Sharing Circle – My foray into the unknown.


Last Wednesday I went looking for a branch. It was just prior to my first grade 9/10 leadership class of the year, and I found myself searching frantically for an ‘object’. Never before had I needed an ‘object’ to start the year, but this time was different from any of my other 18 starts to the teaching year.

With support and encouragement from two SD67 colleagues, Naryn Searcy (@nsearcy17) and Judith King (@judithaking), I decided it was time to try a sharing circle. It seemed that all of the pieces just fell together at the right time to push me out of my teacher-centered comfort zone. Just last week I attended a fantastic professional learning day put on by Judy Halbert (@jhalbert) and Linda Kaser (@lkaser). They started the day off by splitting the large group into two sharing circles and gave us these prompts: (1) share with the group one highlight from your summer and (2) let people know something you are looking forward to in the year to come. It was a great start to the day as everyone had a voice! Linda made an interesting comment to the effect that sharing circles have been a part of human existence for thousands of years, and should not be discounted as a powerful tool to aid in our communication and understanding of each other. This argument certainly caught my attention.

As the start of my leadership class drew near, I sought advice. Naryn was incredibly helpful in sending me a link to her site including the background and protocol for sharing circles. 

Back to the branch. Advanced planning has never been my forte, so it came as little surprise that i did not have an object ready for the first day of the circle. Five minutes before class I found myself removing a branch from a tree at school as there were none on the ground to choose from. For the record, the branch I selected looked to be one in need of pruning. A student passing by asked why I was removing a branch and I told her I needed it for class. As fate would have it, she was one of my leadership students.

DAY 1: The first attempt went quite well. I started by relaying the protocols listed by Naryn, but I did not post a sign on the door. There were only 14 students in my class, so I thought I would wait until the class lists were solidified. After covering the protocol, I asked the students to tell the group a little about themselves and I asked them to consider the two questions used by Halbert and Kaser.  The sharing circle start to the year was well outside my comfort zone, and I let the students know about my discomfort in trying something new. I also commented that leaders need to take risks and model that for others, and on that note I decided to go first. About half the class kept their responses very short, but a few students went into detail. I left class energized and excited about introducing a new element to my teaching. I was certain we were going to do another circle the following day.

DAY 2: During our second circle, we must have been interrupted about five times as new students entered the class. Clearly the counsellors were sorting out the grade 9 class lists as my class population of 14 soon turn to 28. As we expanded the circle by adding more chairs, I repeated the protocols for those new to the class. The sharing topic asked students to share their favourite movie or book, tell us a little about the premise and why they liked it. Naryn had advised me to give the students a few minutes to consider the question before starting. This was sage advice. The responses were much more detailed compared to day 1. As each student held the branch and shared their favourite entertainment portals or book choices, I could see that students around the circle react with gestures and expressions (silent) that showed agreement or approval. Based on this observation I decided to pass the branch around the circle again and let students respond to whomever they liked. One student started with, ‘I can relate to {student name] as I too like that book series.’ This stated a chain reaction with many students using the same intro statement. I watched students reach across the circle with their words of agreement, support and connection – it was really neat to see.

DAY 3: Students could choose between two questions: (1) What are your plans for the weekend? or (2) What is the scariest experience you have had in encountering an animal? The sharing went really well, with the more detailed responses entering around the second choice.

DAY 4 (Monday): To be fair to the animal kingdom, I asked students to share something about their favourite pet or animal, or they could choose to share a highlight from the weekend. The conversation was slow at first, but when I passed the branch around for the second time, there was a lot of responses to what others had shared.

Compared to last year, the first four classes have resulted in developing community much faster and I already get the sense that students are willing to share on a level usually experienced further into the year. I agree with those who promote this method of communication and community-building in that students feel empowered by either speaking or choosing to ‘pass’.

