One of my favorite books is Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell. For those who haven’t read it, Gladwell writes of the untold stories of success. Rather than telling the stereotypical story of super intelligence or unabashed ambition, Gladwell argues that the true story of success can found by spending more time looking around those who have succeeded; their family circumstances, where they were born, and even their birth date. He argues that the story of success is much more complex that it initially appears and that despite our individual drive, almost every successful person is surrounded by a story or circumstance that made success more possible.
The first chapter immediately caught my attention for two reasons. First, it’s about hockey. As a proud Canadian it is in my DNA to pay excessive amounts of attention to anything related to hockey. The second reason is that much of what he wrote relates to education, especially grading. The first chapter is about cut-off dates, the dates that decide whether an athlete plays with one cohort or another. Gladwell argues that these artificial cut-off dates create an unfair advantage for young athletes. At an early age, maturity is sometimes mistaken for ability (K-3 teachers know this all-too-well), which creates an imbalance of coaching, access, and opportunity. The children who are simply older appear to be better, so if we set cut-off dates we can inadvertently stifle success by limiting the opportunities for those children who are younger.
Three things Gladwell wrote in this first chapter have a direct applicability to grading and assessment. First, Gladwell cites two economists (Kelly Bedard and Elizabeth Dhuey) and their correlation between TIMSS scores and age. In their research, Bedard and Dhuey found that among fourth graders, the oldest children scored somewhere between four and twelve percentage points better than the youngest children; that’s significant, especially if these scores have any influence on future educational programming:
“So, early on, if we look at young kids, in kindergarten and first grade, the teachers are confusing maturity with ability. And they put the older kids in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills; and next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do even better; and the next year, the same things happen, and they do even better again. (Elizabeth Dhuey, p. 28 of “Outliers”)
While ability grouping at K–1 doesn’t happen everywhere, the point is a much larger one about how adults influence the stories of success, whether those stories are in sports or in school. This leads to the second, much broader point of success and our skewed view of how success is manifested:
We could easily take control of the machinery of achievement, in other words—not just in sports but, as we will see, in other more consequential areas as well. But we don’t. And why? Because we cling to the idea that success is a simple function of individual merit and that the world in which we all grow up and the rules we choose to write as a society don’t matter at all. (p. 33)
Let’s think about the school context specifically. Individual merit makes for a better story—a better After School Special if you will—but the context in which students are learning makes a significant difference to the level of success possible. We create the conditions—the rules if you will—in which the students are expected to perform. We decide when learning is supposed to occur, when things are due, and the pace at which new knowledge, skills and deeper understandings are to be achieved, which is not necessarily misguided; however, when those teacher decisions begin to influence student opportunity in a more permanent way, it’s time to take a sober look at the rules that shape the learning environment.
We personalize success to a point where we see it as an outcome of will and a kind of pit-bull determination. Sometimes it appears as though educators like making the distinction between the educational haves and have-nots. Make no mistake, teachers don’t enjoy student failure; it’s more that teachers may mistakenly view making this distinction as part of the job of teaching. Teaching is about helping all students reach their full potential and not about simply pointing out those who’ve achieved the fastest or the highest. To bring home this point and its connection to learning, Gladwell describes how our “rules” can get in the way.
Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others to the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play—and by “we” I mean society—in determining who makes it and who doesn’t. (p. 32-33)
What rules do you make that frustrate achievement? Have you ever prematurely written off someone as a failure? Are you too much in awe of those who succeed? These are some tough questions that only you can answer in your private moments. They are more questions for reflection than public declarations of practice. It’s not that we intend to write students off as failures, but our punitive grading practices, for example, can mix achievement and non-achievement factors to a point where levels of learning are indistinguishable from levels of behavioural competence.
If we wanted to, we could acknowledge that our punitive grading practices unfairly distort the achievement levels of some students. If we wanted to, we could acknowledge that many of our traditional grading practices don’t allow the full extent of student understanding to be recognized. If we wanted to, we could acknowledge that we too often send the subversive message of speed. If we wanted to, we could, but we don’t. We take far too much credit for the students who are successful and far too little responsibility for those who fall short. We really should only take credit for the successful students to the level at which we are prepared to take responsibility for the students who fail.
The grading rules we create—zeros, late penalties, homework scores, attendance—will undoubtedly frustrate achievement. These are rules we create, and even if these rules are in policy, they can easily be undone. If we wanted to, we could, but we don’t. It’s time to reflect on what rules and routines might be getting in the way of our students being recognized for their true abilities. Our rules can distort achievement levels to the point where it is hard to find the truth in what a student knows or doesn’t know; can or can’t do.
We need rules, but our rules need to be vehicles for learning, inclusion, and support. We have a choice in how we respond to irresponsibility. We have a choice in how we respond to academic dishonesty. We have a choice in how we respond to the vast array of situations and circumstances that come our way. I’m convinced that the punishment paradigm will not produce the academic epiphany. When our students fall short, they need teaching, not punishment.
Nothing will prepare students for the so-called ‘real world’ better than being taught the skills that are necessary for success; punishing student irresponsibility doesn’t teach students how to be responsible. Reflect on your rules and ask a few simple questions: Are my grading rules frustrating achievement? Do my grading rules make it more difficult for those who take longer to learn? Do my grading rules interfere with the accuracy of the grades I report? I know specific questions still linger, and I will address many of those in future posts, but for now, just reflect on if or how your grading rules are getting in the way.
Bedard, K. & Dhuey, E. (2006). “The Persistence of Early Childhood Maturity: International Evidence of Long Run Age Effects.” Quarterly Journal of Economics. 121(4), p. 1437-1472.
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The Story of Success. New York : Little Brown and Company.