There are two common activities teachers do that have either little to no impact on student learning but which do take teachers a tremendous amount of time, time that could be better spent on other activities.
Grading Student Work
There’s limited evidence that putting marks on students’ papers leads to students either being more motivated to work harder or that these marks leads to increased student learning. In fact, some of the literature on feedback suggests exactly the opposite is true:
When teachers pair grades with comments, common sense would tell us that this is a richer form of feedback. But our work in schools has shown us that most students focus entirely on the grade and fail to read or process teacher comments. Anyone who has been a teacher knows how many hours of work it takes to provide meaningful comments. That most students virtually ignore that painstaking correction, advice, and praise is one of public education’s best-kept secrets.
Source: Dylan Wiliam
But grading student work is extremely time-consuming and so if this effort doesn’t lead to student learning, why do we do it?
- To communicate progress to children and their parents,
- To evaluate students,
- We are expected to grade student work.
In a recent parent-student-teacher interview, the teacher had samples of my son’s work in front of him. He shared directly what he liked about his work and where he thought my son could improve and we never talked about the numbers at the top of the paper at all. It is easier to communicate progress using artifacts of student learning.
Schools, in the interest of focusing on activities which have clear connections to student learning, should stop grading students and focus on time-efficient ways to solve the problems grading is intended to solve. Should teachers still look at student work? Definitely, but this should be as part of their process of planning future lessons and thinking about opportunities for feedback for students.
"When you grade, you help one child at a time. When you plan, you help all kids. Spend your time accordingly." ~ @hpicciotto #NCTMregionals
— David Wees (@davidwees) October 28, 2016
Creating Our Own Curriculum Resources
I spent years writing tasks for each of my classes, borrowing from other teachers when I could, but mostly making my own resources from scratch. These resources were not of much higher quality than what I could get from a textbook but I understood how they were designed and how I intended to use the resources. Writing curriculum took me SO much time.
Now I write curriculum about 50% of the time for my day-job and can see that the curriculum I currently create is far superior to the curriculum I used to create and far more complete and coherent. But it probably suffers to some degree from the same problem that led me to create my own curriculum as a teacher — it is extremely difficult to make sense of someone else’s lesson or task.
One feature of the curriculum I write that I think helps mitigate this problem of understanding curriculum is that it contains instructional routines. Once one knows a particular instructional routine, the task of understanding tasks to go along with that routine is far easier. Teachers who know the Connecting Representations instructional routine can look at tasks and are better able to make decisions about which tasks to use and why.
Evidence on use of curriculum suggests that all teachers benefit from access to high quality curriculum resources. In this experimental study some teachers were given access to Mathalicious and others were not, and the teachers who had access saw better performance from their students.
What I think teachers should have more time to do is modifying and adapting curriculum for their particular context and their particular students. This is why our curriculum is licensed with an open license and why we share the curriculum in Google Document format — it makes it much easier for teachers to adapt and modify the curriculum rather than having to recreate a document from scratch just because the original is locked in PDF format.
We also wrote our curriculum to be largely sequenced but with lots of opportunities for teachers to make choices within the curriculum or to design their own tasks. Our tasks are aligned to the evidence of understanding we expect to see in students, which means the blueprints for constructing their own tasks are available to teachers as a support – leading to the best of both worlds for teachers: the autonomy to construct their own curriculum while not needing to reinvent the wheel each day.
If teachers stopped grading all student work and writing all their own curriculum from scratch, then they would have more time for other tasks that contribute more to student learning such as:
- Designing responses to evidence of student achievement (eg. formative assessment),
- Collaborating with colleagues to investigate instructional strategies (eg. micro-teaching)
- Work with individual or groups of students to support their learning.
What else could teachers do with their time to support student learning if all of a sudden they had more time available?
Judy Mendaglio says:
Yesterday we heard at the Fields MathEd Forum about classroom research on computational thinking. This particular research was conducted in a classroom where grade 7 students and kindergarten students were working together to write code to get from “here” to the door, The grade 7’s all wrote x steps forward, turn 90 degrees, y steps forward. Kindergarten students chose to follow a diagonal path — all while being told by the grade 7’s that that’s not the right way. Might years of grading student work with marks like X and 3/5 contribute to the lack of risk taking we see as our students move through the school system? Thanks David, for this reflection.
November 25, 2018 — 1:23 pm
David Wees says:
It might influence students’ future behavior, there’s no doubt complex interactions between everything we do. But I don’t think removing grades will turn 7th graders into people who can suddenly see outside the box like kindergartners. There’s lots of other pressure for 7th graders to conform.
November 27, 2018 — 2:38 pm
Chris Harris says:
Couldn’t agree with you more! If I were to go back to the classroom I would do both those things and spend time differentiating the curriculum to work for “My kids”
We need to convince all stakeholders; students, teachers, parents administrators, boards, that school is about learning and understanding not just about grades! If we can accomplish that we’ll be doing very well.
As an administrator evaluating teachers, I hear statements from both ends of the spectrum. “I have to do this because it is in the curriculum. I just follow the curriculum” And “I’ve taught for 20 years, I know how to teach this stuff, I follow my plan book from 20 years ago.”
Changing the paradigm is tough. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
November 25, 2018 — 8:06 pm
David Wees says:
My recommendation as an administrator is to find a way for, at least once a marking term, for some artifact of work a child produced to be shared during parent-teacher interviews. That can have such a powerful impact on this conversation and is a relatively low lift for everyone involved.
November 27, 2018 — 2:39 pm
Susan Jones says:
Yes yes 🙂 I would love to explore ways to make this feasible. Right now … most teachers would be validly overwhelmed … but I think a modifyable curriculum could be designed with suggested tweaks and scaffolds.
November 26, 2018 — 6:08 pm
David Wees says:
What would be overwhelming specifically?
November 27, 2018 — 2:40 pm
At this point, the principal has taken away my expectations of my students (where they may sit and how to work within their pods (Building Thinking Classrooms)) because ONE student spoke out (in class in a very denigrating manner). The principal never addressed the disrespect. She wants me to check in with the student EVERY day to ask how they feel about math AND to listen to the ONE student’s ideas for ME, the professional. My standards are too high (apparently, because I grew up in Germany; not kidding). I was giving it my all to prepare the 8th graders for high school math.
What would be overwhelming is re-entering the land of extra work that might be considered stressful by ONE student and then I’ll be reprimanded.
And they wonder why there’s a teacher shortage.
I’m back after 18 years with my children and so much passion, but that has been stifled by admin.
November 2, 2022 — 11:29 pm
David Wees says:
I’m sorry you are having this experience, Christine. It sounds very frustrating.
November 3, 2022 — 4:14 pm