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Are we getting softer?

November 10, 2011
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In a recent post about how I switched from using red pen to grade student work because it is intimidating to students.

That drew this response:

‘Red pen’ damaging students???? Seriously???? If kids are this fragile these days, then the end is truly nigh. Really, that makes me want to give up.

This seems like a fair question. Am I soft with with SBG you get many chances to demonstrate understanding? Am I coddling students when I try to reach out to them to tell them I think they could do better and invite them to assess? Is it lowering the bar to not grade homework and use it only as practice?

In the past, I will say I thought the exact same thing when I first heard of a colleague giving up the red pen. But now I think of it this way—I’m trying to create truly resilient students. Students that are willing to make mistakes as often and seek feedback from as many people as possible because they know that’s a powerful way to learn. I want my students to take a test and then jump right into the difficult process of confronting what they did not understand and working to overcome this. In my mind, this is a challenge harder than any football drill. Putting on a brave face, or acting tough and trying to hide one’s misunderstanding, sitting down and simply” taking one’s licks and then moving on”—all of these behaviors, while they might make students seem “tough” operate counter to the work I’m doing. At the same time, we’re all human, and certainly there are triggers like tone and red pen to affect our emotions, and there’s lots of evidence out there to show that emotion is powerfully tied to learning. So if I can make small changes—grading in green, for instance, that smooth the path just a bit more for my students and help them do the really difficult work I’m asking on confronting their deepest misconceptions, then yes, I’ll change the color of my pen. And I don’t see it as a sign of fragility at all.

Plus it’s not just me doing this. The owners of “tough” and “hard-core”, the United States Army, have transformed what basic training is all about, too.

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 26, 2010) Aca,!” Blind obedience-oriented basic combat training is out; confidence-building and thinking-oriented training is now in.

That’s the bottom line of how Comprehensive Soldier Fitness is shaping changes in Army boot camp; changes leaders say are improving Soldiers’ preparedness for combat once they reach their units, said Command Sgt. Maj. John R. Calpena, Initial Military Training Center of Excellence, at an AUSA meeting of senior Army enlisted.

“When we went through basic, total control and fear of authority was taught — you could see the fear with that stupid look on their faces. Instead of creating obedient machines to do what they’re told to do when they’re told to do it, we’re teaching our young Soldiers how to think, how to understand the circumstances and make decisions in stressful conditions because that’s what’s going on downrange,” Calpena said.

Teaching culture, beliefs, values and behaviors are also part of basic training now that CSF is being used. “We used to train the seven core Army values — loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage — using PowerPoint slides,” said Sarvis. “This didn’t hold their attention very well. Now we use interactive-scenario-based training, which allows Soldiers to interact with the videos, making decisions along the way and reinforced by the drill sergeants.”

Resiliency training is an important aspect of basic. “It’s a huge deal,” said Sarvis, explaining Soldiers now need to bounce back from stress. He said trainees are given the Global Assessment Tool within the first 10 days of training and the Army then tracks how they improve or decline over their careers.

So I don’t think I’m being soft at all. I think my classes are harder and more focused on thinking and rigor than they ever have been in the past; I’ve just shed all the trappings of rigor like red pens, controlling every moment in the classroom, and assigning piles of homework, and instead, put that energy into getting students to do really hard work of confronting their misunderstandings, analyzing their mistakes, and developing a real understanding of physics.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2011 4:34 pm

    In the time it took me to write this post, Kelly O Shea added this awesome follow up comment that I’m including here, since it’s germane to this conversation.

    I think you must have misread my reply. I certainly didn’t say that I had been “damaging” students by using red pen. But with the quantity of feedback that I was writing on their homework, this student told me (long after the fact) that it was intimidating enough for him to him that he postponed looking at that feedback. Note: this student was one who did well for me, then went on the Advanced Studies in Physics class where he was a rock star (one of the best students in a very strong class taught by another teacher) and is now off studying engineering, I believe, at college.

