The power of the zero

My great concern is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with your failure.-Abraham Lincoln


As human beings, we will fail before we succeed, and sometimes we fail many, many times before we find success. If this is human nature, then I wonder…why isn’t this behavior encouraged, or sometimes even allowed inside our schools? Why do we cut off student learning in order to teach them some lesson of responsibility? Wouldn’t a better decision be to demand that they learn? We must insist that our schools become places of learning rather than houses of compliance.

The “zero” unfortunately carries a lot of power in education. Some teachers not only use it, but at times seem to enjoy doling zeroes out as the ultimate punishment. Should we allow the concept of zero to have this much power in our classrooms and schools? My answer is no. There is no room for ‘zero learning’ in a school. This is an oxymoron at best and a disservice to students at its worst.


There is no allowance for discontent with failure if we use zeroes. Students are permitted to move on to new concepts with little or no proficiency. Or worse yet…a student gets a zero but is actually quite proficient with a standard and the instructor never took the time to find out. Or the worst of all…a student is proficient, the instructor knows it, but the student did not turn in an assignment, so the zero is given.


Students need the time and space to fail, persevere, possibly fail again, and eventually find success. With curriculum guides and inventories, high stakes testing, and the factory model instructional methods we are given as teachers, no wonder some of the behaviors I previously mentioned have developed over the years. I am challenging us as an educational community to stop the madness. ‘Covering’ material and allowing students to move on without truly learning simply must cease.

I challenge you to quit using the zero. Don’t allow it any power in your learning environment. All a zero indicates is a lack of evidence, so treat it as such. Seek evidence of proficiency and when it there is room for improvement, work together with students to achieve mastery. We determine what we allow to be powerful and have control in our classrooms and schools. Let’s teach our kids to never be content with failure, but to treat it as an opportunity for growth and improvement. Learning is the most powerful force in education.




A new endeavor

As my one word for 2014, I chose Courage. This year I have decided to be courageous both inside and outside my classroom. Courageous for not only the learning of my students, but for myself and other professionals in the education world.

This summer I will be embarking on a new endeavor and I hope you will join me! I am ready to continue some of the wonderful conversations I have had with educators from around the world by hosting a Standards Based Learning and Grading Summit in the Chicagoland area.


This will be a great opportunity for learning and professional growth. I will be presenting and facilitating discussions surrounding the following topics:

  • Purpose(s) of grading
  • Writing standards
  • Unpacking standards
  • Standards based learning
  • Formative and summative assessment
  • Reporting and separating process (behaviors), growth, and achievement
  • Impact of Standards Based Learning and Grading


Interested? Please fill out the form below and registration information will follow soon!

An early bird discount will be available – details coming soon!

Motivation in a Standards Based Culture

“The primary reward for learning should be intrinsic – the positive feelings that result from success.  Actual success at learning is the single most important factor in intrinsic motivation.” Ken O’Connor from A Repair kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades


Student apathy…I have heard teachers complain about this countless times.


‘They just don’t want to do anything!’
‘I plead with them…why don’t they want to try?’
‘I make it so easy, I basically give them the answers and they still don’t do anything.’


And the list goes on and on…


The answer to these problems seems simple – motivation.  What are we doing (or not doing) in our classrooms that is creating this culture of apathy and lack of motivation to learn? It is not that our students don’t have motivation to learn in other areas of their lives…take a look at how they play sports, learn musical instruments, or become proficient with new technologies in the blink of an eye. I have several thoughts why this is happening…


School is being done to our students


The action of learning needs to be done by the learner. Our students cannot sit and stagnate in the classroom ‘absorbing’ material and be expected to learn. They must experience, think, problem solve, analyze, and so much more. They must fail, problem solve again, and repeat until solutions are found. They must create, innovate, and make learning their own. The role of the teacher is to facilitate this learning, give feedback for growth, encourage risk taking, and provide guidance along the journey. Instructors and students alike must be engaged and fully involved in the learning process.


