Engaging Adolescent Learners: A Guide for Content-Area Teachers (#4)

“In fact, research exists that describes the ‘discrepancy between perceived and actual success’ for learning (Brooks and Brooks 1999, 8). Perceived success is performance, such as a high grade on a test without the in-depth understanding or application of the learning for future endeavors”
— Lent, 2006, p. 75

This reminds me of a Socratic Seminar my learners and I were having earlier in the school year. We were talking about the differences between knowledge and understanding, and that knowledge is not understanding. One of my learners said, “Knowledge is knowing how to spell a word. Understanding is knowing how to use that word in a sentence.”

Since that discussion, we have reflected on our understandings and purpose for performances for every task we complete. It is not that my learners nitpick and require a reason behind what we do every single moment. However, they do enjoy reflecting on what we completed afterward and what new understandings they have gained.

This year I began studying what I call “Progress FOR Achievement, not Progress OR Achievement.” It began when I happened upon James Nottingham’s work with his company Challenging Learning (2017). He essentially believes that “proving is good, improving is better” (Nottingham, 2017). This is essentially what Lent (2006) is considering, urging learners to not just perform for a grade, but to grow in understandings and application.

In discussing these ideas with my learners through reading nonfiction articles on brain development, neuroplasticity, and metacognition, it has become a culture in my course that everything we do guides us toward a new understanding and skill to apply anytime, anywhere. I’m incredibly proud of my learners and their mindsets. They have allowed for me to further my studies on learner motivation and resilience.

“For hundreds of generations, cultures have used trial and error as a means of learning for survival. History is full of examples of the value of making mistakes, and ironically, students are tested on their results by learning about people such as Thomas Edison, who experimented with thousands of different filaments to find just the right material to create the lightbulb’s glow….to say nothing of modern-day scientists who are making errors right this minute in their quest for cures to debilitating diseases- understood the concept of approximation, mistakes that are a vital part of significant achievement”
— Lent, 2006, pp. 92-93

My school submits to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset (2006), and I am grateful for this. I have the opportunity to work, learn, and grow in an environment that believes that mistakes are positive. I also am blessed to be on a team of teachers who believe in this mindset. The beginning of every school year for me starts with talking to my learners about growth mindset and exploring this philosophy. Interestingly, upon asking them whether this is a good thing or bad thing, there are some learners who find this off putting. “If someone fails a test or forgets something on their project, they didn’t pay close enough attention. They shouldn’t get the opportunity to fix it,” they will say when asked about second chances. Some will go as far as saying that if a doctor made a mistake during surgery and killed a person, they can’t bring that person back to life. There isn’t a second chance. To this, their wheels begin to turn as they realize that doctors had years of school and practice before getting to go into surgery. Every moment of preparation held mistakes and errors, to which they learned from and tried again and again. We then talk about the idea of persistence and resilience, and where it comes from.

I appreciated this Lent (2006) section because it illustrated the human condition of wanting understanding, but having to overcome knowledge, wanting to conquer and defeat, but fearing failure. A mantra we say to each other in my course is, “If you’re struggling, you’re learning.” I’m proud of my kids when they give themselves a break and remember this.

“In other words, respond to students’ attempts at learning as you might to your own child who is having difficulty with homework, a spouse who needs you advice on a project, a peer who asks what you think about a teaching practice. You should give the student an honest response- not as an expert, but as a fellow human being who is there to help.
Although rubrics have become increasingly popular for almost every assignment in every course, rubrics by their very nature stifle authentic response….limit students’ initiatives for creativity and deep learning outside the parameters of the assignment”
— Lent, 2006, p. 103

In Challenging Learning Through Feedback (Nottingham & Nottingham, 2017), they state, “Feedback is information we receive that helps to shape our next response…. However, when it comes to feedback in education, the process is very often over formalized. Indeed, many students seem to believe that feedback has to come from their teacher and that the feedback has to be written down and accompanied by a grade or score. And yet this is a mistake.

Instead, it is much better to think of feedback as any message- formal or informal, verbal or nonverbal, written or spoken- that helps shape the receiver’s next response. Thinking about it in this way will make it much more likely that feedback becomes an integral and everyday part of the learning process” (p. 7)

I found both of these quotes to align, in that when giving feedback, there is a qualitative element to it. In education, we are working with human beings who grow from affective, quality factors. Not just quantitative grades and scores.

This year, aligned rubrics have been proposed across grade levels. However, this then would require educators to grade the same way on assessments like essays. This also will require educators to analyze grading practices and philosophies, such as opportunities to redo assessments or correct mistakes.

I have prompted my district to utilize a “mastery” program through our learning management system (Schoology). This mastery program would require educators to apply Common Core State Standards (CCSS) to assessments over the course of the school year and see how their learners grow within those standards throughout the year. Instead of using data points from the few standardized assessments given in a school year, educators would get an entire year’s view of a learner’s growth within grade level standards. This mastery report could potentially travel with the learner, much like standardized assessment data points, allowing for educators to differentiate more efficiently and effectively. This adds a qualitative approach to classroom instruction and assessing due to knowing what kind of feedback to offer to your different learner’s needs.

In considering rubrics, I feel that once a learner sees the expectations, they will only fulfill those expectations and nothing else. The rubric can act as a barrier rather than as a basic launching platform for a learner’s capabilities and innovation. I prefer to make user-friendly, easy to understand checklists that ask for logistical expectations.

Lent, R.C. (2006). Engaging adolescent learners: A guide for content-area teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.