Late in the fall two middle school teachers came to my office with a dilemma: “We don’t want to be guilty of grade inflation, but the grading system isn’t fair. Holly, for instance, works really hard. She always does her homework and participates in class. She is actually a great student, but she is math-phobic. She keeps failing her tests. We don’t know what to do.”
I asked, “Well, you say she is a great student. What does that look like? What does ‘participates in class’ look like?”
“She’s just great at working with others.”
“Yes, but what does that look like? If we can describe it we can measure it, if we can measure it, we can grade it.”
“Well, she builds on other people’s ideas…”
“…and she asks good questions, and well, it’s her attitude…”
“But what does a great attitude look like?”
We decided to include the whole faculty in the discussion, and two meetings later we had a new report card. We decided to give two grades—one for “Learning,” another for “Mastery”—and average them. Sara might get “F” in mastery, “A” in learning, and a “C” for the course. To be rigorous we picked ten observable behaviors and named them “Disciplines of a Learner:”
- Asks questions
- Builds on other people’s ideas
- Uses mistakes as learning opportunities
- Takes criticism constructively
- Speaks up
- Welcomes a challenge
- Takes risks
- Listens with an openness to change
- Perseveres in tasks
- Knows when to lead and when to follow.
Graded on a four point scale of 4=consistently, 3=often, 2=sometimes, 1=rarely, students could set goals to improve their learning.
Problem solved. And of course, Holly started getting B’s with no grade inflation, because she could see that her learning, not her intelligence, mattered. (And as Carol Dweck would predict, her intelligence actually grew.) The high schools loved the transcript because they were given more information about what lay behind a B- or a C+. They began reporting back that they loved our graduates because they were leaders.
When students felt they could control their own progress toward success, the whole middle school took another giant step toward being a learning community. When students felt they owned their destiny, the incidence of negative behaviors (bullying, cheating, rule-breaking, etc.) plummeted, also.
What does this have to do with bullying? People’s behavior is mostly a function of their social context (Lee Ross), and bullying is no exception. If there are only a few narrow measures of success, then winning at the game of school looks hopeless for some, and they take other paths–some that are destructive.
In “Bully-Proofing Kids” Michele Borba details about 60 things that parents can do to combat bullying. But these are coping mechanisms. To banish bullying from schools we have to change the culture, and to change the culture, we have to measure what matters. People don’t bully when they are practiced at speaking up, asking questions, making a difference to others, pursuing goals that are meaningful to them, solving problems, resolving conflicts, making mistakes, learning and leading. When kids are on a meaningful mission bullying just doesn’t enter in—conflict yes, but bullying, no. When a classmate falters and gets mean, there are others who stand strong and lead him/her back to better ways.
With a report card that measures only mastery, perhaps with “citizenship” almost as a footnote, will the students tend to practice the behaviors of good citizenship? We can teach values till our faces get red, but students are mainly focused on learning how to play the game. Therefore, we must redesign the game to get the results we want. Aligning elements of culture to support leading and learning produces not just higher academic achievement, but the kind of workers, citizens and neighbors our world needs.
People need to feel they have value; when that prospect looks bleak, they (and those close to them) are at risk.