Thursday, April 12, 2012

A car without a dashboard

Recently, I ran across a few analogies between grades and vehicle dashboards.  (See Here and Here).  These are interesting comparisons that I ended up thinking about even more.  I spend about one hour a day driving.  I adore this hour for the contemplation time, definitely worth the gas spent.  With my transition to a standards-based grading system, I have felt a mixture of emotions from parents.  The whole spectrum is observed.  Some parents think the change is good and helpful, others don't care one way or another, and some are frustrated.  This post is an attempt to collect my thoughts for the frustrated parent.

Imagine our cars did not have gauges within their dashboards.  Instead, displayed on the other side of the steer wheel, would be a letter: This letter ranged, just like grades, from an "A" to an "F."  We will even put pluses and minuses in for fun too.  What does the letter mean?  We think we know, but in the end "A" is good, and "F" is bad.  Anything in between is, well, in-between.  We don't know how the overall grade is figured.  Every model is different.  Some manufactures weigh speed 70%, while others have oil pressure as the most important.

When you drive your car, the letter changes.  There is no speedometer, odometer, tachometer, gauges for temperature, fuel level, oil pressure, or amperes.  No extra warning lights for low fuel or when sensors detect issues.  Only the final grade.

So, when you are driving along, all is well so long as the "A" stays on the dashboard.

Imagine lending your car out to your teenager.  When they leave, the car is "A+."  Upon returning, "C-."  Someone is in trouble!  But, for what?  Is the engine out of oil?  Low on gas?  At this point, we do not know anything.  Now, you have a well equipped car with all the bells and whistles.  You can actually go online to and see what actually happened mile by mile.  You find out that around 10pm last night, the cars grade was actually an "F" for awhile!

Also imagine that you just started your car, and it's cold outside.  The temperature of the engine is well below where it should be, so to start out, your car reads an "F."  You hope that upon warm up, the grade rises.  What if it doesn't?

Obviously, this scenario would drive most people nuts.  The crazy thing is that grades in our classrooms have been this way for years, decades, and generations.  Along the way, we give grades that are connected to assignments that are oddly added up to give an overall class grade.  We think we know what the grade means, but in the end, "A's" are good and "F's" are bad.  There isn't any consistency as to how the overall grade is figured.  Part of the game is for students to figure that out as we go along.  We can look at the grades in real time with different internet tools, but the assessments are disconnected from the learning.  A "B+" on Green Worksheet doesn't help any more than a "C-" on the car dashboard at 9pm.

A car's gauges could be looked at as learning targets.  We have a range that is optimal, a range that is concerning, and a range that is just flat dangerous.  Some of the gauges are easy for us as operators to understand and regulate.  If the tachometer reads to high, I simply can shift to a higher gear or let off the accelerator.  If the fuel is low, I fill up.  Others may need further investigation.  If my oil pressure is low, I may bring my car into a mechanic.  When the service engine light comes on, I know more diagnostics need to be done.

When we make a switch to standards-based grading, we are asking students and parents to make a tough switch as well.  They have learned to drive the car with only a letter grade appearing.  No, it is not ideal.  It is not efficient.  The feedback is poor.  Change is difficult.  As hard as it would be for us to begin driving a car without gauges, it is just as hard for students and parents to play school with the additional information.  We have to help out on that end.  We have to, for one, show that it is OK to have more information.  We have to help make the switch from the assumption that a low grade means missing work.  Perhaps the "C-" typically meant the car was low on gas, but we realize that there are lots of other cases as well.  We have given the tools to have a more engaged conversation about what is happening under the hood, but we also have to train students and parents to understand the information coming at them.

In addition to this, students and parents will need to understand sometimes you have to take the car into the mechanic.  Sometimes it is an easy fix.  Sometimes new habits will have to be formed for higher achievement. As teachers, we can explain what the oil pressure gauge is trying to communicate.  We can change the conversation.  It will take time, and understanding of where both sides are coming from.

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