    The take-away for me was that if a student who was resilient, interested, and committed enough to pursue and excel in science wasn’t getting worthwhile use of the feedback that I had put time into writing for him, then changing my format so that students saw my comments as helpful rather than punishing was probably going to benefit everyone. Every student is certainly able to get pretty darn good at physics by the end of the year, but not all of them start with the requisite confidence to make the commitment to getting better. I need to make sure that I am teaching them how to learn as well as setting up situations where they can learn physics. I can’t expect them to already have every skill that they need in order to learn well (including the skill of seeing a lot of feedback on a page as a good thing, rather than a shaming or judging or… whatever… kind of thing), and when I see evidence that they in fact don’t have a crucial skill, then I need to structure my class in a way that they can learn it.

    By the way, I personally suspect kids have always been “this fragile”, and our willful ignorance of it has created the myth that there are so called “special” people who are “smart” and “gifted” and “talented” who can learn things like math and science and that there are people who cannot because they are “not good enough.” That particular myth? Well… talk about something damaging students…!

    Sincerely, an imperfect but well-meaning physics teacher who is trying to get better at teaching,

    Kelly.

    • November 10, 2011 4:59 pm

      BUT JOHN, it’s NOT ONLY about learning Physics! It’s about growing up to realize life ain’t a bowl of cherries and you’d better be able to take it on the chin and be kicked in rear end now and again. Often it just NOT OK to make mistakes; often you HAVE to get it right the first time; often there IS a consequence when you screw up; often you have to do things quickly and under time pressure; often you need to be held INSTANTLY accountable.

      I-just-don’t-get-it. We are in danger of educating a generation of kids that feel entitled in everything they do. It’s a massive mistake.

      • November 11, 2011 12:29 pm

        I’d like you to really examine your assumption that outside of education it’s not ok to make mistakes in the quality of your work. In actuality everyone starts a job not knowing how to do everything and through making mistakes and getting feedback they become better at their job. As a teacher, I will still generate a quiz problem where there’s an inconstancy that makes a solution fitting all conditions impossible. It’s a little embarrassing to have to explain my mistake to kids, but the whole class learns from it and we move on.

        In the real world people get fired because they behave unethically or they refuse to improve upon their mistakes.

        Indeed the greatest catastrophes of the last 10 years (9/11, Katrina, Financial Collapse) are not the results of individuals who made mistakes. These catastrophic events took place because teams of people who are responsible for planning and oversight were not working together and continually anticipating future scenarios.

        For any example you can think of where “you have to get it right the first time” or “there is a consequence if you screw-up” I would counter that all successful organizations assume that individual employees will make a mistake at some point, and in anticipation of this have put in place other employees to mitigate the consequences of the mistake and help the individual improve.

        I’d like to put the ball back in your court, so to speak. Please list examples of jobs where people are not allowed to make mistakes.

  2. November 10, 2011 4:58 pm

    I switched over to pink from red. I tried green and purple, but students kept taking my pens when I left them around. The pink stuck. It became a bit of a running joke as a male teacher.

    I knew I had made a good choice when one student told me “even when I get something wrong, I still smile when I see your pink pen!”

    And now that she got eased into seeing meaningful feedback, she’s more comfortable with seeing a sea of red on papers in other classes.

  3. November 10, 2011 5:13 pm

    I absolutely think John is venturing into arenas of student engagement that have been the problematic backdrop and negative space of much student anxiety – most often unexpressed and swallowed at the cost of learning. And the devil is in the details – as in color of grading pen. John, I hope you continue to enlarge the repertoire of new ways to enable kids to learn without fear in the face of high expectations and hard work. Peter

    • November 11, 2011 9:34 am

      The use of a red pen for grading is part of, ‘the problematic backdrop and negative space of much student anxiety’?? This is a wind-up, right? RIGHT?

      If a red pen is truly causing anxiety for these children, then learning (or not learning) physics will be the very LEAST of their problems in life. They’d be better off quitting school and going out in search of a spine. Kowtowing to this nonsense will breed generations of people unable to cope – with ANY adversity. Good grief.

