Thursday, November 7, 2013

What did/does the 'A' say to me?

In the previous post, I used the song What Does the Fox Say? to frame a discussion about what grades communicate to various stakeholders in education - in particular students and teachers. It is my view that we do not share a common understanding of what a grade means and this impacts learning. I suggested some of the different ways we interpret an A by modifying the song's lyrics. Readers responded in the comments with what an A grade meant to them as a student and what they hope it says to their students as a teacher. Now is the time for me to share my perspectives about what did/does the A say to me.

When I got an A, I thought that I had pleased my teacher. I distinctly remember having a conversation with a friend who was struggling in school about how I achieved success. I tried to find out what the teacher wanted and then went about meeting that vision. The grade I got would tell me how close I came to giving the teacher what he/she had in mind. It did not matter the subject, the teacher was the all-knowing arbiter of my work. For me, school was not so much about learning as it was mind-reading.

As a new teacher, I simply flipped this perspective. An A meant that the student had done at least 90% of what I expected (i.e. what I would do). To my credit, I did not want my students to read my mind so I made my expectations very clear. I got a lot of student-work that looked just like my work. Instead of mind-readers I was fostering mimics.

Now, I see an A as representing what Joyce and Showers (2002) called Executive Use. The student has demonstrated complete content competency (I was uncomfortable with idea that there might be a 10% gap in a teacher's knowledge) and an ability to analyze under what circumstances the learning could be applied appropriately (phronesis) or how to adapt it to new situations. Granted, because I mostly teach teachers, this standard might be easier to implement now than when I taught middle school math. Still, I have applied a similar idea in a College Algebra course with some success - it was a tough sell.
Basically, I want an A to say to students that they have achieved sustainability in the topic being graded. They can apply what they have learned beyond what we talked about in class, and they can learn more on their own if needed. The teacher (me) has become obsolete.


  1. Totally agree this is what an A should mean. But I'm curious what you think about this hypothetical naysayer's response: "So I'm a 7th grade teacher. If students get an A in my class, then they can learn on their own and the teacher (me) becomes obsolete. What's their 8th grade teacher to do? Shouldn't they be obsolete too?" How much of this do you view as tied to the specific content: "You can apply and learn more about *this* without me." But learn how much more? Thinking aloud on a lovely Friday morning...

    1. The literacy coach who introduced me to the Levels of Transfer would often remind me, "We visit Executive Use. No one lives there." While a student might have reached an 'A' in 7th grade math class, that does not mean he is ready to tackle new content in 8th grade math without support. Perhaps he has learned something about learning that will make getting to Executive Use easier but there is still a role for some knowledgeable other.

  2. By my sophomore year at Princeton, I had figured out this Executive Use standard — and I had figured out that this was the essence of success in adult life as well. But this had never been my understanding of an 'A' in my K-12 experience and it was challenging and confusing to make this transition. Prior to college, I had understood the 'A' to mean 'going above and beyond the basic standards required.'

    Still, I'm not sure if the 7th or 8th grader can achieve this level of 'A' performance. I think my expectation as a teacher is that an 'A' signifies that the student's work demonstrates a move in this direction of independent and executive use that I find inspiring rather than merely dutiful.

    Thank you for introducing these terms and ideas to the conversation.

    - Elizabeth (@cheesemonkeysf)

    1. I can accept that an 'A' in K-12 classrooms might represent aspects of Executive Use - that the student is moving in that direction. As long as we are encouraging students to be creators and not just consumers. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. At my childrens' K-6 school here in as Australia an 'A' means 'outstanding achievement' - and kids are really excited to get this grade. A 'C' means 'sound achievement' ie you understood the content and were competent enough in the processes and skills you learnt in the subject, and a teacher friend told me this was the norm. The grades go down to 'F', and there's s similar 5 point scale for effort in each subject (although I don't know how effort is assessed). Definitions are listed on the front page of the report, which is very useful for those parents (like me) who used to think an 'A' just meant you did alright.