I will make a sincere attempt to  continue sharing of this experience as the year progresses. My intention is to start each week with a sharing circle. To be continued…


Week 5: We have started off each week with a circle and once in a while we run one mid-week. Some topics have included ‘scariest/funniest animal experience’, ‘defend your favourite fruit’, and a few others. Todays’ topic, ‘LOST & FOUND’, resulted in our best sharing circle yet. I shared a quick story with my students. Over the weekend I left an article of clothing at the hockey rink where I was part of a coaching clinic. In the pockets were my wedding ring, watch, $200 US, and my phone holder. Much to my delight, when I returned to the rink this morning the rink attendant had picked up the item and all contents were still in the pockets. I asked the students to select one of the following topics:

  • Tell us about something you have lost.
  • Tell the circle about something you found.
  • Share a time when you lost something and later found it.

The results were amazing. We had the branch go around the circle 6 times and the stories were funny, interesting, and even sad. Some students passed the branch four times and felt safe to share on the fifth lap. Before I even noticed, 50 minutes had gone by and students were still busy relating to one another, sharing personal accounts and listening to the oral histories of each other. It was incredible. I am seeing students beginning to weave in personal elements that up until now have been left out. A student mentions that he/she has not seen a family member for a long time, another mentions the closeness he feels with a sibling that has moved out, someone shares a now funny account of being terrified while lost in a crowd.

Today I asked students to reflect on their thoughts on the sharing circle experience thus far. Here are two journal entries that are typical of many. To be continued…

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An Exciting Month…

July 2014 will go down as one of the more exciting months for me professionally. After more than 2 years and a total of about 400 hours of planning, writing and editing, I am very excited to announce that my first book has been released through ASCD!   Book cover final   The book is currently available for order on the ASCD website. Click here for a direct link. In the upcoming weeks it will also be available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other retailers.

Book promo brochure

There are so many people to thank in relation to this project, arguably no one more so than a teacher from Qatar. At the 2011 NESA Conference in Athens, Greece, I offered a session entitled, ‘What are We Supposed to do About Homework?’. Following the session this teacher approached me with her own unique concerns. She worked at a school in which the vast majority of the student population hailed from wealthily families. She feared that paid tutors were doing the lion’s share of the ‘student’ homework she was grading. As she put it, ‘of course many of the tutors are doing the homework, it is their job protection!’  The next day I flew from Athens to Montreal and for the entire 11-hour flight I wrote about homework, and this collection of thoughts eventually came to form the first draft chapter.

In particular I owe much to Ken O’Connor (Author: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades) as he has been a constant source of ideas, direction and support during my foray into the realm of assessment and grading. The extent to which I am indebted to him increased greatly when he agreed to write the foreword to the book. Thanks Ken!

Another exciting feature this month is that I will be doing my first webinar. I encourage people who are ASCD members to join me for an ASCD webinar on July 22 at 3:00 PM ET. See the ASCD site for details or click here.

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The people at ASCD have been incredibly helpful throughout this project and I am very grateful that they saw the potential in this book.

To my readers, I welcome comments of all types from those who take the time to explore this book. Feel free to let me know your thoughts as we continue the conversation on how to encourage students to learn and how to effectively and accurately assess it.

Myron Dueck

July 2014


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading

Double Dip: One Idea in the When vs. If Power Struggle

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The more I look at school grading schemes, increasingly I wonder: ‘why do schools put an unhealthy amount of emphasis on WHEN learning took place compared to IF it took place?’

For whatever reason, many educators continue to award a higher rank (or grade) to the student who learned something sooner than another student. Maybe we could refer to this as the Christopher Columbus Effect (CCE)*. Don’t get me wrong; a fair degree of earned notoriety does come with being first. Neil Armstrong, Emila Erhardt and anyone else who achieved a notable ‘first’ deserves as many medals as we can mint. But does the CCE apply to my Geography lesson? Arguably not. Perhaps in the realm of the classroom, IF it is learned should trump WHEN it is learned a little more often.

Let’s first look at the real life context. At the Portland Grading Conference in December, Tom Schimmer challenged the audience to consider the following argument:

When has it ever been relevant that you used to not be good at something?