Tasks are not respectful


One size fits all education has no place in today’s schools. Our diverse learners deserve so much more from their education and need a place to make their best contributions and show their passion for learning. We need to devise tasks for our students that are respectful to their individual readiness and relevant to their world. I am always reminding myself that my students are adolescents, not mini-adults. They have varied needs, and desire to be understood.


Rewards and grades aren’t helping


“Rewards can deliver a short-term boost – just as a jolt of caffeine can keep you cranking for a few more hours. But the effect wears off – and, worse, can reduce a person’s longer-term motivation to continue the project.” From Daniel Pink’s book Drive


Grades when treated as reward or repercussion hinder the motivation of our students. They become the focus rather than a simple reporting mechanism. Intrinsically motivated learners understand that when learning happens, the grades will follow. Once students experience true success in learning – not just a good grade on something, or full points – it breeds more of the same. To unleash the potential of our students, we need to frame the grading conversation differently. Learning, growth, and knowledge are what we seek. Grades take a back seat and are one of many communication tools. Grades don’t have lasting power, they come and go quickly. Learning is for a lifetime.


And to remind you of what Mr. O’Connor says in his book… “Success at learning is the single most important factor in intrinsic motivation.” So the more we can challenge our students, allow them to take risks, guide them when they fail, and lead them to find success, the more motivated they will be.

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 6

This is the sixth post in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.

Assessing to learn


Assessment was a fearful term when I was in school. It was and still can be associated with standardized testing, high stakes learning, and a competitive environment. Assessment can create fear of failure and bad grades. It can signify an endpoint to learning, a time to move on and start something new regardless of what has been learned or mastered previously. Assessment is something that many times is done to students, as a rite of passage to the next topic to be covered.

For assessment to be meaningful, it must have purpose in the learning process. If it is treated as above, it has no link to growth, improvement or increased proficiency. Assessment must take on a completely different role to add to and become an integral piece in student learning. The role of assessment is one FOR learning. Assessment guides the learning process, facilitates decisions about instruction for teachers, informs students about practice and levels of proficiency, and ultimately shows us when learners have demonstrated mastery and are ready to move on to new standards.

Feedback and assessment go hand in hand. If an assessment is not paired with feedback for growth, an opportunity for learning is missed. Formative and summative assessments should be learning experiences for our students. In my classroom, formative work is practice, never scored, and given feedback for further study and assessment. Summative assessments are larger, more in depth and focused on my standards. Summative assessments are performance based, applying the knowledge, understandings, and skills my students have practiced and honed throughout the unit of study. I score summative assessments, but students are able to continue to show improved proficiency of standards through reassessment.

“When it comes to deciding whether to allow a student to redo an assignment or assessment, consider the alternative—to let the student settle for work done poorly, ensuring that he or she doesn’t learn the content. Is this really the life lesson we want to teach? Is it really academically better for the student to remain ignorant?”
-Rick Wormeli

It doesn’t matter whether all students achieve mastery at the same moment, in fact, it shouldn’t happen that way. I respect the fact that my students are individuals. It is exceptionally difficult to accurately predict when a student will have completed enough practice to demonstrate mastery on a summative assessment. We may have a good idea of about how long it will take for our students, particularly if we have delved into the unit of study in previous years. But to determine when a summative assessment is appropriate for each of our students – formative practice, feedback, and open communication among all the learners in the classroom is necessary.

It is time to change the face of assessment for our students. We must support them to be courageous and show us their proficiency at frequent checkpoints. If we can accomplish this, we will move beyond fear of assessment to maximize learning.

Use your professional judgement

I had the wonderful opportunity today to see Dr. Thomas Guskey (@tguskey) speak on the topics of Standards Based Grading and Reporting. I have read a good deal of his work, and really enjoy his viewpoints, opinions, and advice.  His writings are a crucial part of my standards based learning and grading journey.


One of the topics he touched on that resonated with me is professional judgement. Dr. Guskey assured us that our professional judgement in regard to student achievement and grading is not only more accurate than relying on percentages, numbers and computation, but less subjective, and more consistent.


