Report Cards and Motivation for Learning

report card 1944

Image by pjern via Flickr

I’m wondering about the impact of grades on our psyches.  One of my kids, who I’ve known for 5 years, got a lot of C’s on his recent report card.  Does this accurately reflect his achievement on assessments, assignments, etc?  How do these C’s affect his image of himself as a student?  As a learner?  Do they make him feel like trying harder to get into the B range?  Or is he resigned that he might be a C student?  And if he is C student, how will that affect his future?  Will it be harder to get into the college of his choice?  Will it affect his ability to get into the type of career he desires?  Will it affect his ability to be successful in life (whatever we define that as).

Another student has always struggled with literacy.  Writing is hard and she told me that she would never enter a career where she had to write.  She gets mostly B’s in English and writing classes, which would suggest that she has a fairly good handle on the craft, but her desire would probably be graded well below that.  It bothers me that her feeling and desire don’t seem to be reflected in a report card.  Can this ever be reconciled?  Does it need to be, or should we just understand what grades represent and move on?  Still, I am a bit discouraged that grades represent such a limited part of the student and can be disconnected from engagement, enjoyment, and true learning.

The last student whose report card I have seen is one whose grades I feel do not accurately reflect her achievement, but moreso her effort.  Does she now have a false sense of her skill level?  Does the fact that she received acceptable grades further her motivation?  If she had received lower ones, would her effort suffer?  How is this report card serving her?

I understand the need to portray information to parents and students and document learning, progress, and achievement levels.  I was a classroom teacher for 10 years.  I wonder how we might more clearly understand the purpose of report cards and how we might dedicate more effort to communicating about the “unmeasureables.”

For the most part we grade on what’s easy to assess.  But are these skills what is most important to learn?  As an adult I’ve observed friends whose success, in large part, has depended on their ambition.  Sometimes they aren’t the most knowledgeable in their field and I’m sure there are others in those jobs who know more, but the sheer motivation and drive get these people ahead.  These qualities put them in a position where they can then learn the nuts and bolts of a job and proceed on up the road of success.  It’s their sheer ambition that got them there in the first place.  So I wonder how we encourage students to get to know themselves, get to know what they’re ambitious about.  How does that personal development tie into what we traditionally assess in school?

A lot of my thinking is driven by questions. Below, I’ve listed a few more.  The bottom line I’m wondering about is how we might more carefully look at how report cards affect the student’s continued learning and growth.

What do report cards mean for the learner and how do they give meaningful feedback?  Are report cards sort of a self-serving, end-in-themselves set of information?  If we see report cards as coming from the external, possibly only serving those same externals how do they connect to the learner in a meaningful way?  How do report cards positively serve the child, parent, teacher?  How should they?  What is their actual purpose?  How do report cards portray what we can measure and what we can’t?

Lying on Our Tummies

A child reading in Brookline Booksmith, an ind...

The other day one of my students, Annie, showed up for her tutoring session with some friends.  The friends played on the lawn out back for most of the session, and at the end of the hour, it being a Friday, I invited them to join us in our usual, end-of-session game. One of the girls had seen us working on the carpet, Annie often lying on her tummy.  “You’re lucky, the friend told Annie later that day, my teacher doesn’t let me do that.”  I thought about the comment and wondered.  In my experience, a lot of kids like to lie on their tummies.  What does this mean for their learning?

How do adults structure learning environments for children and how does this affect learning?  But more so, how does it affect the child’s perception of what is an acceptable learning “stance,” and how does giving kids the freedom to choose a stance affect their engagement, learning, sense of respect from the teacher?

When I was in the classroom I created book corners, nooks with small tables, and had pillows the kids could lay on or lean upon.  Some used the pillow often, lying on their tummies on the floor, some leaned up against them.  Others preferred to use their desk and chair.  Of course, some wanted to make a fort under their desk with pillows and maybe the fort got more attention than their writing.  In that case we adjusted and maybe in time they’d be better able to design a setting where they could focus and sink into their work.  Chances are, these were kids that weren’t highly productive in the desk and chair anyway.

I think I always felt a little pressure from peers and the school atmosphere.  Did kids lying on pillows mean I was too loose in my classroom discipline?  Were kids really learning in there?  Could they learn if they were lying on the floor?  Who was really in charge?

I think of Naomi Aldort who’d ask:  Does it make the adult feel better if the kid is sitting in at a desk and chair?  Does it make the kid feel better?  Who feels better?

