Whats more important grades or learning?

Have you ever asked a classroom full of students the following question: Would you rather get an A in a class and learn very little or get a C in a class and learn more than you have in any other class? When I was a classroom teacher I asked this question to every class every year and the results were horrifying. As someone who places learning first and sees the schools as a place of learning why would that not be the primary focus of everyone who walks through the door? But our grade obsessed culture has put learning in the back seat and its easy to see why students would want a higher gpa than overall knowledge base. After all, gpa is the major influence on everything from scholarships, to class rank, to college entrance. Sure there are other factors to most of these things but GPA is an easy to to separate students so its the one we use. But if we are really wanting to prepare students for the “real world” we need to find a way to put the focus back on learning. The people who have learned and are constantly learning will pass up those with higher GPA’s very quickly when they hit the work world, believe me I am a prime example.

I have to admit I never got straight A’s until one intense summer school session during graduate school, by that time I was 30, married, and had two kids and probably had my priorities in order a little better than when I was completing my undergrad. I don’t think I ranked in the top 100 in my graduating class in high school and there were plenty of people who didn’t see me having multiple college degrees in the future. Many of my grades where influenced by behavior, I didn’t always get work done on time or follow all directions, I was the kid who turned in a paper hand written when it was supposed to be typed, I remember one case where this turned a 95% into a 70% because apparently 25% of the learning for this paper was based solely on typing it. These actions often left me with B’s and the occasional C. But my advantage was, and still is, that I am always learning. The classes I got C’s in during college were often the ones I learned the most in, I got a C on a project that I have turned into multiple promotions. I learned a lot during the project and turned the feedback into more learning, and I continued progressing the project as the class moved on to the next one.

This brings me back to my original question, whats more important grades or learning? We would like to think that they are the same thing but so often they aren’t. We have instilled the mindset in students that the most important thing in school is the grade. This leads students to approach school in a few different ways. Many students become work averse, they drop the challenging class in favor of ones the perceive as easier, they use cliffnotes to skim basic information designed to help improve their test grades, they copy from friends, they plagiarize, etc. All of these are designed to keep the grade at the expense of learning. Many students become good at playing the game of school, displaying the correct behaviors during class and turning in homework but blaming poor test grades on the fact that they are “not a good test taker” when in fact they have displayed all the behaviors I just listed to in order to keep their grades up. I believe test anxiety is a real thing and there are kids who struggle with tests that do know the materials but its not the number who use this as their excuse.

We have built a culture of students who also believe  that being smart is an innate characteristic and appearing smart is more important than being a learned individual. This is where we have to get students, teachers, parents, coaches, and everyone involved with students moving to a growth mindset. Understanding the concept that intelligence is flexible and not fixed is key to in this process of moving students towards being learners and not grade getters. Go back and watch the video I posted from Carol Dweck and dive into the idea of growth mindset. Dig into the video by John Green and see how powerful learning really is. These are topics and ideas I have been investing my time and research into as I research how we can better serve our students. I have also been reading a lot of Thomas Guskey, Rick Wormelli, and Douglas Reeves and their work on standards based grading, removing zeros from the gradebook, ending averages, and using more professional judgements when determining the “grades” we are giving students. I don’t have an answer to solving this problem we have created in education, and its not a new one, but I am working on helping to find the solution. I hope to continue reading and learning from others as we progress into a society that values learning above grading.

In Defense of the “Participation” Trophy

The participation trophy, the scourge of competitive world. There is a lot of negative press out there for the “participation” trophy and how we look at it shows that we really don’t understand the power it can have.

The argument against handing out prizes for kids who “didn’t accomplish or win anything” is generally that we are rewarding failure. We are teaching kids that they should get something no matter how little success they see for their efforts, “only winners get rewards.” But there are much more powerful lessons we could be teaching our kids with “participation” trophies if we could just get past the idea that if you don’t win you don’t deserve any reward.

First, kids often avoid failure because we have taught them that failure is the worst thing possible. This is bad parenting and bad coaching. By teaching kids that failure is so bad what kids are learning is; if you don’t think you can be successful you should quit or not even start. This is a mindset children develop out of seeing all the negative reactions from people when someone doesn’t win and it often cripples their motivation to work at something they are not good at from the start. We are teaching kids to only try at things you’re good at and encouraging them to stay away from things that are difficult.

This is a great TED talk about why we should be teaching our kids to fail

But, only teach your kids to fail if you want them to be successful. Because failure isn’t the opposite of success but rather its main ingredient.

