Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Four Reasons to Create a Low Stakes Classroom

© Copyright wfmillar
Toward the end of class on Tuesday, one of my students asked: "we have only one grade on the grade book, is that right?". I stopped for a second, my co-teacher and I have provided individual feedback on assignments to every student and had many other meaningful opportunities to interact and respond informally. At the same time, I had to respond "yes, only one grade." She continued: "I know that you do not care about grades, but we do!"

She is right of course. After so many years of conditioning and signaling through grades, it is unfair of me to expect they will be able to accept this approach. Even more so when they have high stakes in the form of a GPA (for grad school, job search), scholarships and more.

That same evening Justin Olmanson brought up the same feature in a Q & A we both participated in. I have also seen it in many of the classrooms using Minecraft as part of instruction. It seems like we have a much easier time letting go of stakes in informal making tasks (art, shop, Minecraft) than in traditional school ones. So, I wanted to take the opportunity and clarify why I try to create a low-stakes classroom:

1. Honest dialogue. When I ask my students to teach and report about their experiences, I want them to be honest, open, and reflective. Honest dialogue is hard to do in a high-stakes environment. If a successful lesson is a high-stakes yardstick, I am pretty sure that each student would try and spin their lesson in the best possible light (maybe even bend the truth). All their efforts would be to protect themselves instead of reflect on what they learned. In a sense, they would be learning about self-preservation instead of personal growth.

2. Creating cycles of self-improvement. Feedback in a low-stakes environment allows my student to revise and improve their learning products no matter how good they are. High stakes grading shift foci from growth to outside criteria.  A great example is high achieving students who often get very high grades. Once the grades are in they see no reason to go on and improve their performance.

3. Improving performance. There is quite a bit of experimental work showing that high-stakes reduce performance in high cognitive load tasks. At the early stages of their career, my students need to focus on process and procedure as a way to get better.

4. Creativity. Creativity and expertise are closely related. I believe that when expertise level is relatively low, as is the case with students, creativity can happen when the stakes are low as well. In a low-stakes environment failed experiments are acceptable as steps towards expertise and the thrill of creating something new.

Lowering stakes does not mean lowering standards. It means that we allow learners to participate and find their way to reaching and surpassing the standards.
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