In my experience, some kids like desks, some don’t.  Some of my students were always on the floor.  Heck, the tenth grader I tutor likes to lie on the floor while he’s thinking.  I think it’s ok and if I notice they need more external structure, we do that.  Funny.  I think so many adults need to impose “their” structure on kids for their own comfort level.  And ultimately I think that’s not respecting the kid.

Learning to Dive


This piece is cross-posted at http://coopcatalyst as part of the blog for IDEC week.

I’ve had a handful of learning experiences in my life that have stayed with me in a truly significant way.  Some occurred in the classroom with teachers or professors and some in the outdoors with coaches or counselors.  In the summer of 1979, as a camper at Cape Cod Sea Camps in Brewster, Massachusetts, I had one of these experiences.

The swimming pool at camp was set in the dunes steps away from the ocean.  I can still remember the shape of it.  A long rectangle with an oddly shaped deep end off to one side, all set snugly in the warm sands of the cape.  That summer I was learning how to dive.  A cautious swimmer, I remember being afraid of my face entering the water before any other part of my body.  That scared me, and diving was a real mental hurdle.

One weekend afternoon after activity sessions, I attempted this feat.  I stood at the edge of the pool, my skinny, pre-teen body hunched over the side, my shoulders at my ears.  I wasn’t relaxed and wasn’t sure I was going to be able to get into the water head first.  Maybe not in the next hour, maybe not today.  I wasn’t sure how I was going to achieve this on my own.

I remember Larry B. being there.  He was a counselor from the boys unit from my age group, and a veteran on the staff.  Although big in stature, he was a gentle teacher.  “I’ll help,” he said.  He walked over and grabbed my body from behind and held me around my middle, waiting for me to be ready.  He was strong and I felt confident.  He wasn’t going to drop me.  He patiently held me as I extended myself out over the lanes until my body curved over the pool and my fingertips touched the water.  He waited.  I trusted him.  I felt the arc of my body in this position and felt I was doing it, preparing how one prepares for a dive, feeling that sensation of reaching out, stretching out and knowing my head would follow my arms right into the water.  I said I was ready and he let go.  I went in, and remembered that it hadn’t been as bad as I thought.  All that build-up in my head.  I’d done it.  My first dive.

What I remember most is the feeling of being patiently held until I was ready.  Of a teacher knowing where I was and meeting me right there.  Understanding what I needed, and knowing how to transfer his confidence in me to mine in myself.  How to really help someone learn. I’ve told friends of this story and we talk about how this experience represents such a literal example of Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” or scaffolding (the difference between what the learner can do with help and without).  It remains one of the most significant and meaningful learning moments in my life. It has affected how I teach—not forcing others into things they aren’t ready for, but aiming to provide that calm, steady support I was so fortunate to experience on that day back in 1979.  I’m ever thankful to Larry for being there, and for helping me to help myself.

Who decides?

One of my middle school students recently had a debate assignment on the death penalty.  Looking through his papers I saw he had written some arguments against it.  “Oh, I said, you’re against the death penalty.  These look like some good reasons.”  “Actually,” he said, “I’m for it.  I just think it should be applied in a totally different way.” When I asked why he hadn’t written his own ideas, he told me “we were assigned our opinions.”

Gavel | Andrew F. Scott: P6033675

Image by afsart via Flickr

My first reaction was that this was utterly ridiculous.  The idea of assigning an opinion seemed just wrong and it reminded me of one more way in which curriculum does not allow for the presence of student voice.  As well, surely a student aged 13 was old enough to have developed strong ideas about big issues.  I wanted to hear those.  I wondered what the reason had been to assign opinions in the first place.  Perhaps if too many people were against the death penalty (or for it) there wouldn’t be enough of a balanced argument.  Maybe that was the point.

I asked a colleague what he thought and he said he totally understood the teacher assigning opinions.  “It’s part of learning how to develop a solid, persuasive argument,” he said.  It sounded more to me like he was quoting one of the state standards.  My thinking related more to the student being able to develop his mind–developing his ideas and opinions and realizing a greater knowledge of self from taking part in an assignment that had valid, personal meaning.  I don’t think we do enough of this in schools–allow the kids to develop who they are.

From my perspective, I couldn’t think of having to defend something I didn’t believe in, in real life.  I thought the pros of having to defend something I believed in outweighed the idea of developing a solid argument and that the two weren’t mutually exclusive.  My student did well on the final assignment (of which the opinion was also assigned) and I helped him craft his final argument for the debate.  But I couldn’t help but wonder what his argument might have looked like had he been allowed to pursue his own opinions.  How would that have played out in the classroom and for him?  I think we need more assignments where kids are given the chance to find out.