Grading Metaphanalogies [Guest Post]

My wise and well-spoken colleague, Erica Speaks, keeps the conversation going this week with another guest post, while I work on Kenan stuff.  Yet again, she makes a strong case:

You know, someone pointed out to me that anyone who reads our online debates from afar would think Paul and I don’t get along at all and must spend every opportunity finding something to ferociously debate. Well, that last part may not be far off, but overall, we actually agree on most things – pedagogically and otherwise. Honest.

We often discuss, debate, and think of things in terms of metaphors and analogies. Paul coined the term “metaphanalogies”. I like it – it’s how things make sense to me. So, when there’s a topic like grading where we have gone round and round about it, you can imagine we’ve used several. Well, he’s offered several, and I’ve shot them down. I’ll explain.

SPORTS: “The scoreboard reflects the game, not the practice.” Paul has pointed out that we judge players based on their performance in a game, not how they do in practice.

My problem with this metaphor is that in it, we the teachers are not fans, but coaches. Coaches of course judge players on their practices. In fact, players are denied playing time or even cut from teams. In the pros, players are fined or suspended from games, based on things that may happen in practice. Imagine, “If you don’t do your homework all week, don’t even bother showing up to third period.”

Also, in sports kids try out and are placed in classes or teams by their ability levels. (I don’t teach in leveled classrooms, but if you do, perhaps this aligns more for you.) Understand that I’m not arguing public school classes should have these things in common with sports. I believe in equal access to learning. And luckily, no one has to turn a cartwheel or throw a perfect spiral for success in life. They do, however, probably have to get through middle school. Again, more reasons the sports metaphanalogy doesn’t really work for me.

MEDICAL: Paul discusses here adjusting a patient’s temperature to encourage arriving to the appointment on time. This came up again in our discussion where he was “air quoting” me here.

As for temperature, I have a problem with comparing grades to something which student have no control over and can exert no effort to change. While I agree a grade is a measurement, I don’t agree that it is only a measurement. Height is only a measurement. If only people over 5’8” were allowed in college, I’d view this as a prelude to pessimistic resignation for many students.

So, what “metaphanalogy” correctly reflects grading? Throughout our discussions, I’ve really wrestled with this question. I knew when I answered it, I’d be able to get my head around the work that grades should reflect and the message they should send.

I realize it looks like I’m writing to a recurring theme, but I’ve determined that weight is not a bad analogy to grades. When this clicked for me, I had to concede several things to Paul’s arguments, but I think he owes me a few in return as well. 🙂

Even when one carefully follows a diet and exercises, the pounds on the scale do not always respond. Yes, you hope that effort yields results. Logic even suggests it; however, it cannot be guaranteed. For example, some people have conditions, like diabetes or a slow metabolism, that (much like a learning disability or lower IQ) make it an unequal playing field.

So, Paul, I hereby publicly acknowledge that the practice, the effort, should not be expressly configured in results. (Would that it were – many a time I have been faithful on my diet but not a pound has left me.) We don’t just read the scale differently because we put in the effort.

However, my resistance to discount effort lies in having experienced how hard it is to keep trying when results don’t come as easily as they might to others. (And yes, I am admitting that in this analogy, I am the equivalent of the “slow learner”.) I worry about that frustration point with our students. I fear those who need encouragement the most will simply give up because they will never measure up.

This issue is intensified by the reality of a fixed point of mastery for all. You could take me down to the skeleton, and I’d still be larger around the middle than the eighty-pound four-and-a-half foot teacher at our school. The level of mastery (in standardized tests, for a passing report card grade, or for the cutoff for honor roll – wherever one draws a line) is the equivalent of saying, “To be healthy, everyone will weigh 125 pounds, regardless of height, gender, age, etc.” Some could eat junk all day, smoke, use illicit substances…and still make that mark. Others could do everything ‘right’…and never make it.

“Grades shouldn’t be a motivating factor. Find other ways to motivate them.” Paul says this too, but what “other ways” should teachers try? Rewards, stickers and prizes? (Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards anyone?) Research aside, extrinsic rewards don’t seem to be an organic way to foster what we want, anyway. Don’t give me stickers for completing a workout. Value the change made, the weight lost, ie: the growth in learning. However, growth-alone models are flawed. Just like the students who score the highest on our standardized tests have a hard time showing growth, that 80-pound teacher would have a hard time in a model of “whoever loses the most weight wins.”

This “metaphanalogy” works for me for one last reason. While we can boil them down to a convenient, single number (the grade, the pounds) this can be dangerous, even though it is so simple to do. (Or maybe because it is.) Weight is an indicator of health, but not the “be all end all”. There are many other numbers to consider – and other factors not expressed in neat, mathematical digits. We have SAT scores and standardized test scores that are supposed to be cut-and-dry measurements of mastery. Should none of the averages in a class value the journey? And if not, where should it be valued and counted?

Paul & I agree that sweeping changes are needed, and that it will involve a re-education of all stakeholders. For me, we could start with: change the notion that all mastery should look the same. Perhaps a child that makes one year’s growth on the standardized test would be marked as “passing” – regardless of where s/he is in comparison to peers? Should a child with a 70 IQ perhaps get an A if s/he earns 70% mastery?

8 thoughts on “Grading Metaphanalogies [Guest Post]

  1. I love the sparring between Erica and Paul mostly because I believe they spar to get to the root of how best to grade students effectively. The root of thier discomfort is how best to rate children’s efforts and skills so that students are motivated to perform well in school, and as lifelong learners. Keep the posts coming, you’re inspiring the rest of us!

  2. Erica, I love that you so elequently voice your struggles with this. I think it really expresses why some people struggle with this idea. I really miss being a part of the conversation and love you you guys are continuing it online! Thanks for keeping me up to date on whats going on!

  3. Analogies/metaphors are always useful to access a discussion but they are overly seductive so I guess its important to know when to abandon or modify. I think this will hold true in both our teaching strategies and in professional life in which the analysis of complex systems like teaching and learning require modelling. Out models and analogies need to include sensitive feedback loops that allows the detection and correction of small errors and mistakes. Progress is made through the accumulation of small incremental (but significant ) improvements in our practise not by huge paradigm shifts. This means that our ‘system’ remains stable and during improvement which I think is important for the learners.

    1. Huge paradigm shifts throughout education (allowing women? ending segregation the 70’s?) often do rock the system. Still, I think the learners almost always win, even with the hit to its stability. Learners are resilient, and handle change better than we do. :o)
      However, I think you raise very important points. There are the smaller (but still important) changes a teacher can do in his/her classroom. Then, there are changes beyond what one educator can do alone in the domain if his/her classroom and have to be part of a larger movement. To me, these ideas about grading are in that second category because, like the final two questions I pose, they shift how society thinks about grading. You’re also right that to point out it’s incremental. Just like my thinking has changed (is changing?) over time, it is a process for others as well. And it all starts (and continues) …with discussion.

  4. Erica: I love being included in your conversation with Paul. I appreciate that you are putting your thoughts on paper. I find that helps me think things through. It’s also a great way to practice your own writing. Which in turn is passed on to your students both in your teaching practice and your philosophical approach. Keep the metaphors coming!

    1. Writing is such a craft, finding just the right words and honing in on the right phrases to express what you mean. I hadn’t thought about it’s similarities to this ongoing discussion of grading before. I’ve certainly missed your sage perspective on the PLT Mallory. You always helped me ‘think things through’!

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