but hadn't really had a name for it until now. Kids do love to be experts and share their knowledge. Some of my students who have been mediocre students before have had fantastic experiences with SBG where their fellow students complimented them on being the expert on a topic! Great stuff, and now i have a name for it. - Thanks!

  2. this is great. Please consider submitting it to the SBG Gala 5

  3. Are you planning to implement SBG next year?

    I have sort of tried it with a class last year, despite extra effort I never really implemented it fully.

    I think the way maths/classes/courses are structured in Australia may make it harder to implement than in the US. e.g. teachers in the US (from what I can understand) tend to be teaching 1 or 2 courses to multiple classes and may repeat content through the year, where as we are teaching 5-6 classes all different courses.

  4. I would love to do it for gradeing but don't know I will be allowed to - most if not all my classes will have end of topic assessment shared with classes in same stage/year/pathway belonging to other teachers. And I suspect it's out of the question for Stage 6 courses given the strict Board of Studies guidelines for HSC. I can't do something totally different from the rest of the faculty when it comes to assessment. But regardless, I will use an SBG approach as a way of managing 'visible learning' - and linking it into some other strategies I'll be posting about soon.

  5. I love that there is another teacher in the blogosphere that has also posted about the Circle of Courage. Thank you for making the connection between SBG (which I use) and Circle of Courage explicit.