Monday, November 24, 2014

How does a growth mindset fit with standards based grading?

How can we ensure standards-based grading works together with what we know about growth mindset and the work of Carol Dweck? It seems most SBL/SBG proponents contend that classrooms should measure achievement against uniform standards of learning described in proficiency scales or some rubric that describes levels of performance. To meet the needs of diverse learners, best practice is for teachers to differentiate instruction but hold true to the same standards, or learning targets, for all learners. Regardless of where the learner is in the process, performance against the standard is still the way achievement is reported.

But growth mindset research finds that it's all about the process, that the process of effort, risk taking, accepting challenges, and achieving personal best is how we stay motivated and willing to learn. By focusing on the process, we can increase intelligence and actually grow our brains. It's amazing stuff. And incredibly effective.

But how will students respond if they have little chance of achieving the standard? For those who are below grade level and unlikely to reach the uniform target, the standard may seem unreachable and may reinforce the 'fixed' mindset. Students may view themselves as just not smart, "I'm not good at school." School becomes a constant reminder of my deficiencies. Why should I try? These students hate school and will do everything possible to avoid engaging in the process.

I like to use the example of a PE student in a weight lifting unit. An arbitrary standard might be that every student will be able to bench press the equivalent of his/her body weight and parallel squat twice his/her body weight. This is a reasonable goal for the student who comes into class with background in athletics or weight training. But for many students, this would be unreachable even with months of training and practice. Wouldn't it make more sense to have some type of growth goal that is individualized for each learner based on his/her own background, talents, and skill level?

I had a conversation about these issues with a colleague who has considerable knowledge of SBL/SBG. I explained some of my thoughts about flexible learning targets and how that might seem more congruent with growth mindset. If the teacher and student work together to set a challenging but achievable goal, wouldn't that motivate growth more than consistently scoring at the bottom level of a 4-point SBG scale? How is that really different than a D on the report card, or even an F?

I explained, "In this type of system, most students would be able, with great effort, to meet learning targets and goals and would be reinforced for their effort and progress."

"But who is going to make the decision about lessening the student expectations from the standard?" my colleague replied. I get the point. It can be a slippery slope. We've heard the concerns about the "soft bigotry of low expectations" that can happen in schools.

My ideas about flexible learning targets assume great faith in the judgment of teachers to hold students to appropriately challenging targets. I think we owe it to teachers to respect their professional judgment. Sure, implementation is more convenient when everyone is assessed against uniform standards. But it's even more convenient to grade on a 100-point scale, and we know the pitfalls inherent in this traditional system.

All the way back in 2006, when hearing Rick Stiggins speak on Assessment for Learning, he explained that most students should earn A's or B's if they are given appropriate and individualized learning goals along with timely, descriptive feedback. Since then, many schools have successfully replaced letter grades with performance levels. But have these schools created a system where growth is celebrated and reinforced?

So how do you ensure that students are held to high standards but are also rewarded for their effort and growth mindset?

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