This argument certainly caught my attention. Imagine this conversation…

Bob: ‘Hey Myron, I learned to ride a unicycle this afternoon! I feel so proud!’ 
Myron: “Yeah, but you didn’t know how to last weekend.’
 Bob: “ok….”
 Myron: “Furthermore, Bob, I would like to point out that a lot of others have learned to ride unicycles prior to you. This means that they learned it before you did. Just sayin’.”


If I made comments like this I would have even fewer friends than I do now.  What possible relevance would there be to pointing out to someone who just learned something that some sort of bizarre chronology rendered the accomplishment less meaningful? However, in schools we have acted in a similar manner for quite some time. Despite overwhelming evidence, in fact our very own test data, we often ignore the manifestation of learning WHEN it does not conform to a specific timeline.

The conversation could go something like this…

Student: “I finally get it, I figured it out! Look at my work…”
Teacher: “Too bad the test was yesterday.
Student: “Darn it.”
Teacher: “Yeah, you seem to have mastered it now. Imagine if you had demonstrated that learning at the appropriate time. I suggest you study sooner for the next test.”


If universities were at one point the consistent and solid bastions of WHEN over IF, that pendulum seems to be swinging more to the centre as well. Consider this screen shot from the MIT website concerning undergraduate grading:

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WHEN Does Matter

In attempting to remain consistent with the real life conversation, there are times WHEN a student must perform, and indicate in the moment IF he has learned the material. Perhaps the teacher’s suggestion of ‘studying sooner’ is good advice. In a school system that relies on timelines and schedules, we cannot ignore the reality that WHEN often matters. I personally feel that teachers who offer seemingly limitless reassessment opportunities are not only compromising the authenticity of the assessment data, but are also setting up students for a nasty shock should they encounter a more rigid testing system. We cannot ask our teachers to grade reams of assignments and tests every time a student feels that an improvement is possible. Furthermore, there is a time when we must move on. If you drop a jar of pennies on the pavement while waiting for a bus, you may be forced to make the decision to leave a few behind in order to catch the bus before it leaves. Advancing forward at times comes at the expense of leaving something behind. That is real life.  (keep in mind you could wait to catch the next bus, which would cost more time).


The Need for Balance

Perhaps educators need to continually search for a balance in the WHEN vs. IF saga.

Consider a quote from a very capable student who experienced my retesting system in History 12 and observed it as a peer tutor in my grade 9 classroom.

Question: What do you think of the retesting system, especially seeing it from the ‘outside’ as a peer tutor.


Bryan’s response:

Testing is quite a cold, calculated experience – in my opinion, the testing experience is in contrast to what school is all about.

 I have heard teachers say that testing once is crucial because the world is not one of second chances – I tend to disagree.  Sure there are times where that is true, but I think it is the exception rather than the rule.

 …I mean, on one hand, I’ll joke with a teacher and be cordial.  Everyday seems to be “happy day”, until test day, and then it is suddenly cut-throat.  That guy over there figured it out before you did, he got it right on the day he was supposed to, and so he is ranked higher.  This type of testing system is inconsistent with what school should be. 

  That said, I am not suggesting retest after retest, that is impractical, but at least giving a student one more chance will indicate what they know and don’t know.

 The idea is to learn, not be punished for not learning faster.  


History 12 Student – Princess Margaret Secondary




I have come up with a one possible solution to the WHEN vs. IF struggle that also complies with my ‘grade smarter, not harder’ philosophy. I have come to refer to it as the ‘Double Dip’.

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As I have noted previously, and covered in detail in my Education Leadership article from November 2011, ‘How I Broke my Own Rule and Learned to Give Retests’, I split my tests by topic. Note the image from a Geography test front cover:


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In the Double Dip system I match the value of mid-unit quizzes with the corresponding values on the unit test. A 5-point quiz on ‘directions’ taken on March 5th will be matched with a 5 or 10-point ‘directions’ section found on the unit test 2 weeks later.

