Once in college I was docked a point on a math test because I did not use the variable the problem told me to use. What a rebel. My work was otherwise fine, mind you, just had the “wrong” variable.
I tell you this because early this morning, maybe a tad too early, I read Fawn Nguyen ’s recent post “Scoring an Ordered List” ; at first I took what she was saying seriously because to me, everything she writes is solid gold. (You should probably read it to get where I’m going with this.) I gushed about her in my last post, for heaven’s sake. Why is the great Fawn obsessing with points? I started feeling some panic. WHY WHY WHY is she obsessing with points? I was flummoxed.
Then the caffeine kicked in and it dawned on me. She’s just messing with us. Having some fun with obsessing with points, and inviting us to join in, math-geeky.
Or maybe she’s making a point about points, in which case she has gone platinum.
Awarding and denying points is what many teachers do, across all content areas, even if other aspects of their pedagogy employ Best, or at least Better, Practices. Somewhere between arbitrary and intentional, they determine points per problem, points per quiz, per essay, per whatever. Preferably the points add up to something that can easily be turned into a percentage so letter grade convertions are a snap.
Why? Because it’s what what they know, what they believe they are supposed to do, its what everyone expects. It’s another one of those pesky, unexamined “givens” in the dystopian Game of School. I don’t know if that’s the right use of dystopian here, but I like it so its staying.
Determine total points possible, deduct points for wrong-ness, calculate a score, assign a grade. So math-y.
You can find scores of graphics like these online, which supports my statement about the Game. I find the emojis particularly
This poster is hanging in a school I frequent: ‘Grades are not given, they are earned.’
I digress. Returning to Fawn’s scenario, suppose a teacher decides that the problem was worth X points, and to receive said points, every number has to be in the correct location. Black and white, not even one shade of grey. That is certainly the way a computer program would determine whether so-called feedback should be “Awesome! You Rock!” or “Incorrect.” Of course this means that if Kat writes the numbers greatest to least, she would be told she is ONE-HUN-DRED-PER-CENT-WRR-ONG, striking yet another blow to her growth mindset.
An alternative (that I am sure Fawn and many other awesome teachers use) would be to skip the points, look at work holistically, and ask Kat a question or two. The goal is to understand her thinking, to gauge what she understands and where her misconceptions may lie. Kat either needs a reminder to read and follow directions with greater care or a conversation around the words least and greatest. Easy peasy.
Just for kicks and giggles, here’s another example: Suppose I’m checking to see if my students can correctly follow order of operations to simplify expressions. Dougie clearly demonstrates mastery of this skill— nothing out of order in his work— yet it contains a minor calculation faux pas or two. (Been there, done that. Lost points.) I am NOT going to deduct points or even determine he is not meeting expectations. I am going to PASS Dougie on that particular skill, period.
There’s a significant difference between 1) using student work to inform both the teacher and learner so meaningful feedback can happen and learning can continue, and 2) using student work in order to pass judgement. Which should be valued, empowering all students to think critically, creatively, to make sense of (insert content area here), or rewarding some students for “correct” imitation and memorization? The first requires, if I may, a balanced, healthy, and inclusive teacher-student learning relationship; the second also involves the student, but is unhealthy and detrimental to learning because it also involves power.