A second thing we need to pay attention to is the frequency of kids who quit things. The increase in the propensity of kids quitting things seems to be directly associated with the idea of failure avoidance. Because we have taught kids that failure is unacceptable and it is their own fault we have indirectly encouraged kids to quit when things get tough. Because of the belief that there are no rewards for “losers” why would a child want to stick something out when they know they are going to end the season a “failure?”

So, how does the participation trophy help in these areas? Something we need to first do is stop calling them “participation” trophies and start referring to them as end of the season awards. You got this award, or trophy, because you ended the season with the rest of the team and didn’t quit.

When my son finished his first season of soccer he got a trophy. His team had a losing record, he only scored one goal, and he only got to play more than half of the quarters because kids didn’t show up to games on a regular basis. By all accounts this was a participation trophy but he was so excited to get a reward. He never missed practice, he showed up to the game that ended up being cancelled even though the coach and her son were the only other players who showed up that day, he tried his hardest every day and even practiced at home. He was given a trophy for not quitting and that is what I told him. He was rewarded for giving his best effort everyday and because he was recognized he will continue to do so.

Participation trophies cab teach kids that giving your best effort and not quitting are the most important things in life, because those are the ingredients that make winners in life. It’s all in how you frame it. If you call it a participation trophy and treat it as such that is all it will be. I call it a season completion trophy and tell my son he got it because he did his best and didn’t quit, he is 7 and that is what that trophy means to him.

David Taylor once commented that he got an award at the end of his first season of wrestling and that it was basically the award they give out to the kid who tries the hardest but gets pinned the most. But that award motivated him to keep trying because it was really the first recognition that he ever received in sports. Would David Taylor have put as much effort into his wrestling the next season if he didn’t get his “participation” award? By many people’s accounts he didn’t deserve it because he lost all the time, he was given an award for losing. But it meant something more to him, and his parents framed it as something more. David Taylor went on to become a 4x Ohio state high school champion, a 4x NCAA all american, 2x NCAA national champion, and 2x Hodge Trophy winner. One thing is certain, he didn’t do this because it was easy. But he was encouraged to keep trying, even given an award for not quitting.

We have failure all wrong

Failure isn’t the opposite of success but rather it’s main ingredient – Jim Harshaw. Any one who has never failed has never accomplished anything of value, I don’t know who said this!

Both of these quotes are amazingly true. I have failed in 90% of my endeavors and still I have been pretty successful by most measures. I have been thinking recently, why is failure so important in the journey to success but in the education of children failure is generally permanent?  People fail for a variety of different reasons but when it comes to a test, homework, project, etc. We don’t let students learn from these failures without suffering some huge consequences of that failure. You failed this test, its going to destroy your grade for the entire grading period but that’s your fault and you should learn from it. But in the process of learning from it you can’t correct that failure because it’s your fault.

It seems education is the only area where a failure is permanently on your record. If I am working and I have an idea, my team runs with it and it turns out not to work I am rarely fired. I go back, look at what went wrong, correct it, and move on. If I truly believe the material I am teaching is important then I should be making, not giving a 12 year old the ability to decide, students learn that material. If they don’t learn it the first time, be that because they didn’t try or didn’t understand, they should be required to work to learn it by working at it again. This is exactly how I would coach it in wrestling, if you haven’t learned a solid outside single technique you don’t get to just give up on it. You are going to practice it everyday until you get the technique right, then you are going to practice it more.

This is one area where I think educators need to think more like coaches. When you are coaching someone you have them work on plays and techniques until they can’t get them wrong, if you are a good coach you do anyway. If your athletes go out and get them wrong in the game it is right back to the drawing board in the next practice. You don’t just move on and tell the team that they didn’t learn it, that’s too bad, and just move on.

I know the testing nature our society has created makes educators want to fly through material throughout the year so kids are exposed to everything that could be on the test. Everything is an inch deep and a mile long, but how well is that really working for us? If I were coaching these kids in wrestling, I would sacrifice the length of knowledge for depth and I guarantee I would win more than those who took the other approach.

Another point is that all kids don’t have to be on the same lesson during the same class, on the same day. It’s not true for my wrestlers, I have kids working on different things throughout practice. Generally the area of wrestling is the same but kids are working on things that suit their strengths and their ability levels. Classrooms can and should be the same. This does create more work, but it’s more meaningful and productive work and that should be the goal.

If our material is important for students to learn we should make sure they learn it, even if it is a day, week, or month later than we wanted them to learn it. It shouldn’t matter how slowly a student learns just that they are learning.

