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One Small Step: The Power of Approximation on Learning


Grades are on my mind these days. So much so, that I’ve written a series of Lyon’s Letters regarding grading. Last week’s letter, “Food For Thought: The Lack of Validity and Reliability with Grades” highlighted how for grades to be valid and reliable, we would need to be able to answer yes to the following two questions: 

  • Do the grades take into account student content knowledge only?

  • Would the grade be the same grade given by any teacher? 

Unfortunately, grades often do not measure only student content knowledge and there is a high level of teacher subjectivity related to grading. 

This letter highlights how grading can actually demotivate curiosity and learning. Please enjoy this second letter and be on the lookout for additional letters in this series.

For all three of my children, “dada” was their first word. Each time, we celebrated their newly acquired development with great fanfare. Even so, dada is not what they call their dad now, nor was dada ever the intended final destination. We wanted the kids to say “daddy” or “dad,” yet when they said, “da” or “dada” or even “dadadada,” we were over the moon.

When each learned to walk, it wasn’t as if they went from no movement to running marathons; they began by simply lifting themselves up, which was a huge accomplishment. From there, we assisted them with putting weight on their feet to generate mobility. Their first tentative steps were quickly met with the gravitational pull towards the ground. Despite only partial success, for us, it was as good as Neil Armstrong’s momentous steps on the moon. 

Why do parents universally celebrate a baby’s first and repeated attempts at talking and walking even though these attempts are flawed and inaccurate? Approximation. Similar to math, when you get close to the answer, but not quite, approximation in learning is the same: you’re showing you know a little about what to do even if you’re not quite there. “Dada” is close enough to let the listener know the speaker is on their way to saying “dad” or “daddy.” Taking one step and then falling is still one step closer to truly walking.

In my book, Engagement is Not Unicorn (It's a Narwhal), I wrote about humans’ innate curiosity.

I recently heard Candi McKay say, “I’ve never met an intellectually lazy four year old.” She specifically used the age of four because students typically enter kindergarten at five. Her point was twofold. First, humans are naturally curious. If you have ever spent any time around a child prior to the age of five, you will see perpetual motion, curiosity, a lack of fear to fail, and/or a zeal to try to do new things (except for maybe trying new foods to eat). As human beings, one of the most important traits that we have is the desire to learn. This is what allows us to learn how to speak and walk. This is why toddlers enjoy taking everyday objects and using them as toys—in fact, as most parents will attest, the first presents that your children probably enjoyed were the boxes that the toys came in, not the toys themselves. Humans are wired to enjoy learning. If this is true, then why is it also true that sometime between our first day of kindergarten and when we graduate from high school, we often forget that we once enjoyed learning? This is the second reason why McKay used the age of four. Something environmental about school has an adverse impact on our natural curiosity as humans. Rather than helping to foster our innate interest in learning, for far too many of us, school teaches us to stifle our curiosity and replace it with compliance. (p. 180)

One of the biggest culprits of snuffing out curiosity may surprise you. Grading. 

Let’s go back to the scenarios at the start of this letter where a child is learning to talk and walk. If this were done in a traditional setting in a school, instead of celebrating the child’s verbal and mobile gains we would provide the child with a numerical score relative to the intended outcome: Did the child say “dad” or “daddy?” If the answer is no (and of course, it would be for several weeks or months), then the child would fail the task. At best, the child might earn a C. Which response is likely to motivate the child to persist–being surrounded by people who celebrate their approximation or being rated as below proficient and surrounded by disappointment? The answer is obvious. 

Certainly, I recognize as we age, the celebratory response outside of school to approximation wanes. Anyone who has tried to acquire a new skill beyond the age of four or five is not met with the same level of hoopla as we shower on infants and toddlers. The point is not about the bells and whistles that we use to acknowledge growth; the point is simply acknowledging growth. If we want to tap into the human spirit of curiosity–one that not only pursues learning but perseveres–then schools need to do more than simply grade student work relative to the intended outcome. Schools need to mirror what happens in life: celebrating approximations. Honoring the growth demonstrated in the approximation of the learning will provide greater fuel to persist in learning than a grade ever will. Not only that but eliminating the grade altogether will shift the focus from the score to the learning. Thus, when we celebrate the 'dadas' and the first steps in all our endeavors, big and small, we embrace the learning gained in the journey, and not just the outcome demonstrated at the destination. 


P.S. I recently reconnected with a former colleague, Katie Leven--an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher. Katie shared she has started a podcast, The Intentional TESOL, and invited me on as a guest. For her impact on the field, Katie Leven is my Catch of the Week. You can listen to our conversation by clicking on the link to the podcast above. Please check it out and while you're there, check out Katie's other podcast episodes!

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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