A Blurry Focus

Ask any educator what their focus is and I imagine most would tell you the focus is always: learning.  Yea, that’s got to be the most common answer.  Yet, if you take a look at some common practices through the lens of learning, I think it would reveal a blurry focus, at best.


Here is a list of common classroom practices that we should all reconsider this year.  If you’re brave enough to reconsider these practices, you’ll find yourself taking steps to bring the focus of your classroom on learning.

  • Extra points for limited bathroom trips.  If you’re students claim that mother nature calls every day during your class, giving extra points in an effort to stymie mother nature is definitely blurring the focus in your classroom.  Especially in the secondary level, school is too often viewed as a game to students.  Those who win are good at leveling up, collecting extra points, and taking advantage of silly bonuses like this one.  Great teachers don’t have to give extra points to keep kids from hiding in the bathrooms during their class.
  • Handing out participation points.  So you say the focus is on learning?  Do you know what those daily participation points do to a student’s grade?  The answer many teachers would give is just unfortunate: it gives some kids a boost at the end of the grading period.  That response is not one that reflects a focus on learning.  It reflects a focus on giving As.  Stay with me till the end here.
  • Detailed rubrics for A-B-C-D-F handed out in the syllabus at the beginning of the year.  I know what you’re thinking, “hey now, I’m just being clear about what it takes to get an A.”  You are clear, and now the game is on.  I guess it’s possible to clearly state your tolerances for mastery in a detailed rubric like that, but I haven’t seen one.  Far too often I find those rubrics have the silliest language about numbers of sentences, numbers of problems, time spent on _____, etc.

So what is more effective than those practices?  I’m no psychologist but I think a lot of times the thing that blurs the focus in many classrooms is the teacher’s need for control.  You can sharpen the focus on learning by giving up control.  It almost sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it?  It may sound scary too, but it’s true.  Instead of detailed rubrics spelling out the limits for A-B-C-D-F, let’s be sure your grades reflect evidence of, you guessed it, learning.  What evidence of learning does a participation grade reflect?  If teachers are brave enough to look in the mirror, they’ll eventually admit that participation grades are used as a classroom management tool to bait students into participating in their class.  Think about it, the only way you can get kids to pay attention is to hand out points for it?  Sitting quietly and breathing doesn’t reflect learning and it shouldn’t impact a student’s grade.

I’m not suggesting you keep the requirements for an A a mystery till the end, but classrooms with a true focus on learning put the responsibility for establishing the bar in the hands of the students.  Classrooms with a focus on learning have clearly defined learning targets that students can articulate.  The tests align with those pre-established learning targets.  Here’s a challenge for you, during your next class, ask your students what mastery would look like for any of your learning targets.  Can they articulate it?  If not, the focus is blurry.  If your students can provide evidence of what mastery would look like, your focus is on learning.  When your students complete an assessment, do they get an opportunity for a retake ?  Is their actionable descriptive feedback provided?  If not, the focus isn’t on learning.

I’d love to hear from you.  Leave a comment or a tweet about your thoughts.


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