  4. November 11, 2011 1:01 pm

    As always, the questions remain: What is the purpose of assessment: a) for the student; b) for the teacher; c) for other stakeholders?

    Some responses above suggest it’s about kicking students in the pants so they get a harsh taste of “reality.” But whose “reality,” exactly? Sounds like we have some folks with that good ol’ School o’ Hard Knocks viewpoint. “No pain, no gain,” and “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” ad nauseam. I’ll pass, thanks. And so will my wuss of a son. There’s a lot of ground between “Never do anything to criticize a student or risk the slightest chance of either cognitive or emotional dissonance” and “going out in search of a spine.” As a teacher (or parent), it’s rather useful to know what’s available between those lines.

    Now, if the color of the ink contributes to students not actually reading the feedback (as research has shown repeatedly is the case with adding numerical or letter grades to feedback: the positive impact of feedback/comments alone is superior not only to just grades, but also to THE COMBINATION of comments and grades: students in the latter case consistently look only at the grades and ignore or are barely helped by the comments), why wouldn’t it be worth it to experiment with other colors?

    What’s the “wonderfulness” of red ink? Tradition? Bad enough for you, so bad enough for your kids?

    Similarly, if ENORMOUS amounts of written feedback prove overwhelming, why not consider offering somewhat less? Quality, rather than quantity, might prove to make a positive difference for some/many/most students. What would it hurt to try?

    But then, I think that the #1 priority in assessment is providing meaningful, specific, constructive formative feedback between teacher and student, student and student, and student and self. I hadn’t realized it was to toughen everyone up for the cruel world of work and survival of the fittest. I was absent on “Social and Psychological Darwinism Day” at teacher school. ;^(

  5. johnmaiken permalink
    November 11, 2011 8:51 pm

    Do you find that your students get something out of written feedback? Does the feedback include a reduction in grade? I have found that my students don’t really read the feedback or care about it for the most part. They just look at the grade and then move on hoping for better luck next time. I have found my students learn the most when I spend my efforts on trying to help them learn in class instead of getting them to understand my comments on where they went wrong. How do you get your students to read and care about your feedback? Or do they just do it naturally?

    • November 12, 2011 9:23 am

      John,
      This to me is the big question—how do we make our feedback more useful to students. It’s why I recently posted a set of graded assessments on my blog, and it’s also why I’m trying to work a lot with having students give themselves feedback. To get students to really use my feedback I think I have to do a few things. First, and most importantly, my feedback needs to be more than just what you did wrong—it needs to put them on the path to correcting their mistake and understanding the concept more deeply. Two, I have to create a system in my class where they can derive real benefit from engaging my feedback. This is where SBG comes in. When I used to just grade tests and give them back with no opportunity to show improved understanding, either through corrections or reassessment, I think it’s hard for students who are struggling the most to look 3-4 months down the road and “I’ll be tested on this again, so I better put the time in to master it now.” I know this is an important thing for students to do, but I just think for our weakest students, who are facing a million other challenges and distractions, I can make it much more likely for them to use my feedback if there’s a immediate (or at least very soon) chance to show increased understanding, either in the form of corrections or reassessments. Finally, I think it’s not a bad exercise to ask students what they are they are getting from your feedback. This could be a short survey in class asking them how they used the feedback on the last assessment, and what suggestions they might have for how you could improve the feedback you give them. Here’s a really great blog post from a math teacher at St. Ann’s in Brooklyn where he describes the great benefits he saw from asking students to describe what sort of feedback they’d like on their assignments. That he was able to get meaningful responses from the youngest students should tell us that this type of introspection is possible at almost any age (and certainly among the high school and college students we teach). Also, this approach of asking students what type of feedback they want promises to reduce a lot of the wasted effort in our own grading, while at the same time benefiting student understanding more.

  6. November 12, 2011 8:31 am

    For years I tried to only grade in green, but I misplace pens so often that I now give feedback with whatever I have. This often means blue or black. The key thing for me is that the only thing that got students to read and care about feedback and want to get better was switching to standards based grading. They care because they are allowed to still improve.

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