What is “Old School”

Something I have been hearing a lot, in teaching and coaching, is people referencing being “old school” in their approach. This got me thinking about what the term “old school” means. Essentially there are two things at play here; the first is the attitude of hard work being the key element in success. By this definition I absolutely subscribe to the old school mentality.

But most often the thought process behind old school seems to follow a different pattern. People who call them old school seem to have several strongly held beliefs about how students should act, think, and be controlled. Old school people seem to think all children should do whatever they are told by an adult, no questions asked. Old school people think the wold is black and white and everything falls into these categories, they don’t allow for the grey areas in life. Because of this philosophy they are not flexible, they don’t account for individual differences, and they come off as grumpy and mean most of the time.

Old school people yell a lot, maybe kids “listened better” a generation ago when they got yelled at but did they really learn anything? How to be compliant maybe but do we really want a world of just compliant kids?  I would argue that we want a world of kids who are willing to question things, if kids are questioning they are seeking a deeper understanding. They want a rational for why things should happen, that is teaching and learning.

Old school people seem to be demanding in ways they wouldn’t accept for themselves. Their rules seem to follow a pattern of do as I say and not as I do, at best a terrible way to model things. If you as a coach or a teacher don’t hold yourself to a higher standard, or at minimum the same standard, how do you expect someone to buy into what you are wanting them to do?

Old school people seem to be terribly inflexible. They think students fall into a few categories and either refuse to or can’t comprehend the idea that students are unique and have unique circumstances that factor into how they act and why they act that way. Old school people seem unable or unwilling to take other viewpoints into account. Again, we are back to the black and white perspective of life, there is always grey area that has to be considered. The idea of fair isn’t always equal and equal isn’t always far doesn’t register with people who subscribe to this mentality. Because of this they are unable to reach a large portions of the population who don’t fit the “mold” they believe students should fall into.

I believe there are several other categories that could be discussed here but this is something to start the conversation.


In this video John Green provides a glimpse into how he learned to love learning and in doing so shows us how we can help others find the same passion for learning. Everyone wants to learn things, do you really believe people are out there with the mindset that they want to be stupid? The problem is finding those things they want to learn and incorporating them into your class. Making learning relevant is one of the most important and sometimes most difficult jobs we have in education because relevance is different for each student.  If I knew how to make all material relevant to all students I wouldn’t be blogging this, I would probably be basking in the sun on my yacht.

I think the starting point for most of us in education is believing that learning is as important as we say it is. This means spending your own time learning new things and getting immersed yourself. If you find something you really want to know more about and then do so. Now ask yourself, how can I replicate this feeling in my students? This will put you on the right path, because the answer to this question is different for everyone.

Or you can just watch the video, and then go learn something. Because John Green is right, “Learning is awesome”

The Power of Yet – Carol Dweck

This is an amazing TED Talk from Carol Dweck and speaks to the power of teaching a kid to keep trying. Angela Duckworth calls it “grit” and calls for making kids “grittier” but one thing we have to remember is that a lot of the time “at risk” students have never see someone be successful. They were raised in the Homer Simpson school of philosophy “Kids, you tried hard and you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”

We laugh when that is on our television but the problem is that students need to see and experience success before they ever believe they can achieve it. At the very least they need to be cheered as they work through the process, not for their successes but for their efforts. Think about the first time a child tries to walk, they are never very successful. But we coach them through it, we praise their efforts and push them to keep trying. Eventually they are running all over the house and we wonder why we even wanted them to be mobile in the first place. I believe that all children are born with a growth mindset, we often just pound it out of them.

What if this was your approach when teaching students:

Could you be unsuccessful? So, like Carol Dweck says, lets start pushing kids towards the Yet and have them focus on that. This will require a complete turnaround from how most of us approach education. We have been conditioned to believe that students who don’t know something by the test date are out of luck and should have tried harder. This is the process that pounds out growth mindset. Our goal as educators should be finding ways to harness the YET and harnessing growth mindset. Because no body in the world can succeed alone – Ernesto Sirolli, and you can’t learn anything unless you make mistake – Benjamin Zander.

Vision and Possibilities

I have been taking a MOOC focusing on inspirational leadership and the above video was the focus of one of the modules. After watching the video I had to sit for a while and just reflect because I didn’t know what else to do. Looking at some of Mr. Zander’s thoughts one thing I keep focusing on is the downward spiral. How often do we tell students that they are all starting with an A in class and it is their job to keep it. But what we have really told them is; hey you can’t get any better than right now, all you can do is work to not get worse. In a society that is so fixated on grades its no wonder students at the top are inclined to cheat and students at the bottom are inclined to just give up.