This always feels like an oxymoron to educators.  How could someone’s JUDGEMENT be less subjective than numbers, computations, and math?  We first have to establish that we are criterion referenced, rather than norm referenced. This is standards based culture, where a student’s proficiency is measured against a set of learning targets. We are not pitting students against one another in a competitive game of school. Rather we are working to help all students succeed. Subjectivity decreases when we are transparent about where students are on the learning continuum and are clear about expectations, targets, and standards.


Many times educators get too wrapped up in a game of numbers, how many questions students got right and wrong, and percentage grades…we must remember that this is NOT the focus. Learning is the focus. Grades and scores simply communicate proficiency levels at a given moment in time. To effectively convey these, we must use a scale with 4-6 levels and established descriptors for those levels.


Why only 4-6 levels? Dr. Guskey spoke to the fact that once we move beyond 6 levels, not only do we struggle as educators to accurately differentiate them, but now we will have a difficult time helping students and parents understand the level of proficiency. If grades and scores are supposed to be communication, we have a problem. Less is more with proficiency levels when we want them to be meaningful.


It is time for the judgement piece of the grading puzzle. Once we have built a scale with informative, purposeful descriptors we can be much more consistent with grading. Educators looking at an assessment are much more likely to be consistent with four levels rather than 100. Students are going to be much more adept at self-assessment and making some of the judgement themselves when appropriate. Accuracy improves when we spend less time worrying about defining so many levels and more time gathering evidence and providing quality feedback to our students. When done properly, standards based grading is far more defensible than any percentage or average.


Trusting your professional judgement is challenging in a grading world full of computerized grade books, automated scoring programs devised to make grading easy, and students and parents who only know a traditional system. But we must trust. We must always do what is right for our students presently. We cannot succumb to the fear that surrounds change in grading practice. My one word for 2014 is Courage. It takes daily courage to work toward reforming traditional grading practice, but I pledge to do just that. My professional judgement tells me that this is essential to move learning to the forefront in education.

Survey says…

I asked my 9th grade students for narrative feedback on their first semester experiences in my classroom through a survey about our standards based learning environment.  We always have room to improve and grow, but we also have so much to be proud of.  My kids create the learning environment with me, and the responsibility for maintaining it is shared as well.


Several major themes seemed to develop from their responses – they enjoy the freedom to work at their own pace and choose their work, they do not feel stressed out regarding learning in my classroom, they feel safe to try new things and revisit their learning when proficiency levels are below the learning target, and they preferred a standards based grading system to emphasize learning over points, scores, and grades.  Here are a few examples of their responses:


On Freedom:
“I have the freedom to learn how I choose.”
“I like being able to have the freedom to do the things you need during class, without scripted backwork.”


On Stress Levels:
“I enjoy how unstressful the learning environment is.”
“I do not feel pressured to know everything right away – there is time to become proficient.”


On Safety of Learning:
“The learning environment is welcoming and makes you feel safe.”
“We can redo our assessments, so we can get better and better at it.”


On Standards Based Grading:
“I enjoy the learning atmosphere because of the grading system.”
“I like that we don’t have traditional grades, because it makes more sense.”



There is one more comment that I would like to highlight. It humbled me as it also reminded me what a huge impact we as educators have on kids.


“What I enjoy most about Spanish class is how I learn not only the language, but how to be something in the world.”

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 5

This is the fifth post in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.



It’s all about learning…standards based learning



Standards set? Ready to jump in? Awesome…bring on the learning!

Once learning standards have been established, they must be unpacked for all stakeholders. This involves breaking them down into manageable pieces that relate to instruction, knowledge, skills, and understandings. For me, know, understand, and do statements create meaning out of standards that can seem a little overwhelming to students. These statements are easily adaptable for entire units of study or particular standards. I use them to guide instruction and learning experiences in my classroom. My students use them to inform decisions regarding formative practice and pacing. The know, understand, and do statements serve as checkpoints along the journey to mastery.

Once these statements are derived and communicated, standards based learning can become the primary focus. Standards frame the learning experience, but formative practice is crucial to growth and improvement. Students and teachers work together to accomplish the common mission – mastery. Learning is a messy experience with forward progress moving at different rates for all students. Standards based classrooms allow for risk taking, embrace failure as an opportunity for learning, and model recovery from that failure. Success is not a venture of if, but rather when.

