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Published in Print: May 11, 2005, as F Is for Effort


F Is for Effort

Misinterpreting Effort-Based Education in Primary Classrooms

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At a typical urban elementary school in a large American city, a principal strolls unannounced into a 1st grade classroom during a reading lesson. With his hands clasping a clipboard behind his back, he browses the elegant displays of student work like an art appraiser in a gallery. As the teacher quietly continues the lesson, the principal approaches a young student and, in a whisper, asks her to get up and show him a “piece” of her writing that is on display in the room. The child walks to a bulletin board that displays a well-composed paragraph she wrote describing scooters as part of a unit on transportation.

The child explains to the principal how she knows that this writing is good, and what directions, or criteria, were given for the students to follow. The principal, following a set of criteria himself, asks the child how she could make it better. He tells her that more and “expensive” words could make it better, describing words like crimson or fabulous. The child is confused. She thought she had done her best work.

“What score did you get on this?” the principal asks.

Around the nation, good schools are engaged in a necessary and noble effort to raise student achievement—some would say intelligence itself—through a teaching and learning paradigm that emphasizes effort as the determining factor in school success, rather than innate aptitude or general intelligence.

Inspired by promising research, intensive staff development, and district consultation with such groups as the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning, educators are coming to see that students do benefit from an effort-based instructional model. As long as the steps involved in meeting an objective or a standard are achievable and made crystal-clear to learners, the amount of effort and time put into a task will determine success. States and school districts have jumped in, defining and recommending rigorous minimum standards that help set the bar to determine just exactly what is “good.”

Educators are coming to see that students benefit from an instructional model that emphasizes effort as opposed to innate intelligence.

“Re” has become the prefix of the new educational millennium. Rewrite, reread, reteach, rethink. Try again. Do better.

The prime directive of the effort movement is to teach children that effort will lead to reward. The reward could be a feeling of self-directed success, public recognition, high scores, good grades, or all of these. Ideally, these rewards will reinforce effort on future tasks.

Essential to the effort-based classroom is the practice of displaying models, or benchmark examples of work along a continuum of mastery. Scoring guides, or rubrics, along with explicit directions and lists of criteria are provided to help the learner understand fully what the standards and goals are. A scoring system using numbers, typically 1 through 4, informs the student of his or her progress along many dimensions of the task.

This dynamic and recursive process is designed to motivate effort, reflection, and revision. It is an attempt to replace traditional letter grades with a practical, child-friendly system through which pupils can begin to monitor and regulate their own progress.

Unfortunately, as might happen in a classroom game of “telephone,” words and concepts have been changed and distorted as the message of effective effort-based teaching, learning, and assessment has spread from educational researchers and psychologists to schools of education, instructional directors, coaches, principals, and, finally, to teachers.

Ironically, we now see classroom displays of scored student work with final numbers instead of final letter grades. In too many classrooms, even those that have traditionally avoided displaying graded student work on bulletin boards, some students’ work that meets the standards may be posted alongside other students’ work that does not. Looking at this work clearly marked with 1s, 2s, 3s, and 4s, we might wonder why all the students weren’t meeting minimum expectations. A more important question, however, would be why these scores were displayed at all.

It looks alarmingly similar to the old ability-based D’s, C’s, B’s, and A’s of the past. While there are clearly expressed criteria, models of good and poor work, and rubrics for both the teacher and learner, some kids still “didn’t get it.” So they got a 2, or a 1. For a young child, this doesn’t encourage effort at all.

Moreover, for some young learners, opportunity for effort is often quite limited. It ends when the unit is over, or the time is up, or the bell rings, or the teacher says so. And when it’s over, like a game of musical chairs, it’s over. Children end up where they are, and their scores get recorded and displayed.

Then the principal comes in and asks how they could have made it better.

I wish all young children had the means and opportunity to answer that challenging question. If they could dig deep and try hard, they just might be able to talk accountably about the real standards for equitable opportunity for all learners. “How could I have made this better?” They’d tell it like it is. ...

“I could have had more time.”

“My teacher could have helped me more.”

“I can grow more.”

“If you let me do something I could get a 4 on, I might know more about effort.”

Let’s teach effort first. It isn’t so very hard. Teaching effort is what Lauren B. Resnick, the director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning, means when she recommends “intermediate expectations” and “recognition of accomplishment.” All children deserve not only the opportunity to succeed, but also the actual experience of succeeding.

Even if the accomplishment is small or intermediate, their effort needs to be rewarded with recognition and a sense of success. They should know that they have indeed done their best work, even if just for the moment, and what that feels like. Accomplishments displayed in a classroom should represent just that: success. If a teacher is doing his or her job, the walls should be literally laminated with accomplishments. Not 1s, 2s, 3s, or 4s.

Even if the accomplishment is small or intermediate, students' effort needs to be rewarded with recognition and a sense of success.

Sadly, some administrators and other so-called instructional leaders don’t trust teachers to know where the benchmarks of accomplishment should be for individual students. So the new paradigm of making effort count mutates even more, as these leaders demand that each piece of student work displayed show—with written comments, lists of criteria, rubrics, and scores—precisely what the expectations were for the work. Of course, this is an overwhelming and impossible task if the teacher is really doing the job of providing intermediate expectations and opportunities for each child’s success.

Many good teachers, anxious to get principals and coaches off their backs, end up displaying general standards that are the end goals for the grade level, misusing scores to demonstrate little more than “this 6-year-old isn’t 7 yet.”

If it is true that teachers know best the effective intermediate goals for each child, then the work displayed will in fact show only children’s best efforts. What the expectations were should be apparent from an examination of the work. Approaching classroom work in this way will teach children the most important lesson of all: the value of effort.

The California Language Arts Framework says it succinctly: “[A] teacher’s acceptance of less than standard work from students while knowing that they are capable of more serves only to convince students that they do not have to try or that the teacher does not believe that the students can succeed. … Successful classrooms are places of expectation and responsibility. Young people are expected to work hard, think things through, and produce their best work.”

Of course, best should mean exactly that. In a classroom that demands that effort be continuous until mastery is achieved, there is no need for young children to consider what final score they got, or how they could have “made it better.”

Vol. 24, Issue 36, Pages 36-37

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