Students can be informed prior to the unit test that a Double Dip opportunity awaits them. Anyone who has learned more about directions since March 5th can demonstrate that on the unit test and replace the quiz score with an updated, and usually higher, test section score. Students who need a little more encouragement to study for the unit test may find the Double Dip opportunity to be a healthy nudge. It is rare that a student scores lower on the test section compared to the previous quiz, but when this happens I attempt to investigate the causes. In most cases the student is confused or made a simple error and is offered the chance to reestablish a good score on the unit test reassessment (and usually this is limited to one opportunity).

Teachers who are already burdened with a heavy grading load will appreciate that the ‘Double Dip’ system does not require the construction of a new set of ‘directions’ quizzes, and nor does it require another session of grading. Even the tracking of the improvements can be placed upon the students and lead to a sense of responsibility and empowerment. I have asked students to track the original quiz scores and to notify me of an increase on the corresponding test.

The WHEN vs. IF conversation is alive and well in my current circles of educational collaboration and this dialogue is healthy and refreshingly contemporary. I see the need for educators to align on a common belief and then to look for practices that more closely align to that belief. Perhaps most people agree that IF something is learned does trump WHEN it occurred. What might be needed as a next step are more examples of how to measure IF learning occurred  within a system that has time and energy constraints.


ps. Looking forward to seeing people at ASCD LA. Here is the info on my main session:


DAY and DATE of SESSION: Monday, 3/17/2014

TIME: 10-11:30am

SESSION TITLE: Creativity Is Great, but How Do Educators Assess It?


As well, I will be a panelist at the ASCD writers information session on Sunday, March 16, 1:00-2:30.


* Christopher Columbus is considered by many to have ‘discovered’ North America, but from a European perspective.


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading

I can’t assess that…


Imagine a student delivers her math project in the form of a song.  In response the teacher declares, ‘I am not creative, so I can’t assess that.’

While I understand this sentiment, I don’t think it is necessarily true. The teacher is not the person who needs to be creative in order for creative projects to be produced.

Let’s drift over to technology for a moment. There was a time in my career when I responded in a similar fashion concerning historical information.  What I was looking for on the unit test was a rendition of what I said I class – a reproduction of the notes I had researched, I had written and I had delivered with my historical biases. If a student asked how many tanks were produced by the Soviets in WWII, I responded, “I don’t know…I will look that up later.” I – I  Captain.

Clearly I was the information portal.  The legitimacy of information, regardless of the direction it was traveling went through TEACHER.

It took me a little while to notice, and much longer to accept, that a lot of people were walking around with something called a SmartPhone.  After a while I was saying things like, ‘Good question Andrew, someone look that up!’ In less than 10 seconds we had Russian tank data from 3 different online sources. We could then discuss the variance in information and explore causational factors for that.

Anyone reasonably conscious should see that we educators are no longer the information portal. The access to information, regardless of the direction, is free and readily available. The role of the teacher is increasingly that of facilitator, the designer of the learning opportunity. Obviously we still need to know things, I get that argument, but there is clearly a shift has occurred. Some have argued we are in a change era the likes of which we have not seen since the ‘printing-press’ (@scottmcleod). I think the future of testing is to somehow design our assessments to be completed while students have online access, but that conversation is for another day.

Back to creativity…

Any major change in information accessibility has been spurred by a shift in technology (printing press, radio, TV, Internet, Smart Phones, etc…), a subsequent power-shift in society has resulted.  In the classroom, the teacher need not be an expert in all things information any more, as the student will find it.  The same is true for creativity.  The teacher need not be creative in order to encourage and assess creative works.  Rather, if both the learner and the facilitator have the right tools, one to create and the other to assess, the sky (rather than the teacher’s level of creativity) can be the limit.