Differentiation is made easier and more seamless by opening the lines of communication regarding expectations for learning. Students can manage their own formative practice once standards are clearly unpacked. The ownership of learning and responsibility for it can be placed where it most certainly belongs – with our learners. The role of the instructor changes to a facilitator and supporter of learning rather than someone who dictates every moment of the experience.

Growth is a natural part of standards based culture. It is inherent in what students do each day with formative work and feedback loops. By removing the grades from formative practice and replacing them with meaningful feedback, learning never stops, and continual improvement is the norm. Another essential component in a standards based learning environment is the respectful task. Students become apathetic, bored, and fearful when formative work is not at the appropriate level. Open communication allows for students and teachers to create and choose the tasks best suited for learning.


The standards based classroom climate is collaborative and positive. The ‘gotcha’ mentality is removed and the door is swung open to learning. Proficiency, mastery, and success are pursued by everyone. Collaborative learners are a powerful force in an environment where they help, guide, and support each other throughout the process. Student leaders emerge and are unleashed to assist others and hone their leadership skills. Too many students come into our schools with a fixed mindset. They are either smart or not, successful at school or failures. Standards based culture shows students that growth is not only available but accessible and attainable for everyone.  

Bottom line in a standards based learning environment…Students are empowered to learn.

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 4

This post is the fourth in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.

Setting the standards


Writing standards is a daunting task.  And while many organizations have already created standards, it may not be best to take pre-made standards at face value.  Standards have to be respectful and appropriate for your students.  They must be comprehensible and meaningful for students, colleagues, and parents alike.  Jargon and technical language must be minimized to ensure that all stakeholders understand what is expected of our students.  


Standards must communicate the key performance indicators for your students.  They must go beyond content knowledge and demand application, synthesis, or creation of material and new knowledge.  Standards must be fluid and updated from year to year.  As we further our research about the most relevant knowledge, understandings, and skills our standards must follow suit and represent that research.


Standards must also have an open endedness to them.  When we create a ceiling for our students, they will only work to reach that point in their learning.  This is not what we want for the learners in our classrooms.  Students deserve every opportunity to maximize their growth.  Each must fulfill their own potential, not some artificial target.  Learning must be limitless; when we try to place too much control, our students cannot reach their ultimate potential for success.


Mastery of standards can be presented in a variety of ways.  In my classroom, I will give opportunities to demonstrate mastery in the form of summative assessments, but if a student has an idea of how to show me their learning, it is welcomed.  Student developed assessment is many times better and more effective than what I have developed.  And of course, the more evidence a teacher has of consistent mastery, the better.  


I have written the standards for my classes and rewritten them.  I know that next year my ideas will improve, and my standards will be revised again.  This is yet another way to model learning for our students and remember that it is a lifelong process.  My students need to be able to take the standards that I write and own them.  The learning objectives must be not only understood by my students, but taken and personalized by them to achieve individual mastery.  As educators, we set the stage for learning, and then must let our students take the lead.



Pushing learning ‘out of the box’

Should learning be unsafe? As I consider the idea of unsafe learning, my answer would be a resounding yes.  As confusing as it may seem, I believe that unsafe learning happens in a safe environment.  Unsafe learning involves taking risks, making mistakes, and failure.  Unsafe learning pushes the envelope of innovation and creativity.  Unsafe learning challenges our students to push the ceiling higher, stretch their knowledge farther, and use content in new and exciting ways.  But how do we create an environment that fosters this learning in our schools and classrooms?  How do we facilitate innovation in a world that demands standardized tests, high stakes grading, and cultivates a fear of not being perfect?  We have spent generations in a safe learning mode where a one size fits all model indicates fairness, and competition and grades are seen as motivation.  We have a moral imperative to change this model and push learning to new levels, outside the traditional norms we have grown accustomed to – ‘out of the box’.


