Students Can Own Their Learning

At times I take for granted how far my students have come in their ability to own their learning. It has not always been this way but over the past five years so much has changed in how I view students as learners and how I teach. Formative assessment is at the very core of these changes; the result – student ownership of learning.

This year, as visitors entered my room to view formative assessment in action, many educators spoke of how surprised they were at my students’ ability to articulate their learning. Students would quickly share what they were learning, how far they had come and where they still needed to go. They would pull out their criteria sheets and discuss how they could meet with success and share peer feedback, communicating how this helped improve their learning. This was also evidenced within students’ self-assessment pieces they shared on line, in journals and through discussions. The students were demonstrating how they learn best.


But something happened on the last day of school that has left me in awe of the changes and growth that has occurred with so many of my students.  When I opened up the thank you gifts and cards something dawned on me, many of the cards were not written by parents but by the students themselves. In and of itself this might not be unusual but it was what was written that had taken me aback.   For many it was not a simple thank you but a  letter sharing their thoughts and feelings of the year(s) they has spent with me. It was not thanking me for the wonderful activities we had done, or the field trips that they participated in, but focussed rather on how they had grown and changed as learners. It really was quite something to read their words and understand the significance of what they were saying.


A grade 7 student wrote:“You have pushed me to do my best and taught me to take risks and helped me to enjoy learning more. When I first came into grade six I was always worried about the final grade instead of taking risks with my learning and enjoying the process. Thank you so much for helping me realize learning is a journey we take through life and it is not about a final grade. You helped me understand that when we take risks we will make mistakes but instead of feeling sad we should use them to accomplish our goals.”

Another student shared: “Your learning strategies like peer feedback, reflections and self-assessments have been super beneficial to my learning. … You really inspired me to be a better learner; always challenging me to dig deeper.”

These are just two examples of the kind of letters the students wrote to me in their cards; I was, and still am, amazed at their words. Formative assessment practises can and do change the way students view themselves as learners. My evidence comes not from test scores but from the students themselves. To me there is no evidence more powerful than that.

Grades: the freeze effect

The discussion of grades, whether we should give grades or not, has been on my radar for years. I have always struggled with giving grades as I know it can inhibit the motivation of some of my students. In the past four years I have embraced formative assessment Unknown-2therefore everything in my class focusses on individual learning. My students know that learning has no end, it is about  looking to improve, reflecting on learning and making plans for improvement. This shift in my understanding what helps students learn best really emphasizes the need to move away from grades whenever possible. This past year the Surrey School District opened the doors for schools to create their own reporting process. I was truly excited to dive in but when it came to developing a format my colleagues and I felt communicated student learning clearly, we struggled. So the year passed, we debated and nothing changed, at least for our grade 6/7s at Hillcrest. (Other grades/teachers in our school did jump in.) Something happened to me recently where the impact on grades and student learning hit home on a very personal level.

In the novel, Touching Spirit Bear, there is a part in the story where a Tlingit elder demonstrates how change can occur. One way is by a constant tension pushing us and eventually moving us off our path. The other way is for a sudden and unexpected push, this might include a life changing event.  For me it was not a tragedy but the beginning of my Masters program that has caused a sudden shift. I was thrilled to be going back to school as my experience in the graduate diploma program had relit a fire within me that I did not realize was burning low. One of the reasons I enjoyed the program so much, and soared as a learner, was that I was free to learn what was important to me;  it was a pass/fail course. The pressure of grades was absent therefore I learned for me, not for my instructor and the grade he would assign.

So when I was accepted into the Masters program I was excited and of course a bit nervous. But the nerves were centred on handling the extra workload, not on how I would do academically. Our first day approached and the syllabus arrived. All was good until I Unknownread the break down of the grades, this is where my shove came – I was to be graded on my learning. I froze. Really and truly my gut clutched tight and my anxiety escalated. For some of you, grades may motivate you, but for me they were a reminder that I was not smart. In high school I was a B student and never felt comfortable about sharing this with colleagues. For some reason I felt that it just wasn’t good enough. Initially my university grades were Cs until I started to get my feet firmly planted in the system. I slowly worked my way back up to Bs and even a sprinkling of A-s thrown in but my GPA suffered from those first two semesters. It took me 21 years after graduating with a BA to build up enough courage to apply because  I truly did not feel smart enough.

Here it was again, I was feeling like I was an impostor, that people would discover maybe I should not have been accepted into the program because I was not an A student. I images-1worried about what this would do to my learning as I had discovered through the PB+15 program that I love to learn. One of the teachers in the program compared me to the Pacman of learning – I gobble it all up. But would my learning be stunted because I was more focused on what I thought the instructor might want from me rather than the freedom that is allowed in a pass/fail situation.