What if you started your school year with the philosophy of “you can give anyone and A!” How would that change your vision of students, the school year, and what was possible? Standing in the arena of possibilities, this is a powerful thing. Creating a shared vision that everyone in your school is a part of gives everyone a stake in the success and makes everyone feel like they are not just a part of the organization but an important part of the organization. That can also be a powerful motivation, believing that you are important. If we start our evaluations, of both students and teachers, off letting them know they are already and A, they just have to explain to us what they are going to do to get their how would that change the approach everyone takes towards school? Would that put education more towards the Positive Emotional Attractor and change everyone’s approach?

As you gear up for the school year what will your vision, not goals, be? Can you get yourself to move into the Michelangelo school of teaching?

Why you should be using an LMS

As technology becomes more prevalent in society today, especially in schools, the more we embrace its potential the more we move forward in helping students become engaged in their learning. Give students two assignments and tell them they only have to complete one; the first assignment is to write, with pencil and paper, a two page essay about their ideal summer vacation. Where would they go, what would they do, if money were not a barrier for this vacation? The second assignment is to write a blog post about the same thing and ask two other students questions about their expectations for their vacation; what do the expect to see, experience, do, etc.. on this vacation, and respond to everyone who asks them a question.

Now, which of the two assignments is going to accomplish the overall objective of getting students to think deeply and describe in great detail about this ideal vacation? Which assignment is going to engage their minds and get them writing more, the online or the pencil and paper assignment? One thing to remember is that the first assignment came with a length requirement and the second did not. If you were to give these two assignments I would bet you money, and a lot of it, that the average blog post would contain more writing and deep thinking than a pencil and paper assignment.


We should know that recent research tells us that students write more and better when they know their peers are going to read their writing. We also know that most students prefer to type their assignments instead of using a pencil to write them. A final thing we know is that students are very comfortable, almost too comfortable, putting things on the internet. So why not harness all of these things by having students blog their writings?

So why use an Learning Management System? Most LMS’s have a blog feature, or at least a discussion feature where you can have students write and comment. These features will get your students writing more, and with higher quality, than just writing in a journal they know no one other than their teacher will ever read. Students are also more comfortable discussing with other students through an online format, all of your class discussions with have more participation and greater thought if you are using a discussion format on your LMS. Often times your class discussions with get 1/3 of the students in class to raise their hands and offer something to the conversations, if you were to put that discussion into your LMS I guarantee your participation would be almost 100% every time. Imagine a class where you had 100% discussion participation almost 100% of the time, how much more would your students learn and experience? While we look at this don’t focus on the negative, yes students will sometimes post something inappropriate but don’t they often say inappropriate things in class? If it is logged in your LMS you have it to hold students accountable and use as a learning experience on proper conduct when using the internet.

Other great features an LMS provides are:

The ability to organize class material into lessons and units for students and parents. When we hand out papers they often get lost, if the material can be accessed online you won’t have students coming back to you asking for papers and saying they didn’t get it done because they lost it.

Many of your easy assignments, that are quick checks for understanding, can be graded directly by the LMS. This save hours of grading over the course of your school years. This also saves paper as well as cuts down on the use of pens and pencils that students often forget to bring to class. This in turn saves you the headache of providing these materials or having students go back to their lockers to get them.

You can also store your files and resources on your LMS. How many times have you found a great video online only to not be able to find it when you get back to school the next day? If you load it into the resources on your LMS this problem essentially goes away. You can also save most of your Microsoft office documents as files, helping your keep organized. Also, many LMS’s now offer google drive integration! Now you can have students use this powerful resource directly with your LMS!

While there are many other great reasons to use an LMS I believe I have highlighted the main ones. If you have any other reasons teachers should be using an LMS please comment!

Links to LMS’s, these are free ones that I have used and feel are helpful. Of course there are others out there as well as ones that cost money and offer many more amazing features. Poke around, I hope this is helpful.




Why Carrots and Sticks wont fix education

Being that science has become such a big focus in education today, one would assume that we would use its findings to help guide us into the educational future. But we seem to refuse to use the same logic we tell our students is so important.

While this is geared towards business the same things apply to education. Lets look at some of the points made in this TED talk;

The first point made in this talk turns education reform on its head; “rewards narrow our focus”. So if we are tying teacher raises to student test scores, where is our focus going? By focusing on test results we destroy creativity in our teachers, which in turn kills creativity in our students. We all should know that education is a complex organization and there are no clear set of rules when it comes to student learning. Because of this we must understand that there are also no simple solutions to reinventing an educational system that educates tens of millions of students. But for some reason our legislatures keep trying dangle carrots to move us forward on test scores and slap us with sticks when we don’t, never mind the fact that we work with a different student mindset almost every single day.