It begins with creating a learning centered environment – a safe place to try new things, grow, and improve.  True learning cannot be high stakes, standardized, conforming, or perfect.  Learning must be personalized and focused on the individual student and meeting their needs.  The culture of learning must be conducive to collaboration and growth.  Students must come in feeling comfortable, and leave feeling accomplished each day, while also sensing an urgency to work.  The role of the lead learner is an essential one – behaviors and learning must be modeled.  Educators must engage in unsafe learning themselves and model risk taking.  Students must own what they are pursuing and engage in challenging work.  This fosters the growth mindset essential for learning.


What does this look like in my classroom?


When you step into my classroom, learning is valued above all else. My students demonstrate proficiency and mastery of standards in a variety of ways.  Standards are posted, discussed, and exemplified in the formative work we complete. I share my own learning in the classroom, successes and failures. Learning and thinking are facilitated while creating a safe haven for my students.  Grades are only discussed when necessary – evidence and a focus on feedback for learning drive the experience.  Redos and retakes are a normal part of the learning process, and each day is a new opportunity to improve.  Once this safe environment is established, my students can dive outside of the box of traditional schooling without fear.


Our safe haven evolves throughout the year as I continually get to know and form relationships with my kids.  Formative practice is differentiated by readiness, interest, and learning profile.  Learning is happening in different ways, and at varying speeds in my classroom all the time.  Student choice is essential for growth and carries many imperfections as my kids learn how to make good decisions about their learning and practice.  At times poor choices are made, and it is my role to assist and guide, but not to mandate compliance.  When we dictate behaviors for our students, we deny them an opportunity to learn.  Failure can facilitate growth and improvement when it is handled properly.  I let my students know that they will fail before they succeed, and that learning is a journey of progress and recession, of struggle, frustration, and achievement.  Perfection is no longer a part of our goals, but rather proficiency and mastery.


How do you get your students to push ‘out of the box’ while helping them feel safe?

Standards Based Learning and Standards Based Grading from the trenches – part 3

This post is the third in a series about my journey with Standards Based Learning and Grading.

Removing the Behavior

Ready to start making a change?  One of the easiest ways to start reforming grading practices is to remove the behaviors or process.  Encouraging positive behavior is a very important component of what we do as educators, but process has no place averaged in with proficiency or mastery of learning targets or standards.  When we muddy the grading waters with behaviors, we render the grade meaningless.  Our goal should be to accurately and clearly report the proficiency level of our students regarding standards at that moment in time on a report card, along with a separate process report explaining classroom behaviors.


Once you remove the behaviors and compliance from the grade, what to do in order to teach important life skills like responsibility, caring, and respect? Helping students become good citizens is high on my priority list.  We work together to develop good study habits and collaborative skills.  We discuss work ethic, timeliness, goal setting, and meeting expectations; these items are simply not included in their academic grade.  Forming relationships with kids and creating class culture will contribute much more to positive behavior than a grading system that is punitive.  When kids are acting irresponsibly or inappropriately, it is time to step in and guide them, not give a participation grade.  We have to assist our students to become the adults we know they can be.  We must model the behaviors we want to see, demand the same behaviors from our students, and lead them to make good decisions.  Our students bring us their best each day, we have to meet them where they are in order to move forward.


We work to facilitate learners, not to build compliant robots.  The professions and jobs that our students will fulfill do not require factory model, inside the box learners.  They will need innovative creators who will move this world forward into the next era.  If our students are encouraged to be compliant, maintain the status quo, and keep learning safe, how will we progress?  We must demand more, drive learning, and challenge our thinking.  As lead learners, we must continually grow ourselves and model the behaviors we want to see in our students.  Model learning.  Take risks.  Demonstrate timeliness.  Demand critical thinking and problem solving.  And above all…form relationships.  Show students that you care about their growth and development.

I have this sign hanging in the front of my classroom to always keep our focus on what is most important…

image from venspired.com


Many times, our world seems to lack caring, thoughtful relationships, and promotes irresponsible, disrespectful behavior.  I would like to model something different for our next generation.  I would like to show them how their behaviors are always their choice, and that these choices impact their future.  Grading has no place in these discussions and lessons. Life is not something that is done to you…make sure your impact is a positive one.