Upgrade the “Cage” We Put Students In

Upgrade the “Cage” We Put Students In

Scrolling through Facebook, a friend had posted “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think” by Johann Hari.  This article largely summarizes an argument by Bruce Alexander, Canadian Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University.   Through direct and academic research, Professor Alexander demonstrates the following two claims are either false or unsubstantiated:

Claim A: All or most people who use heroin or cocaine beyond a certain minimum amount become addicted.

Claim B: No matter what proportion of the users of heroin and cocaine become addicted, their addiction is caused by exposure to the drug.

One component of the research cited was the “Rat Park” experiments.  Some rats were alone in a typical cage while others were in large, scenic, entertaining, and social cages.  Both groups were given the choice between two water bottles – one laced with morphine and one with plain water.  The lonely rats in the boring cage drank predominately from the morphine water and poisoned themselves to death.  The socially engaged rats in the large awesome cages largely shunned the morphine water and none died.

Thankfully, I don’t see a lot of students addicted to heroin or cocaine on a daily basis, but I do see a lot of kiddos who seem to be addicted to their phones.  Like heroin or cocaine, these personal devices offer a dopamine drip that is inherently addictive.  However, just as most people who get heroine to cope with temporary pain don’t end up as hopeless addicts due to simple exposure, most students aren’t hopelessly addicted to their phones – but some are.  Why?

Consider the “cage” we put a lot of students in – especially in high school:

  • Boring rooms with chairs in rows.
  • Material and delivery that isn’t inherently stimulating.
  • Mitigating socialization (Ever hear or say the words at parent/teacher conferences, “Little Johnny is very bright, but he socializes too much.”)
  • Physically removing “problem” students from their peers
  • Isolation effects of bullying

What if the answer to the cell phone “problem” (and I’d argue many other problem behaviors that manifest themselves as apathy) is to change the “rat cage”?  Imagine a school environment that:

  • offers variety of seating
  • each classroom was uniquely and interesting decorated
  • the curriculum has room for student choice
  • most periods were filled with engaging practice and not endless lecture/reading
  • encouraged socializing – or even used it as a primary means of educating
  • sought alternate solutions to problem behaviors that keep students in the classroom with their peers
  • proactively supports bullied students instead only focusing on prevention

Classroom Management Strategy: “Stop Being a Jerk”

Classroom Management Strategy:  “Stop Being a Jerk”

Last week, two students in my classroom were commiserating about the number of detentions they have.  Multiple times per week.  Every week.

I’m nosey, so I butted myself into their conversation and asked a question I knew the answer to: “So, do you think detentions work for you?” After I got the anticipated, “no” response, I asked another question, “What would work?  What would get you to not break rules and policies that end up with you in detention?”

Cleaning up the language a bit and paraphrasing their answer, “Well, if teachers here weren’t such jerks that’d help.”  Whether or not I think some of my colleagues are giant_businessman_watch_man_1600_clr_18803“jerks” isn’t the point – the point is that students have a rational reason to sometimes perceive us as “jerks.”

At the heart of any persisting classroom behavior issue is a student who doesn’t feel respected, heard, or engaged.  Most students only continue to act out when they feel a moral justification to do so.

This isn’t to say that all misbehavior is preventable – only to say that when a digression isn’t handled with a respect mindset, it is more likely to continue. I’m also not saying we pander and turn the keys over, but I do think these guys have a point – sometimes teachers are jerks.

  • Stop the power struggle – Inspire.  Don’t require.
  • Stop escalating.   Be the adult.  Diffuse.  Model appropriate conflict resolution.
  • Stop using punitive grading.  Separate behaviors from learning.
  • Stop “making an example” out of students.  Public shaming isn’t respectful.  Why give a stage and a spotlight?
  • Stop blocking the bathroom.  There is a difference between use and abuse of power.  Going to the bathroom is not a privilege, it is a right.
  • Stop cold calling.  Motivate.  Don’t enervate.
  • Stop enforcing compliance rules.  Let them pull their hood up.  Let them wear the sunglasses.  These don’t interrupt learning.  The power struggle does.
  • Stop putting up obstacles.  Give second chances.  Allow for transgression and correction.
  • Stop doling out cold consequences.   Have a conversation.  Understand the “why.” Hear their perspective.
  • Stop blaming students for being disengaged.  Reach every student, not just the easy students.