How could I not connect what I was feeling to what students experience every time they know an assignment is a summative one. What does this do to my learners who often get Cs if I know what it does to me as a B student? How am I crippling the learning of my students when I assign a grade? Are these students showing only part of what they can do because they focus on the grade and are worried about my judgement rather than theirUnknown-1 own growth? For me it is about not feeling good enough inside, but for my students they have the extra pressure of not being good enough in the eyes of their parents. The shove, as I mentioned earlier, has made a monumental impact on my understanding of how grades can affect student learning. I know some of my students relish grades. How do I know, because I asked them.  But for the most part it is the A students who want to keep grades, the rest would like them gone.Students have been very articulate with me regarding this issue and how they feel. I even had 4 students this spring choose ‘no grades’ as their persuasive topics of choice.  I am feeling even more strongly that we need to remove grades, at least in elementary school. This does not mean we stop assessing our students, but is giving a grade the best way to communicate their learning. What this looks like for my students next year I am not quite sure; this is a tension in my teaching that needs to be addressed.

I must end with a relieved sigh. This weekend, during one of my sessions in my Masters course, I found out that everyone gets a B  unless of course you do not complete the images-2assigned work. My shoulders came away from my ears and I was able to sit back into my chair knowing that I could focus on my learning. I am sure those closest to me could hear my exhale of stress as it was released. If the thought of being graded can still do this to me even as an adult learner and one who has many life experiences under my belt, what does this do to most of our students? How have we stifled their thinking, their love of learning every time we say, “oh and by the way, this is a summative piece so I will be marking it”?

Growth Mindset is alive and Well

The past two years have been the best professional development I could have asked for – ever!

Two years ago I began a journey with a group of educators brought together to achieve a imagescommon goal, to complete our graduate diploma program through Simon Fraser University. This course was called Learning and Teaching Through Technology. For some it was about furthering their education and for others it was originally not just about the learning but also about the pay raise that was to come at the end. Over the course of two years many changes occurred within this very diverse group of learners. What transpired will forever impact how I view, not only my learning, but the learning of my colleagues as well.

UnknownThis Langltt truly was a diverse group. We came from a variety of backgrounds, from a variety of teaching experiences and brought with us our own philosophies of teaching. Some of the students in the course were in the early years of their teaching career while others (myself included) had already been teaching for quite some time. It was  fantastic to sit at a table where, on any given night, there might be a grade 2 teacher, a special education teacher, a French prep/Social Development teacher, an English 11 teacher, a PE teacher,  and a grade 12 IB math teacher; crazy variety to say the least.

When we first met we were all asked to share a bit about ourselves, to share a bit about where we were at in our teaching careers and what we hoped this course would do for us.Unknown-1 There were a few who were literally at the end of their rope with teaching. They had lost their desire, their passion and were thinking of getting out. Others brought with them tremendous baggage that needed to be worked through for them to move forward in their careers. And others, well, they wanted to change the way education was being delivered and wanted to set about carving a new path.

Each of us had our own journey to travel, and travel we did. As I reflect on these two years I have to wonder how our instructor got through it all. He had a Unknown-2mission for us, he wanted us to determine what was important for us, to dig deeper into our own learning and for each of us to make our own meaning of the readings, discussions and field studies. Many balked at his approach because, many of you will understand, teachers for the most part were great in school and knew how to do what they were told to do. They are not so good at the open ended constructivist model of learning, though, and this caused many uncomfortable moments. I will be forever thankful that Matt Rosati guided us through this experience, that he did not give up on his methods and encouraged each of us to find what was important to us and travel our own journey. It was not about what he wanted but what we wanted.

Over the past two years I have grown substantially as a learner. I have been exposed to a Unknown-3plethora of approaches to teaching that I did not know about or had forgotten about. I have been introduced to many exceptional educational leaders that made me question what I was doing. I was asked to create inquiry questions  around what I was doing or wanted to do in my class and complete field studies on these. But most importantly, I was asked to reflect on my teaching practise and to question ‘WHY?’ at every turn.

Much of my growth came from sitting in a library week in and week out with 23 other images-1educators hearing their stories, listening to their ideas and debating where education is heading or should be heading. I cannot state this strongly enough-  I was truly inspired by my colleagues in this class and they have helped to push me to be a better me. How can you not be inspired by a teacher who, when he began the course was simply “showing up”, but has become an educational leader in his school and a mentor in his district. Powerful learning was taking place; he is just one example of the growth mindset that developed in the class. My growth may not have been this extreme but not all change needs to be giant leaps, some can be baby steps too, as long as change and growth are taking place.

As I ruminate on the past two years my wish is that all educators have a chance to ‘go Unknown-4back to school’. I know that the time needs to be right, the money needs to be available, but every teacher should be encouraged to do more than just a single day Pro D. I would hedge my bets that if all teachers went back to school this would change the face of teaching as we know it.

I have so loved being back at school and the learning process that I am now contemplating doing something I said I would not do because I am already 23 years into teaching. I think I may just, well maybe, if I don’t back out, apply to do my Masters. It is only one more year now that I have completed this course so the thought, as scary as it is for me, is floating around in my brain. This is something I should have done a long time ago but let it pass by. Now may be the time.

Unknown-5Participating in this course has reaffirmed for me that teachers get into this professional for all the right reasons. But for some they become stuck, some get into the fixed mindset. I truly believe that with support, encouragement, and a great program, (with a great instructor) we all can  regain a growth mindset and make a difference in this profession.

I want to sincerely thank all the members of Langltt cohort; you have inspired me to keep growing, to keep learning.