Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Naughty or Nice?

Sometimes I worry about Santa Claus.  He might only work one day a year, but the scale of his task is immense and indeed most likely impossible.  And when I think about it, Santa does not just work one day a year; he spends the year evaluating the behavior of the world’s boys and girls.  Perhaps due to the large “class” size Santa exhibits the worst evaluation practices.  Let’s compare Santa’s approach of assessing students to Duke School’s, which follows best practice.

Understanding the Task:
Santa’s class knows they are trying to earn a grade of “nice” (rather than “naughty").  However, they do not know what they need to accomplish to earn a nice.  They do know that sometimes they are naughty and sometimes nice.  They wonder if one naughty erases all the nices.  They also wonder if being nice at the end of the year helps erase the naughtiness of last spring.  On the other hand, students should know what exactly is expected of them at the start of an assignment.  Hence Duke School teachers are clear about the parameters of a task and often distribute the final evaluation rubric at the lessons start. 

Guiding along the Way:
Santa’s students only know how they did at the end of the year—either when they get coal or a passel of presents.  On the other hand, Duke School teachers continually assess students and give them regular feedback.  More importantly, the feedback revolves around how students can improve—it is forwarding looking rather than backward looking on how they did. 

Nuances in Evaluation:
Students cannot be productively placed in only one of two categories—naughty or nice.  People and their performances are more nuanced.  We all have strengths and weaknesses and good evaluation should highlight both.  Santa is compelled to make a summary judgment with limited options.  At Duke School, our rubrics address many aspects of a task and the teacher often adds a comment, so students have a strong sense of what they did well and what they need to do better. 

Power Dynamic:
Santa may be portrayed as a jolly old elf but in his grading regime, he has all the power.  He is all knowing and the relationship with students is one of master and servant rather than partners in learning.  As Benjamin Zander, states in his wonderful book  The Art of Possibility, working in partnership with students “allows the teacher to line up with her students in their efforts to produce the outcome, rather than lining up with the standards against the student.  In the first instance the instructor and the student….become a team for accomplishing the extraordinary; in the second the disparity in power between them can become a distraction and an inhibitor…”   Santa focuses on the end product rather than the process.  Duke School focuses on the process of learning and knows skills and knowledge come from doing school right.

Locus of Control:
Santa tries to motivate his students through the use of carrots and sticks—presents vs. coal.  Even if this tactic motivates his students, they are working not for themselves but for an arbitrary reward. However, study after study, indicates the best work gets done when students are internally motivated.  That motivation comes, as Daniel Pink discusses in his book, Drive (see this great video about it), from improving mastery, feeling autonomous, and working not just for yourself.  Duke School allows students to fulfill these needs.  Further, Santa never asks his students to think about why they got coal or presents.  As a result students do not gain self-knowledge.  One of the hallmarks of Duke School is that we are regularly asking students to evaluate their own performance.  Self knowledge and motivation lead to better performance.

Grade Inflation:
Let’s be honest, no child gets coal.  Despite all his threats, Santa is a pushover and as a result, sends the message that you really need not work hard to get rewards.  His threat actually acts as to reduce motivation.  (See article about grade inflation at colleges particularly at elite schools.)  On the other hand, at Duke School, students tend to work to improve themselves and want to do the best job possible.  Comments and rubrics do not lead to grade inflation as they are grade free.  They do lead to accomplished students. 

Santa has a tough job and does it well, but he ought to leave the pedagogical aspects of his job to the experts. 

Have a great holiday season.