I hear someone somewhere reacting to this post with the following:

“When are students going to learn the role of authority in their lives?  Isn’t there value in students learning how to deal with a boss who might be a jerk?  This touchy-feely sanctimonious hokum is making fragile-minded adults – I am not going to be a part it.”

To these and other  like-minded sentiments, I say,

“Being a despot in your classroom only gives students practice fighting despotism.  They might find a boss in their future who is also a jerk, but that should not be now.  Modeling the worst version of leadership does not instill the skills a student needs to act adaptively – it is only creating a survival mentality.  This “hokum” meets students where they are.  It opens the door for all students to learn.  It allows room for kidults to make the mistakes they are going to.  It allows students to know your school is a safe place.  No student should have to endure a bully at the front of the classroom in order to gain their rightful access to an education.  There is no justification.”

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Projects: Stop Assessing the Product and Start Assessing the Learning

Projects:  Stop Assessing the Product and Start Assessing the Learning

Vision of Projects

When teachers design a project, the goal is often to create an engaging way for students to demonstrate their learning.  Hopes of grandeur, pride, and high order thinking abound.  Every moment a student is working, they are considering the central concepts and re-imagining their potential.  Projects are meant to get students intrinsically motivated to create something unique.

Reality of Projects

A lot of our students dread projects – and for good reason.  They have been conditioned to see them as simply a homework assignment on steroids.  Projects are viewed as monolith time-suckers that rarely merit the effort required to complete. Projects all too often are simply self-serving artifacts of teacher “effectiveness.”  1-quote-about-what-gets-measured-gets-improved-peter-drucke-image-coloured-background

Students tend to focus on the product itself and not the learning.  They’ll spend countless hours formatting their slide shows while not fully understanding what is on the slide show.  Students work through the night decorating a poster or making a diorama.  They end up learning about the idiosyncrasies of hot glue and the value of fuzzy pipe cleaners without ever delving into the deeper questions of analysis, synthesis or evaluation of the content.  Why does this happen?  Because of how students are traditionally assessed.  Do a Google image search for “project rubrics” and you’ll get umpteen examples of how teachers are assessing projects.  Just a quick analysis of the first few results (I used 6 out of the first 7 results to prove my point here.  Here’s the one I didn’t use!) shows the following areas that are getting “assessed”:

  • 25% of the final grade:  Appeal (novice – lacks appeal;  expert – visually creative and artistic) linked here.
  • 37.5% of the final grade:  attractiveness, rehearsal of presentation, and originality (compare this to 12.5% of the final grade being content) linked here.
  • 40% of the final grade:  display (visual appeal) and presentation (enthusiasm, confidence) linked here
  • 60% of final grade: smoothness of delivery, attractiveness, and formatting (compare this with 20% of the grade for content and 20% for meeting whatever the requirements of this project were) linked here
  • 60% of final grade: eye contact, clarity of voice, and organization (compare this 20% of the final grade for content) linked here
  • 83% of the final grade: team work, confidence, poise, creativity, and how “interesting” linked here.rt5

When students realize that they are making an art project in a non-art classroom, it isn’t surprising that many fail to see the value.  Especially when, for the majority of projects, there is very little originality of thought required.  Many projects are simply asking kids to copy information from one source to another.  Even projects that do require students to evaluate the information have “production” components that are often meaningless beyond satisfying a teacher’s desire for aesthetics.


