Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.

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The advent of SBG in my room was probably the most important thing that has happened to me in my post-college professional development. You all are probably painfully aware of how important I think the principles behind SBG are. Not necessarily using my system, or Dan’s system, or Frank’s, or whoever’s; it’s the ideas that matter.

Will you make it about learning? Will you make it about moving forward from where they are, not where you wish they were? Will you admit that the Internet has changed the game, and that class time is about spending time with an experienced investigator, and not a professor of facts? Will you admit that students should control their organization and study habits? Finally, will you admit that when you learn something doesn’t matter? (it’s if you learn it.)

We’ve focused all too much on the grading aspect. Grades are trash. They’re the grape nuts to our larger act of brewing. What really matters are the changes in instruction. SBG allows classtime to be more . . . well, awesome.

Now that I’ve forced myself to coalesce my class into some more specific pillars, I’m not so worried about hitting everything. It’s kind of like mapping out your great Summer road trip: Knowing all the interstate changes somehow makes the journey more enjoyable, more chunkable, and somehow less hurried.

I feel free to do things in class just because they get at some larger idea. The beauty is that almost nothing is worth points. We have created an amazing culture of pointslessness. They rarely get points, and when they do it’s for demonstrating knowledge, and nothing else. We take our share of assessments-formerly-known-as-quizzes, but the points monkey is off of their backs.

They ask me real questions, like this, and I can say with confidence, “No, we will not get behind, because we learn when we learn, not when I say we learn.”

I had one of those harrowing teacher’s lounge conversations a few days ago. The person I was talking to really showed their cards early with statements like, “Well, I’m in my unit on the war of 1812, and by then [we were talking about Halloween] I’ll be in my unit on the stock market.” The pronouns may have been a slip, but I somehow doubt it. This teacher seemed to want to own the room, which I understand, but with SBG I no longer have to hold the reins; it’s wonderful.

It becomes much more like this. Give your kids a cannon. Help them aim the cannon at an idea. Load it with a metered amount of gun powder, and then let it fly.

What did they hit? In a normal classroom this doesn’t matter: We were aiming at that Spanish Galleon loaded with covetable doubloons. Sadly, whether the students hit that with their cannon or not is almost immaterial. The students will look at you and say, “I missed the Galleon, damn, I’m going to lose points. But, but, look what I did hit! I hit a shark! I hit a shark . . . with a cannon!! Can we please talk about the shark?!” I really want that answer to be yes, and I have to trust myself that the important pieces of my curriculum will come up naturally. (why else would they be so important?)

For a while this pointslessness makes my students feel like they have been drawn into 1973′s surreal Fantastic Planet. After a while, many students come to realize that points really are silly, and that understanding deep, abstract concepts is a beautiful reward for work.

It’s really a pedagogical finger trap, isn’t it?

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8 thoughts on “Pointslessness
  • Joe says:

    love love love it. this stuff is nourishment for my teaching. the greatest thing for my teaching has been joining the blog conversation of the many many great and inspirational teachers out there. (thanks Sam, thanks Shawn)


  • John says:

    This is awesome. You’ve inspired me as a teacher, and I’ve taken so many ideas from you (including blogging). But I’m also curious—do you ever get any pressure to prepare kids for the SAT II in physics, or even the AP? How do you handle that?

    • Shawn says:

      @John: I don’t get much pressure to prepare for those tests, mostly because my school is very close to a university, and students are often dual enrolled so they don’t need to pass as many tests to get college credit (our school pays their tuition). Students that have wanted to prepare for the physics SAT and AP tests have come out much better thinkers after the inquiry and analysis centered physics courses, which helps them eat up any “equations” that they may not have seen formally during the course.


  • betweenthenumers says:

    Second-ing what Jerrid said.
    I’ve had some moments of angst this year related to how I’m implementing SBG, as I said on my blog “somewhat half-assed”. As I’m thinking about ways to incorporate SBG into the existing grading practices at my school, I’m realizing that the most important thing is my intent surrounding grades and my committment to allowing students to prove to me that they know the skills when they know them. The specifics of how I’m doing that I can tweak and make my own, so long as I keep my eye on the philosophy behind what I’m trying to accomplish with all this.

  • Jerrid Kruse says:

    Completely agree, actually wrote a post about how SBG is a means, not an end.

    Bringing up these points is what will keep SBG from becoming a “magic bullet” or just another “edujargon” phrase.

    & as you allude to & guys like @Joe_bower forcefully advocate for, if we could get rid of grades altogether, even better!

  • Tracie says:

    Ditto Jason. That statement is so simple, yet pretty much sums up what every science “curriculum” should be.

  • Jan says:

    What the h-bomb was the Fantastic Planet?!

  • Jason Buell says:

    love this – “the important pieces of my curriculum will come up naturally (why else would they be so important?)