Measuring mastery or preparing for the future

flickr user madamepsychosis

As you might remember, I have spent the past two years using a grading system that is focused on measuring mastery through repeated attempts and separating summative work from formative work.  I believe so strongly in the philosophy behind the ABCi grading system that I find myself preaching about it to nearly everyone I bump into.

One of the biggest bits of push-back that I hear from all sorts of people (educators and non-educators) runs along the lines of “What are you teaching kids about the real world when you allow them to retake and turn in work late with no consequences?”  These folks often complain that “kids these days” don’t have a strong work ethic and have been coddled for much of their academic lives.

I understand the argument and I can sympathize with those who advance it.  I, too, have seen a decline in the intrinsic motivation of my students.  This makes it all the more difficult for me to pursue a policy in my classroom that allows some students to avoid responsibility until the very end of the academic quarter.  But, my personal teaching philosophy is that my job is to educate children according to my State-mandated curriculum and to do this I need to know what they know.  If mastery takes time and repeated efforts, I must provide both.

In essence, it comes down to one question: Do we want teachers to teach to mastery or to prepare students for the “next level” (high school, college, workplace, etc.)?  Often these two goals align and the answer is “both”.  For example, when I teach students to critically examine the sources of information, I am teaching them to master skills that the Powers That Be have determined are important and that will make them better citizens.

But, sometimes, these two objectives are mutually exclusive.  Take, for example, a student who struggles to understand the content of my class.  When the time comes for the test, he might study hard or he might not.  After the test, when he gets his failing score, he comes to me for one-on-one lunchtime tutoring (or pairs up with a peer).  After a few more days, I allow him to retake the test (actually, another version of the test) and he improves.  To me, this is a complete success as his mastery has improved in a way that it would not have if I had simply given him an F and moved on.  To those who would argue against this policy, I have done the student harm by not holding his feet to the fire and declaring his first effort to be his only one.

In many ways, this question is the most critically important middle school dilemma of them all.  Do we choose to do what is in the best interest of our students’ learning right now, or do we focus on preparing them for their long-term “needs”?  I don’t know the best answer, but I know the one that makes sense to me.

Do I have it all wrong?  Am I robbing my students of a quality character-building experience?

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