The key is to perform the following steps prior to embarking on creative projects:

  1. Ask the student to identify WHAT learning outcomes he will be investigating/addressing.
  2. Have the student identify the MEDIA he will be using to do it (and this can be multi-media) e.g. Johnny used a Lego model and a short write-up to demonstrate…
  3. Ask the student to explain HOW the learning outcomes will be demonstrated via each medium

It can look like this template that I use:

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(there are more rows in the original)

Suddenly the Math teacher need not understand the iPad app that what used to create the song, nor the arrangement of the notes that give it flair.  All the Math teacher needs to do is assess the extent to which the student demonstrated the learning outcome, and that is not a significant change from tradition. A teacher who was instrumental in getting me thinking this way and influencing the template was @narynsearcy – thank you!

I look forward to sharing more on this topic and some of the templates that have helped make this shift in my own classroom and school. The first opportunity will be at the 20th Annual Pearson Assessment Training Institute 
Summer Conference: Assessment for Learning: Doing It Right–Using It Well. During the July 8-10 Portland conference I will be sharing on creativity, retesting, and blending assessments with emerging technologies.  Later in July (24th) I will be in Lexington, KY to present on similar themes at the PIMSER conference entitled: Meeting the Challenge: Standards, Differentiation and Assessment.

Oh, and I will share that Math song courtesy of @geoffwaterman


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading

Learning on the Rocks

Elijah has become a very good mountain bike rider in a time span that baffles me.  He just turned 9 and he is riding sections of our trail that I would have predicted he would consider tackling in his teens. I have tried to dissect this experience in an effort to isolate some of the variables. As we climbed to the top of the trailhead this past weekend, I watched him, listened to his commentary and tried to determine what has ultimately led to his learning curve.


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Confidence – Elijah has had a series of winning streaks when it comes to his riding, but this has not been by accident.  I have been strategic in selecting our own trail system as a place for him to gain confidence and to enjoy the feeling of overcoming small obstacles. As Kanter talks about in her book of the same title, it is confidence that is the corner stone of success.

Resiliency – I enjoyed Dweck’s work Mindset, and it has been a formative piece in how I talk about success in learning.  I find that I sway away from commenting on Elijah’s natural abilities, and rather I acknowledge the positive effects that stem from his IMG_1070perseverance, tenacity and practice.  When he achieves success, I assist in pointing out the things he did to enjoy success, rather than the abilities he has. Beneath his helmet the other day he spoke about what he is saying to himself as he climbs the hill.  I recorded the account and he spoke of chanting to himself on the toughest sections, ‘Go, Elijah, Go’.

Project-based learning – I will admit that some of our projects get a little out of hand, but I will argue that is one of the most appealing aspects of a project.  We lose ourselves, at first in the design of the task and even more so in the IMG_0996execution. As long as we have an idea of where we are going, it is the journey that can protract. I think that Elijah has become a better rider by exploring not only the scope of his cycling, but in the very design of the trails.  I think it is important that he realize that trails and bridges do not appear by accident. Hard work, real materials and actual time result in tangible creations that can form a personal legacy.

Mentorship – I discuss my own struggles, successes and challenges when we ride. I talk about the sections that most challenge me and I share with him the personal goals I have set.  He has watched me on the days when I overcome these challenges and on the days when I do not. Rather than just talking about how he should deal with disappointment, I let him into my world when I feel beaten and discouraged.  Thankfully, this also allows me to share with him the joy of attaining a goal.  When I reached a personal goal on the weekend, Elijah was there to take a photo of the spot:


Tools – Materials and equipment matter.  Mental tools and skills meld with the plastic and metal that we ride.  The tools at our disposal make a difference and the fruits of design can greatly assist in our physical and mental challenges. When I watch him ride I cannot divorce from reality how much he benefits from having a good bike, a decent helmet,  gloves and fresh water. When I think of the bike I was riding at his age, it is no wonder that I was not climbing a rocky trail.

Elijah’s bike (age 9):


My bike (age 9):









Feedback – Riding provides feedback of every type.  A steering misstep can result in bailing into the sand, gravel or a jagged rock. Investing extra effort can be the difference between a repeated failure and finally surpassing a nagging hurdle. The immediacy of the feedback he enjoys while riding syncs with the tangible connections he makes to his own actions.


