The battle over standards-based grading, mastery learning and other progressive grading and assessment practices continues to be waged in classrooms, OpEd pages and PTA meetings across the country. Voices of those who miss the “way things used to be” argue with those who say it’s broken and we need to fix it.
From the moment that I brought a new grading system into my own classroom, I faced many questions: Why isn’t homework and participation affecting students’ grades? Why are you accepting late work? Why are you letting students retake tests and quizzes? It seemed like madness to some, and coddling to others.
The argument against these practices most often comes down to the idea that the real world is a harsh place and it is naive and counter-productive to shield students from failure. We need to toughen them up, traditionalists say, so that they will not expect success at every turn as adults. Today’s young people, we’re often told, lack toughness and a strong work ethic because they have spent thirteen years being told how special they are. If we would just let them fail, they would learn from their mistakes and improve. It’s that simple.
Except that it isn’t that simple. Anyone who has worked in classrooms with struggling students knows that, by middle school, many children have become so accustomed to failure that they no longer have the belief that they can succeed at school. It is human nature to become numb to repeated failure when the possibility of future success seems infinitesimal. To preserve our ego, the brain’s own self-defenses kick in, and we look for other ways to be recognized. Unfortunately, this often leads to physical aggression or classroom disruption.
What’s the answer? Do we prop up failing students to preserve their hope in the future? Do we let the harsh realities of life creep into our classrooms so that our students develop a thicker skin? I would argue that there is a middle ground that serves both purposes and helps students mature into resilient and successful adults that will become active and informed citizens.
The key is second chances. It doesn’t matter that adults often don’t get a reprieve from their mistakes. It matters more that we are not working with adults. Children develop their ability to bounce back from failure by learning firsthand that a failed attempt is just a first try. Preventing failure is no more helpful than teaching that failure is the end of the process. The prudent lesson is that there is a natural cycle of walking, falling down and getting back up to walk again. This is how we develop adults that are not afraid of failure, but learn from failure.
In the end, isn’t that what the “real world” demands?
Paul Cancellieri (@mrscienceteach) is a National Board certified middle-school science teacher who manages the Data Literacy Program at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching. He shares his experiences with assessment and technology on his blog at ScriptedSpontaneity.com.