Projects need to be driven by student passion.  The additional work required to create something new becomes a burden to a student if they don’t find meaning.  Projects also need to include a high degree of reflection and identify clear parameters for what growth is expected and what it looks like.  I’ve created this Project Planning and Assessment Document that follows these steps: Project Planning and Assessment


  1. Start by presenting background knowledge.  Students need to know what they don’t yet know.  It is unfair to simply tell a student to “think of a project.” They need some guidance.
  2. Have students create guiding questions.  These questions will help focus their research as well as provide a way to measure their progress.  If there are answers to these questions at the end, learning has occurred!  The questions are critical – the role of the teacher is to give early feedback on the quality of the guiding questions.
  3. Establish value.  Once the questions are created, it is time for the student consider the personal value of the questions.  If none can be found, the questions need to be modified.
  4. Consider final assessment.  How will the student be assessed on their learning after the product is created?  Again, the product should not be assessment.  The process of creating the product should lead to authentic learning.  Measure this learning afterwards.  Because the learning process was individualized, so too should the assessment.
  5. Purposefully target other skills.  These are the additional skills a student needs in order to complete the product.  Provide formal feedback on the skills. Guide students to focus on identified areas of need.  Do not grade any skills that are not part of the identified standards or learning objectives.
  6. Monitor student progress.  Students should actively participate in creating their own deadlines to meet the target completion date.  Touching base with students keeps the teacher involved in the process, helps ensure the student is being set up for success, and provides an opportunity to modify the process/project to meet the end goal of learning.
  7. Have students self-assess.  Issue the assessment and have the student reflect on their level of knowledge acquisition.  Set the expectation that students will explain how they know they have reached the level they are at and if there is anything more that should/could be done.  They should also reflect on the product and their targeted skills in the same manner.
  8. Ensure fidelity of the score.  Once the student has submitted their final product, taken a separate assessment, and completed their self-reflection, the teacher’s role is give feedback on the self-reflection.  The teacher needs to use their professional judgement to determine the level of knowledge obtained.  If there is a disagreement, a clear path for what else needs to be accomplished should be laid out for an improvement.


The assessment needs to be on the learning objective.  Incorporating “aesthetics” or “presentation” into the final grade distorts the message about what a student knows.  Learning how to present information in a clear and professional manner is important.  Public speaking and having pride in one’s work are also important.  Give feedback on the presentation and production; grade the learning separately.

The assessment should be separate from the product.  Most projects are done with access to resources and therefore the amount of content knowledge retained is difficult to ascertain.  Help from family members or modification of publicly available information can also distort the learning obtained from doing a project.

A separate in-class assessment of an essay or a one-on-one conversation with the student is more likely to elicit valid and reliable data on the true acquisition of knowledge.  Consider using a proficiency scale instead of arbitrarily counting points.  Look at the evidence:  does it show that the student is still in the process of building a knowledge base?  does it show that the student has a solid knowledge base?  does the evidence show that the student is competent enough with the material to analyze? or does the evidence show that the student has mastered the material well enough to synthesize or evaluate?

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Invalid Assessments that Distort Student Outcomes

Invalid Assessments that Distort Student Outcomes

Many traditional assessments include significant distorting factors like cheating, access to technology/resources, group work, personality differences, attendance, differences in learning time, home-lives, and “apathy.”  These distorting factors make many of these assessments invalid tools to determine a final summative grade.

Although many are not valid, some of these assignments may have some value as a learning task or practice event.  Valid assessments don’t include distorting factors, respect differences in learning paces, equalize opportunity, and require students to perform with carefully controlled and selected resources.  

The following are traditional assessments that may end up as part of a final grade but often don’t pass the validity test. (see flow chart at the bottom of this post)

Worksheet (practice) – The primary purpose of this type of worksheet is to provide an opportunity for students to practice the concepts.  These don’t tend to require higher level cognitive operations.  Often, not all students need this type of practice.  Practice paper_custom_magnify_19689and process should not be graded – the outcomes of this practice and process should be.  Reconsider the value of this assignment and who you give it to.  Including this type of practice into a final grade is not justifiable.