Relationships – I asked Elijah on a recent ride to indicate what he thought had made the biggest difference in his riding.  He did not hesitate in his response: “You.” At first this answer startled me, so I asked him why he had cited his dad as the biggest reason.  Between the huffs and puffs of his climb, he mentioned that I am the one who suggests that we ride, I am the one who gives him pointers, I bought his bike and I am the one who encourages him to succeed.  In all humility, I tend to agree with him…perhaps I am the biggest impact on his riding.


I do not think that learning in the school setting is all that different from what we have discovered on the trail. Students need to enjoy exploring the mystery and intrigue of a project that knows no limits, but only starts with a clear direction.  Students need to draw connections between effort and success and to combine these experiences to form confidence.  Students need the adults in their lives to supply them tools and feedback in order to engineer winning streaks. Most of all, students need us to form relationships with them by devling into the world of the new and the unattained.  They are looking for us to hold their hands when they require stability and to let them go from time to time and risk falling.  Whether mountain biking or Social Studies, skiing or Science, learning is a combination of elements that are interrelated and predictable.  The responsibility we have as educators is to continually work to create the opportunity.

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“That is a nice big target, especially if I can see it.”

I really enjoy my subscription to Scientific American Mind.  I stumbled upon a small article from July/August 2011 about a visualization experiment conducted by researchers at the Free University of Amsterdam.

The experiment was really simple:

–         Ask three different groups to putt a golf ball at a target 5 feet away.

–         Let each group see the target first, but then change the landscape for two of the groups:

  • Make one group putt under a curtain so that they cannot see the target.
  • Make one group put through a small obstacle enroute to the target.

–         Allow the last group to see the target with no obstacles.

After each group putted the golf ball, they were asked to estimate the size of the target on a computer screen.  The group that was able to have an unobstructed view of the target during the task described a bigger target.  This outcome is interesting, especially considering that each group was allowed to see the target first.

It is obvious that golfers in the first two groups clearly understood that the path to the target had changed.  Most surprising however, is that it would appear that barriers to a target negatively change people’s perception of the nature of the target itself.

Perhaps our students would perceive learning targets to be more attainable if they had a clear idea not only what these targets were, but if the targets were in clear view any time they needed them.

Something to think about…

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Filed under Assessment, In-School Suspension Inquiry, Sound Grading

The Best Learning is Difficult to Define

Our district has a program running within it called Through a Different Lens (TADL).  As best as I can tell, it is a whole bunch of things that serve to personalize learning, without being one thing in particular.

Even people in the project seem purposefully vague when it comes to attaching labels to it.  Here is what I mean: A teacher in the project recently posted the results of a cool Math project.  Students were asked to go out of the class, in groups of four, and take pictures of fractions around the school property.  After deciding that some ‘real world’ scene warranted the classification of a ratio of some kind, the group of students interpreted the mathematical context of the photo using a sentence. Simple. Innovative. Engaging.  When I commented to one of the TADL project leaders that it looked a lot like Differentiated Instruction, I was met with, ‘Sure, I guess so,’ followed by a shrug.

The reaction was fitting, as there are many ways to classify something that makes learning fun and engaging:

If the students shared it, call it collaboration.

If they receive feedback during the learning process, call it formative assessment.

If they review each others photos, I guess it is peer assessment.

“And it is their own thing!”  Personalized Learning…check.

…therein lies the point.

Once in a while you come across a phenomenon that is many good things wrapped up in one, and with that, the very people running it are reluctant to hitch it to one popular term.   It reminded me of a great restaurant I visited in Austin last year.  After eating an incredible meal, I asked the server what he considered to be the establishment’s specialty. The server responded, “food”.

The Through a Different Lens Project is changing lives and you can read more about it at their blog.

Good teaching is creative, education needs to be centered on relationships, authentic learning is formative in its processes, and be default all of this is personal.  What so many people struggle with is how to assess something that is creative and personal according to learning outcomes that are seemingly both standardized and rigid.

