Monday, July 11, 2011

SBG: Taking the blinders off your horse!

Got too much content to get through in your course? It's a race you know! A race to complete the prescribed material. And how do you keep a horse running the race? How do you prevent it from being distracted by unpleasant things happening to other horses? Easy: put on some blinkers - or better yet - some real full scale blinders:

A teacher using the traditional "end of the topic test" assessment method can, if they choose, run as fast as the program says without too much distraction. And the students won't be too distracted either - they get their test results maybe once a month or two - perhaps an unpleasant day that reaffirms what they can't do - but no fear - we keep on racing to the end. 

Enter Standards Based Grading - or indeed any form of continuous assessment - now both the teacher and the students are running that race without blinders. It impossible for the teacher to avoid seeing if the race is falling apart - if a significant number of students are falling further and further behind. And for those students struggling - if you choose to maintain a pace too fast for them - they are getting constant feedback that they are not keeping up the pace.  The blinders are off - everyone can see what is happening, all the time. To make it more interesting, the SBG version of continuous assessment encourages turning your horse back to rerun the part of the track you couldn't handleSo with SBG, you just don't have a choice to keep running ahead - certainly not with junior classes where students have yet to fully develop learning skills and confidence to take full control of their academic progress in their own time outside class.

And that's the problem and the joy of SBG. It will disrupt your teaching program. If the race is going too fast (and it seems it always is - just too much content in our programs), SBG will stop you in your tracks - forcing you and your students to stay with the standards being worked on until you are happy a satisfactory level of mastery has been reached by enough students.  It's going to get even messier when you find some in the class have mastered the current set of standards and are ready to keep moving, but another part of the class has only just left the starting block.  Or some haven't even entered this race - because they never mastered the material from last year ... or even the year before that! So SBG will not only delay your program, it will also force you to work out how you are going to cope with the spread: how can you differentiate so your strongest students are able to keep running, while providing support so others don't give up the race?

Call me naive, but I'm of the view it is better to get through half or three-quarters of the program with students fully mastering the content they did cover, rather than ticking a box to say the program was completed on time, and ... oh .. too bad the class average test result was 60% (we won't ask about the spread!) and that many of them reinforced their negative views on mathematics and low self esteem in the process. Of course this approach is not possible with some courses. In senior courses for example, with a sequence and pacing strictly prescribed by state education authorities, you just have to stay on the schedule - the race will go on regardless. For courses where the teacher has more flexibility to adapt to the class needs, the question of how many students in difficulty constitutes a significant enough number to justify changing pace, and what they should be expected to do in their own time is a professional judgement. And that's a hard one for a new teacher!

Blinders help with compliance!

While searching for images of horse blinders, I was amazed to discover an article about a horse called "In Compliance" and how putting blinders on the horse help it win races ! No kidding. Mind you - even this horse met its limits - blinders or no blinders - it just couldn't jump the 3m hurdle.

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