Worksheet (learning) – The primary purpose of this type of worksheet is to guide students to discovery of content.  Assuming the task is aligned to learning targets, this may be a quality assignment for students to do.  This is a process task – as such it should not be figured into the final grade.  Give feedback on the observable process.  The outcomes and new abilities potentially gained from this task should be assessed separately.

Essay (in-class) – An in-class essay response with careful consideration and control of the tools/resources available to complete the work is often a quality summative assessment – assuming that it is aligned to learning targets.

Essay (out-of-class) – An out-of-class essay response that is aligned to learning targets may be a quality learning task or quality practice.  Unless access to resources is ink_and_pen_1600_clr_11647able to be controlled in scope and equitable access is guaranteed, the amount/type of help available to students distorts the outcome.  Feedback is important for these types of essays; however, incorporating them into the grade cannot be justified.

Project – Projects rarely are summative in nature.  Projects tend to be effective tools in helping students learn material in a contextual way.  High quality projects also provide opportunities for students to practice using the material in a reflective/high order manner. Projects tend to be complex.  The complexity reduces the likelihood that an individual learning task, objective, or standard can be reliably assessed.  Projects also tend to span a longer period of time and work is often done not in view of the teacher.  Access to resources, technology, and materials further distort the outcomes.

Group Work – It is nearly impossible to determine individual levels of understanding figures_race_ladders_to_idea_light_bulb_1600_clr_18125and ability from a group project.  It is unlikely one of your academic standards includes “works well with others.”  Group work is crucial to the development of thestudent and is critical to the collaborative classroom; however, it has no place in the final grade. Group work needs to stay in the realm of learning and not assessment.

Bell Ringer – Bell work or bell ringer activities are seen as best-practice.  When done well, they are a valuable tool that helps kids focus, review, and connect their thinking.  No matter how well done, bell work is not likely to meet the standard for inclusion in the final grade.  Most of the time, bell work is “graded” on completion.  Simple completion tells very little about what a student knows and is able to do; therefore, it should not be included in the final grade.

Quiz – The curricular timing and specific definition of “quizzes” vary.  If the primary focus of the quiz is to check the progress of students, it should not be included in the student_thinking_1600_clr_15111final grade.  Progress and process have no place in the final grade – the outcomes of the progress and process are what should make up the entirety of a final grade report.  If the quiz is meant as a measure of learning and it is aligned to learning standards, it is
possible that it might have value in the final grade picture.

Multiple Choice Test – If the test is aligned to learning targets and it is properly timed, a multiple choice test may be of high enough quality to be a valid measurement of progress.  However, multiple choice tests most often are measuring the ability of a student to recognize an answer as opposed to recalling an answer.  Recognition requires less of a cognitive load than recall; therefore, it is important to be selective about when multiple choice is used.

Reading Check – Any questions or assessments that are meant to simply check if a student has completed their reading assignment is the same thing as a “completion” grade.  There is little valuable information beyond behaviors and habits that this type of assessment provides.  These don’t belong in the final grade.

Participation – Requirements of students to actively participate in debates, class conversations, or response to questions don’t respect the diversity of the student base.standout_student_sleeping_in_class_1600_clr_15709  These are simply completion points and don’t serve much more of a purpose than to give data on student engagement and how out-going a student may be.  These points should have no impact on the final grade.

If I don’t grade it, will kids do it?

I know for a fact the answer is yes.  My students don’t receive grades for their projects or learning tasks.  They do the work because they know that it directly leads to acquisition of the material I am holding them accountable for on their recall assessments.  Students also understand what my expectations for behavior and productivity are.  When a student doesn’t meet those expectations, these situations are handled as a misbehavior with a behavior, not academic, consequence.

See my related posts:


Consider this flow chart when analyzing the validity of your own assessments.