I have shared a rather simple assignment template (see example below) with a lot of educators and it allows students to not only be creative, but to also purposefully plan out the medium of their choice and to explain specifically how they plan to tackle the learning objectives.  Using this template, the teacher can assess a project that is novel in its approach, but linked to learning outcomes that are well-established. The example below incorporates a template that is preloaded with the existing learning outcomes so that there is no guessing as to what the learning objectives are.  Secondly, the learning path begins with clear objectives so that the chances that a great project may go sideways are certainly reduced.  This eliminates the conundrum, ‘But it looks so good, it must be good.” Lastly, and most importantly, the student is in control of defining what will be investigated and the manner in which it will occur.  Assessing this Holocaust project was really easy for me, as the student’s ‘assessment map’ was presented with the project.  I must say that the idea behind this template is much like the TADL project: a result of collaboration with Naryn Searcy.

Myron Dueck

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Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

Hockey, Measurement and Cognitive Dissonance – What do I do with what I know?

So it is that time of year again…hockey season.  Perhaps not for the NHL, but seemingly everywhere else in Canada.  My wife and I braced for the inevitable this fall – two kids in minor hockey and all the related practices, games, meetings and miles. As a parent I lace ‘em up for my own kids 3 to 4 times a week.  If it ever gets cold again, and our backyard rink freezes, that will change to 6 or 7 times a week.

Thanks to Hockey Canada, the emergence of a new season also brings with it testing and evaluation.  We put our young skaters through 6 different skill and speed activities to measure both development and comparison to other skaters across Canada in the same age group. Shooting accuracy, agility and speed are all measured and assessed.


A nation-wide measurement tool naturally comes with some parameters and rules.  For instance, in one of the speed drills we use a stopwatch to measure the speed at which each skater completes a set route.  It was suggested that one of the rules was that skaters be given 2 chances to register a time and we would take the best time.  When I took on this particular station last year, stop watch and clipboard in hand, it seemed pretty simple.  That was until ‘Jimmy’ took his turn.  Jimmy was arguably our team’s best skater – fast, agile and nimble.  In games he usually scored his three maximum allowable goals and for the sake of this topic, he very seldom fell to the ice.


When he took his turn for the timed speed event, he gave it his all, but fell on his first two attempts as he sought to lean extra low  into the third corner.  I attempted to counsel Jimmy that he make sure he complete the course and register a good time, even if it was not his absolute best time possible.  I bent the rules a little and gave him a third attempt.  On his third attempt he fell again on the same corner.  Drat.


Enter cognitive dissonance. A while back I listened to a compelling episode from CBC’s program Ideas inspired by the book ‘Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)’

Cognitive Dissonance according to Skeptic’s Dictionary:

Cognitive dissonance is a theory of human motivation that asserts that it is psychologically uncomfortable to hold contradictory cognitions. The theory is that dissonance, being unpleasant, motivates a person to change his cognition, attitude, or behavior. This theory was first explored in detail by social psychologist Leon Festinger, who described it this way:

Dissonance and consonance are relations among cognitions that is, among opinions, beliefs, knowledge of the environment, and knowledge of one’s own actions and feelings. Two opinions, or beliefs, or items of knowledge are dissonant with each other if they do not fit together; that is, if they are inconsistent, or if, considering only the particular two items, one does not follow from the other (Festinger 1956: 25).


He argued that there are three ways to deal with cognitive dissonance. He did not consider these mutually exclusive.

  1. One may try to change one or more of the beliefs, opinions, or behaviors involved in the dissonance;
  2. One may try to acquire new information or beliefs that will increase the existing consonance and thus cause the total dissonance to be reduced; or,
  3. One may try to forget or reduce the importance of those cognitions that are in a dissonant relationship (Festinger 1956: 25-26).

Back to Jimmy. I found myself in a state of cognitive dissonance.  On one hand, based on all other experiences and observations, I knew he was our fastest skater who usually sakted an entire game without falling.  On the other hand, I felt bound to record him as our slowest skater based on his three failed speed attempts and my understanding of the Hockey Canada rules.