When Mr. Pink goes on to let us know that according to science incentives increase our performance on mechanical skills, but teaching and learning are not mechanical skills. Memorizing is a mechanical skill but as Einstein once said “education is not learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think.” This is the candle problem, we all know what matches, candles, and tacks do but using them to do something beyond their basic capabilities requires thinking or cognitive skills. As stated in the talk these cognitive skills are diminished by carrots and sticks, but still we insist on using them. Not just state legislatures but educators as well.

In the talk Mr. Pink tells us that the London School of Economics found that “financial incentives can have a negative impact on overall performance.” But our state and national leaders want to use raises and financial incentives as the basis for increasing teacher/student performance. Mr. Pink makes the statement that what we need to do, what science tells us to do, is pay people fairly and adequately and give them Autonomy. Ask any college student if they would want to work in a field that compensated them adequately and give them Autonomy and I guarantee you would get overwhelming yes responses. Instead we have this high stakes, financially incentivized, environment and the response has been :


Drops of 53% in our most populace state, down over 10% nationally and down steeply in states that are leading the charge in “educational reform. ”


A final point to focus on here is the statement that about half of google’s new innovations are created during their 20% time. If that is the case, along with the other examples he gives, on top of the studies done by MIT and the London School of Economics I am astounded by the fact that education is one area paying the least attention to educational studies. It seem to me its time to get back to using science in solving the problems of the world.

Where is your focus?

I know we talk about putting students first and our goals always include working to improve the lives of our students but how much do we take that message to heart? I would hope the answer would be always but I know that being human we sometimes put our own needs and interests first. I am as guilty of this as anyone and part of my reflection time is spent looking at how I can work on this. I want to explore a couple of areas where we seem to put too much emphasis on our own thoughts and needs and we should be putting more focus on students.



I would go into a lot of detail here but the link above is brilliant and spells it out so clearly that I don’t think I should spend the time doing so.

After reading the article you just have to decide, where is your focus?


This is a topic I have been researching furiously for the past year and come to the conclusion that


While this is the harsh way to put it I feel it is necessary here. As I have interviewed teachers about homework policy almsot all teachers fall into three categories:

Those who don’t accept late work: This is the worst policy, yes the worst. The general rational here is that they are teaching students life lessons and life doesn’t accept late work. The problem here is that statement couldn’t be more false. You can make late payments on your mortgage, pay your taxes late, plumbers and the cable guys regularly come to jobs late, planes seem to take off late more often than not, and when is the last time you had a doctor’s appointment start on time? In all those cases you are dealing with adults, not children, who have much more control over their day than most children often do.

This philosophy also ignores the fact that things happen both within and outside of a student’s control. When it is beyond the student’s control and we don’t accept late work we become the problem. When we do accept the work we start to create problems for others who question why them and not me?

This video spells it out very well, as well as going into the other categories we will explore.

Those who accept late work but with a huge penalty, generally 50% penalty: Lets go back to the examples of when people are late with things and see if this is a fair punishment. What is the penalty for paying your taxes late, in most cases its 5% per month up to 25%. Mortgage late fee’s are generally 5-10% of the payment, so are payday loans. When your doctors appointment starts late or your plane takes off late you don’t get anything. Only homework receives such a huge penalty and this is a penalty on children. Yes, some students don’t do homework because they make bad decisions on how they spend their time. But by giving such a huge penalty you give them incentive to just not do the work, “why should I do the work if the best I can do is an F.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard this I would be much further ahead on my mortgage payment.

The rational for the 50% penalty is usually; it’s better than nothing or that is the way it’s always been. Both of these have no place in a modern day educational system. We know we need to be modernizing our educational system and we can start with a homework policy that works for students today, going with the way it has always been is continuing to walk in the wrong direction. The rational that it is better than nothing, I will leave this alone.

A final segment of teachers is in a much better position to help students when it comes to homework; they either accept late work for full or almost full credit or they have have a per day penalty that doesn’t start off too high. These are scenarios that are much more in line with real life.

We all know accepting late work adds to our workload, you get papers in at different times and you have a “rush” of them at midterms and the end of the grading period but if the homework you are getting is valuable “if” a student learns the material should be more important than “when” a student learns the material.

Lets work to update our practice to a student centered approach, even if it means more work for us. Because we are not here for ourselves but for the students. Please use the following links to help guide your philosophy: