Work Habits are Behaviors [REPOST]

Continuing my celebration of the fifth anniversary of Scripted Spontaneity, I’m reposting one of the blog entries that I am most proud of.  Mainly, this is because grading practices has become one of my passions and I feel that this post was one of the clearest explanations that I have ever made.  It was originally posted in December 2010.  Feel free to add your comments below, or read the original ones here.
As the slow crawl toward standards-based grading makes it way into classrooms across the country, in defiance of the drill-and-kill mentality brought on by high-stakes standardized testing, one of our most important jobs is to educate the families affected by this sea change in grading practices.

I have made this transition two years ago with much success.  I no longer dread the “Meet the Teacher” night at the start of the year when I introduce myself to parents.  A clear explanation of the philosophy and purpose of my grading system convinces nearly every parent immediately.  Some assignments are practice and don’t affect a student’s grade (although they are scored and lots of feedback is included).  Other assignments measure mastery and determine the student’s grade, with multiple attempts.  The child will be judged as below standard, at standard, or above.  It makes sense.

The part that confuses (and even frustrates) some is the focus on mastery.  Skills not directly related to mastery of the curriculum will not affect a student’s grade.  Work habits like assignment completion and study skills, while critical to academic success, will not be factored into the grade.  Instead, they are reported alongside content mastery and reinforced in the classroom through other means.

The question that I often get asked is, “If my students/my child/the youth of America don’t lose points for failing to complete their homework, why would they do it at all?”  It looks like I’m not the only one receiving these comments.  A recent article in the New York Times (“A’s for Good Behavior“) resulted in some interesting responses from readers.  One reader writes,

“What kinds of lessons are we teaching children if we tell them it’s O.K. to ignore deadlines and that there are no real consequences for being disruptive or unprepared?”

Responses like these frustrate me because they demonstrate a real misunderstanding of the system.  There are real consequences to misbehavior and poor work ethic, but these consequences do not include grade penalties.  To put it simply, grades should not be used as a motivator for behaviors.  And behaviors include anything that is not mastery of the curriculum.

So, how do we motivate those students who don’t have baked-in (intrinsic) desires to engage with the learning by completing assignments and participating in class?  The same way we motivate students to stay in their seats, raise their hands to contribute, and follow other classroom policies.  If we start to think of incomplete work as just another behavior that needs to be modified, the potential responses become plentiful and obvious.  In my classroom, the consequence for most inappropriate behaviors includes a written reflection and loss of privileges (such as seat choice in the cafeteria or weekly game time).  For missing or incomplete work, consequences always include focused time to get the work done.  To quote a colleague,

“The punishment for not doing work is… to do the work.”

How do we help the public understand that we aren’t lowering the standards?

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