Validitiy of Assessment.png

8 Reasons Your Deadline Policy Is Damaging to Your Students

8 Reasons Your Deadline Policy Is Damaging to Your Students

Classroom policy that includes rigid due dates and inflexible deadlines is likely counter-productive and damaging to your students for the following eight reasons:

  1. It distorts learning outcomes.  When a rigid deadline prevents a student from turning in work that they are able to do – and that missing work is a component of the final grade, the report on learning is missing valuable information about what a student knows and is able to do.
  2. It causes students to give up.  Inflexible due dates that come and go create a hurdle for future student performance.  Students may or may not have a reason that is acceptable to the teacher for not meeting the deadline.  However, when prevention of turning in work impacts the final grade outcome, it becomes more difficult to motivate an already potentially under-motivated student after they have missed an assignment.
  3. It makes learning optional.  When the primary motivation for a student to complete work is to avoid punitive grading practices like points off for late work or zeros, mathematics and gaming of points become the goal of many.  If a student is satisfied with simply passing or doesn’t have an inherent desire for high marks, not doing difficult or time-consuming tasks become rational choices.
  4. It doesn’t respect the complexity of student lives.  A student may not meet deadlines for a variety of reasons – some deemed “acceptable” and others not.  However, all reasons are likely rational to the student.  Perhaps a challenging course load is forcing students to choose between sleep and school work completion.  Perhaps it is mental health, poverty, or access to resources that is the lead cause.  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs might be at the root of the “apathy.”  Violence or addiction may also be a cause.  Personality conflicts, personal tragedies, poor time management skills, lack of understanding, family commitments, cultural hurdles, or a myriad of other reasons could be why a student isn’t completing the assignment.  Expecting a student to communicate potentially embarrassing hurdles to their completion will likely not end up with favorable results.
  5. It sends the wrong message about the purpose of the assignment.  The main purpose of a teacher is to teach.  The main purpose of a learning task is to learn.  When a policy in place sends the message that the mere completion of a task supersedes the learning meant to take place or the role of a teacher is to simply manage said completion, the task itself becomes devalued and the relationship between teacher and pupil is degraded.  This is when work completion enters the realm of a power struggle.
  6. It abdicates responsibility to inspire.  Students will complete quality work on time if they find it valuable to do so.  Hiding behind the false pretense of student apathy or lack of motivation/respect puts all the blame on the student.  The teacher has a responsibility to demonstrate the value of the content and how the learning tasks align.  It is true that some students are more difficult to inspire than others – this is the job.
  7. It puts a deadline and limit on learning.  It cannot be argued that any learning task that is so critically important to the outcome of student learning should not be able to be completed.  Any argument to the contrary is absolutely putting a deadline and limit on learning.  If we are to meet students where they are and get them to where we need them to be, we need to accept that some students will be ready to complete the task at a later time than others.
  8. Is not teaching the responsibility or accountability you think it is.  Holding students responsible for the work and accountable for deadlines must ultimately include completion and proper intervention.  Simply punishing the lack of responsibility with punitive grading is not the same as teaching responsibility and certainly isn’t holding the student accountable.

For a few ideas on how to motivate students to complete work without the use of punitive grading, see my post, 15 Strategies for Motivating Students that Don’t Involve Punitive Grading

How to Hold a Class Meeting with Older Students

How to Hold a Class Meeting with Older Students

Our classrooms are filled with students who have unique personalities, come from diverse backgrounds, and possess different abilities.  Sometimes, we can get lucky and a productive harmony just happens.  Most of the time, there are personality clashes that inhibit our vision of establishing a culture of mutual respect and productivity.  Whether your classroom culture is reminiscent of Shangri-La or has more in common with rush hour traffic in Delhi, holding regular class meetings can be an important tool to mitigate behavior issues and teach expectations.  Below are guidelines and talking points to get you started.

Give Rationale/ Get Buy-In ⇒ Introduce the concept of the class meeting as an opportunity to build on (or work on building) relationships.  Share that it is an opportunity to express feelings, gratitude, and frustrations in a safe way.

