My goal as an educator is to provide a space for students to safely take on new challenges and risks in learning. There are always students who remain so paralyzed, maybe by a combination of flagging confidence in learning capacity and/or a fear of failure, that they cannot even muster the gumption to ask a question. This creates a downward spiral. So afraid to ask questions, they build and build, compounding fears of failure and feelings of inadequacies until the learner is overwhelmed and either shuts down, or explodes with all their questions at once. At this point, they are in crisis mode. It’s as if they are suffering from education PTSD. I think this comes largely from the “work for a grade” culture so pervasive in U.S. schooling, which for many children means the daily experience of school is avoiding negative feedback—especially if anything but an “A” is considered less than or a failure.
I use a narrative grading format in my classes. This means I don’t give individual grades or points on assignments—just narrative feedback intended to honor work done and then identify what to build on moving forward. This is part of my attempt to foster intrinsic motivation and de-emphasize extrinsic motivation.
Does it work? It seems to, at least for many of my students. At the end of the term, the vast majority report being focused more on how much they can learn from an assignment as opposed to how that task will impact their grade.
But it is a struggle at first. Here’s how it plays out with some of my students. Despite extensive explanation that when an assignment is returned, if there are gaps needing addressing, I will clearly provide guidance as to what they are and what needs to be done to fill those gaps. And that, as long as they are willing to keep working at it, I’ll keeping providing feedback until it is completed sufficiently. And if they do that, I assure them their grade will be fine. We won’t just accept that some concepts are never mastered, forget it and move on to the next thing.
When something is returned as “incomplete” some students respond immediately by digging in and finishing the task. Others tentatively respond, “So, do you want me to fix it? Can I, and will it still count?” Others try and ignore it and move on until I coax further that the incomplete has to be finished. I’m not educating incomplete learners going out there to teach.
Many are so conditioned that they only get one chance to attempt learning and only get scoring feedback from the teacher, there is no concept that the feedback should feedforward. For them, school is about judging and sorting based on attempts as opposed to growth and development based on experience. Educational PTSD.
To break the cycle, we teachers must provide a space for students to safely ask questions, to try new things, to get feedback (whether a set of points, a grade, or a narrative) that is for the purpose of feeding forward and informing on progress, identifying success, and then guiding to correcting failure, filling gaps, making connections, and expanding expectations.
There isn’t one way to accomplish this classroom culture, however, all require establishing a culture of trust between the student and teacher. They have to see that you have their best interest in mind and therefore have their back. While there isn’t one specific way to establish this, there are surefire ways to destroy it.
Feedback that only judges.
Feedback that is impersonal.
Feedback that accepts failure and moves on.
Feedback that dismisses questions.
We know that picking oneself up and learning from mistakes might be the best teacher, yet why perpetuate a system that penalizes such experience?