To alleviate my discomfort, I felt drawn to saying, ‘tough luck, kid’ as I could find refuge in the rules and the related societal norms:

  1. This skater was only supposed to be allowed two attempts, and I had already sought to help him by giving him a third.
  2. It would not be fair to the others to give him seemingly unlimited attempts.
  3. We didn’t have time to give him more attempts.
  4. Bending the rules sets a poor example for others.
  5. He needs to learn there are consequences to trying to skate recklessly fast.

Despite amassing a plethora of reasons why I should not give yet another chance, one glaring belief remained – the data did not seem to reflect his skating ability, but rather how he was approaching the assessment.

What would you do in this situation?

I find the same cognitive dissonance issue arises around zeros, late deductions and other effort/behaviour elements factored into grading.  Punitive/consequential grading too often flies against what we either know, or think, of the student’s actual knowledge or ability.

I would argue that of all the assignments, projects and tests that I have ever graded in 16 years of education, zero has been by far the least used number.  Despite this fact, I have many times assessed a missing assignment as zero when a student failed to submit an assignment. How have I navigated this rather glaring state of cognitive dissonance?  Go back to the rules:

  1. It would not be fair to others.
  2. Teach a societal or life lesson.
  3. I warned them.
  4. The course outline clearly stated the rules.
  5. No formal evidence of learning equals a zero.

But then again, what if I know the student knew something.  Darn cognitive dissonance.





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Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

Poverty and the Grading of Homework

The conversation around how schools can react to poverty typically centers around reduced breakfast and lunch programs.  On a few occasions I have heard people express concern as to the access that poverty-affected students have to sports programs, band and other extra-curricular activities.  I have never heard people discuss specifically how the grading of standardized homework is but one more hurdle for students living with poverty.  I think the time has come.

I just finished reading Eric Jensen’s book, ‘Teaching with Poverty in Mind: What being poor does to kids and what schools can do about it”.  In the first three chapters alone, Jensen dumps upon the reader a stifling pile of challenges faced by students living with poverty.  Here is a small sample:

Students living with poverty…

–       are more likely to live in a crowded home

–       inherit low self-esteem

–       own fewer books

–       watch more tv

–       inherit negative views of school

–       have a 50% chance of dealing with evictions, utility disconnection, overcrowding or lack a fridge

–       have mentally adapted to suboptimal conditions

–       have higher tardiness and absentee rates

It should be clear to just about anyone that this litany of hurdles would make completing homework difficult, if not impossible.  To subject students to the grading of standardized, impersonal homework is questionable on so many levels, and I would argue that poverty-related challenges should be at the top of the list.  When any student arrives with incomplete homework, we as educators can never be certain of the reasons.   We should never assume that it is due to a lack of effort, but perhaps a safe assumption is that our most financially-challenged students have faced negative factors well beyond their control.


Filed under Assessment, In-School Suspension Inquiry, Relationships, Sound Grading

“That is a nice BIG target, especially if I can see it.”


I really enjoy my subscription to Scientific American Mind.  I stumbled upon a small article from July/August 2011 about a visualization experiment conducted by researchers at the Free University of Amsterdam.


The experiment was really simple:


  •  Ask three different groups to putt a golf ball at a target 5 feet away.
  • Let each group see the target first, but then change the landscape for two of the groups.
  • Make one group putt under a curtain so that they cannot see the target.
  • Make another group putt through a small obstacle enroute to the target.
  •  Allow the last group to see the target with no obstacles.

 After each group putted the golf ball, they were asked to estimate the size of the target on a computer screen.  The group that was able to have an unobstructed view of the target during the task described a bigger target.  This outcome is interesting, especially considering that each group was allowed to see the target first.

 It is obvious that golfers in the first two groups clearly understood that the path to the target had changed.  Most surprising however, is that it would appear that barriers to a target negatively change people’s perception of the nature of the target itself.

 Perhaps our students would perceive learning targets to be more attainable if they had a clear idea not only what these targets were, but if the targets were in clear view any time they needed them.

 Something to think about…


Filed under Assessment, Sound Grading