“As much as I care about you learning ______, I also care about how you are doing, what you like about this class, and what you dislike about this class.   Research shows that when we are anxious, unhappy, or feel dismissed,  we don’t learn as well.  I want to ensure that we are taking time to respect that our feelings count.  Today, I’d like to hold a class meeting for us to share  our feelings, stresses, frustrations, and maybe even some gratitude in an open and safe environment so we can continue to improve together. “


Establish Norms ⇒ It is imperative to make explicit the expectations of how the class meeting will go.  Explain that this isn’t a conversation like they might have with their friends – it is still a classroom.  Explain also that the purpose of meetings is to identify problems and think about solutions.  Those goals can’t happen if multiple people are speaking at once.  Further, in order to prevent the meeting from devolving into a “gripe” session, it is important to remind that the focus is on solutions.  For groups that find taking turns speaking a challenge, consider using a talking piece to help manage the conversation.

“I want to make sure each individual who has something to say has the opportunity to be heard.  We know we can’t just all talk at once – as hard as it is going to be, in order for this to be successful, we need respect each other enough to not interrupt and to politely raise our hands when we have something to add.  I’ll do my best to give everyone a chance to say their piece and I apologize if I miss anyone.  For this to be effective, we can’t just list complaints.  If possible, try to add a potential solution or alternative to anything negative.  Understand as well, there may be some things you or I don’t like that are non-negotiable we need to learn to manage them instead of eliminate them.”


Identify Area(s) of Growth ⇒ Consider focusing your class meeting around a central idea or a distracting/destructive pattern of behavior.  Without a starting point, it can be difficult to elicit responses.  This focus can also help prevent the meeting from heading down the path of “teacher vs. student.”

“A top concern for me is the way that we tend to ____________ when ____________.  The reason(s) I see this as a significant issue is/are ____________________.


Elevate ⇒ Let students know you have high expectations and believe they can and will meet them.  Don’t open the door to the possibility that they won’t.

“I thank-you in advance for ‘adulting up’ and taking this seriously.  What do you think about what I said was  a top concern for me? __________?”


Be Open and Calm ⇒ Be prepared for open and honest feedback – that is what you are asking for.  Upper middle school and high school students aren’t exactly known for their tact and eloquent poise.  Thank students for being honest and rephrase sharp criticism in the way you’d like to have heard it.

“That’s a little hard to hear phrased in that manner.  I want to make sure I understand your point-of view.  Are you saying _______________________?”

Rethinking the Role of Projects

Rethinking the Role of Projects

High quality student projects can be valuable in the learning process; however, using them as an assessment tool runs the risk of distorting what a student knows and is able to do.

Quality projects involve significant student choice, are highly rigorous, are aligned to standards/learning targets, involve collaboration,and hit on various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.

Great projects provide an outlet for students to apply the content of a course and create something new.  Collaboration, discussion, research, and cross-curricular connections are additional benefits of using projects to aid in the learning process.  There is definitely a value to incorporating them into your lesson planning.

Poor projects don’t respect the realities of student time/ access to resources, are teacher chosen modalities that inhibit student creativity, and have requirements that are not aligned to standards.  These projects get perceived by most students as the burdens of our system.  They are worse than busy-work, they are over-work.

If the project is so valuable to the learning process, time should be set aside during class time to be able to complete the project.  If a project can’t meet the high standard of being worth class time, it certainly won’t meet the higher standard of being worth family time.

Unless the project was entirely done during class time, it is difficult to determine the amount of support each student received during the creation of the product.  Parental involvement, uneven effort from group members, and access to resources are just some of the ways achievement can be misrepresented.

Even the best student projects don’t reliably demonstrate what a student truly knows or is able to do after the product was created –  grading the product itself does not provide any evidence that the knowledge and skills required were retained.

The role of projects is to facilitate the learning process.  They are formative in nature and provide multiple opportunities for on-going feedback.  After the project event, a formal summative assessment can be used to reliably and validly measure the amount of knowledge and extent of skills each student has.

Will students do the work if they aren’t getting a grade for it?  Yes, if they see the value in the process.  Here are 15 strategies for motivating students without bribing them with a grade.