Monthly Archives: November 2013

The End of Letter Grades

In this story, the National Post reports that Calgary has eliminated letter grades up till Grade 9. Similar movements are afoot in other jurisdictions. What is driving this change? Formative assessment certainly, but are there other factors?

In this time of tax and spending cuts it is hard not to be cynical. I hope that this policy shift is not being driven by a desire to push students through the middle school and junior high school years until they can be streamed into non-academic courses at the senior levels.

Currently, in British Columbia Math is not streamed until Grade 10. In Grade 9 all students take Math 9. In Grade 10 they have a choice between Foundations of Mathematics and Precalculus 10, which is academic, and Apprenticeship and Workplace Math 10, which is more focused on employment skills and trades math. In my experience, Math 9 is harder than Apprenticeship and Workplace Math 10. Many students fail Math 8 and 9, but can not be streamed into easier Math until Grade 10. A similar problem may exist in English Language Arts, which only has the easier Communications courses at the Grade 11 and 12 level.

Eliminating letter grades should allow teachers and students to focus on learning instead of simply jumping through the hoops of letter grade achievement. There must remain some sort of accountability for actually learning the material. I propose that streaming students at an earlier age into programs designed to fill trades may be a better solution for students who struggle academically for whatever reason.

Integrating art

Hardiman (2012) suggests that integrating art into instruction aids student learning in four ways:
– art is in itself a worthwhile pursuit
– artistic experiences enhance student academic and cognitive skills
– art helps students cultivate “habits of mind” such as persistence which aid in academic performance
– integrating art instruction aids in the long term memory of content.
How can this be implemented in an alternate setting, where students are working at their own pace in different courses at different grade levels. In my limited experience, getting alternate education students to participate in any performance arts can be challenging. The answer, I think, lies in creating opportunities for student choice.
If students were given the choice some would, at least initially, continue with the text-based courses, with worksheets and tests. Some may choose to express their learning in other ways, especially if the medium was left up to them. Rubrics would have to be created that are not medium specific.

Marijuana and Learning

A recent study shows that habitual marijuana use reduces the amount of dopamine in the brain. This is linked to a general lack of caring, as the habitual users are experiencing a dampened-down version of reality. Low dopamine levels have been linked to depression, ADHD, anxiety, etc.

There is a perception out there that marijuana is “natural” – barely a drug. Studies like this show that habitual use of marijuana does have profound negative consequences, including to a students ability and motivation to learn.

I am a firm believer in the legalization of marijuana – I believe that organized crime is the only beneficiary of prohibition. However, legal or not, individuals should not choose to allow marijuana to become a lifestyle, as the effects of its habitual use are insidious and far-reaching.

Knowledge is the Foundation of Learning

“Although debate continues in the educational arena over the importance of acquiring knowledge versus “learning how to think,” the Brain-Targeted Teaching (BTT) Model is built upon the assumption that the latter is in many ways dependent on the former. In other words, in order to be effective thinkers, children must possess the background knowledge needed to be literate in today’s society.” (Hardiman, p. 95)

The pendulum swings back and forth in education from one extreme to another. Forever the same battle seems to be waged, but on different fronts: basic skills versus higher level thinking. This debate is played out in specific terms in things like the whole language versus phonics debate, but also in more general terms, with some education stakeholders calling for a “back to basics” approach to education while others are demanding that schools focus instead on higher level thinking schools.

This makes me think of the changes that I have seen in Math instruction in the primary and elementary years. When I first started, students had workbooks with very sequential activities. Teachers supplemented these workbooks with in-class instruction and various hands-on activities. Students were expected to practise a new skills many times. For example, when the book covered a new skills like subtraction with borrowing, the book would then give twenty to fifty practise questions.

Then, a couple years later we transitioned to a new textbook series. The practise questions were gone and replaced with word problems. Many students – and parents – were lost. I heard over and over “what is this question asking?” Students were being challenged by the word problems, but they lacked the basic arithmetic skills to solve the questions, and many lacked the language skills to translate the question into the required numbers and operations. Teachers started allowing students to use calculators and stopped stressing, or even teaching, how to manually calculate the answers. Of course some teachers supplemented the program with worksheets to provide additional practise, but many did not. Some teachers started to think that they were no longer required to teach arithmetic, that it had been replaced by problem solving.

I remember back to my Bachelor of Education and learning about Bloom’s Taxonomy: knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. A simplified version I also remember was knowledge and everything above knowledge.

The pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy is built on a foundation of knowledge. The top of the pyramid is the star of the show, but it is the very bottom pieces that are the most important. They hold everything else up. The Great Pyramid of Giza has been missing its peak for years, but it’s still a “Great” pyramid.

Evaluation without knowledge is prejudice, superstition, or both.

Hardiman, M. (2012). The brain-targeted teaching model for 21st century schools. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.

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A lesson learned

I wrote up a whole post yesterday and today about the importance of being seen as nice by your students, and then when I clicked “publish” it disappeared, and does not seem recoverable.

The lesson I learned is to write my blog posts in Google Docs – which has a terrific autosave function – and then copy and paste them into WordPress. I haven’t lost this much work in years. I use Google Docs for almost everything. Partly because the work can be accessed from any device, can be shared and worked on by an number of people, and partly because I almost never lose work because of the awesome autosave.

When I think of “disruptive” technologies, Google Docs are one of the most significant. I use Google Docs for:

-Tracking student attendance, work habits and participation (Google Forms)

-Financial planning (spreadsheets)

-Resume (Documents) and supporting documents such as transcripts

-Tracking office referrals and behaviour incidents (Google Forms)

-Word processing

-Keeping track of my hot tub test results (Google Forms)

-Tracking the CD’s in my 300 disc CD changer (Spreadsheet)

-Creating presentations

-Storing and sharing important files, such my family trees

The list goes on and on. I also store all my photos with picasaweb for $20 a year – a legacy storage plan I’ve had for a few years.

I also use Google Docs for education at the school I recently left. Teachers can sign their students up using a Google Form. I think bulk upload the new users. The students get 25 gigabytes of free storage and access to most Google apps, along with an email account that is easy to remember (

Students can create, edit, share, collaborate, hand in, receive and incorporate peer and teacher feedback, all without printing. I love it!