Mid Course Correction

“The average age in our platoon, I’d guess, was nineteen or twenty, and as a consequence things often took on a curiously playful atmosphere, like a sporting event at some exotic reform school. The competition could be lethal, yet there was a childlike exuberance to it all, lots of pranks and horseplay. Like when Azar blew away Ted Lavender’s puppy. ‘What’s everyone so upset about?’ Azar said. ‘I mean, Christ, I’m just a boy.’”          The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien

OK, so this issue isn’t THAT serious.

I’m in a Facebook group for Chemistry teachers interested in NGSS (Next Generation Science Standards). Without boring people, it’s a way of looking at skills we want students to have in studying the sciences without just memorizing a bunch of equations. I’m totally on board with this. Being new into education, even if there’s stuff I’m not 100% in agreement with, I need to know about a lot of different issues and viewpoints before I can try to hack my own way through.

One teacher posted (and I don’t have to leave them anonymous, because I can’t find the thread, I have zero interest in finding the thread, and I don’t know their name) was responding to a discussion about “should grades depend on when the assignment is turned in?” Basically, should points be taken off for late work, or should it be even accepted at all?

One teacher responded with something to the effect of “it doesn’t matter when the skill is acquired, so long as they acquire it. Many ‘deadlines’ are artificial. I don’t take off for late work at all.”

That didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is the number of people that agreed with it. (It was a lot). I won’t say that it blew my mind. But it was – too me – shockingly large.

There are lots of potential reasons for this. And for starters, I won’t assume that I’m correct. Well, that’s not totally true, because I’m going to argue my side, with an open mind. But there are many reasons this statement could resonate with many teachers. Such as:

-There is a big push in education to go to standards based assessments, and grading should be more based upon acquiring skills, not jumping through hoops (makes sense, at least somewhat, to me).

-The teacher in question is at a different school than mine, and deadlines usually aren’t an issue.

-The teacher in question honestly believes that many/most careers (now and of the future) do have soft deadlines and skill acquisition is more important than skill acquisition “on the clock.”

-The teacher in question has only been an educator and has not worked outside the classroom and seen careers where deadlines count (I’ll get to that).

-Some other issue I can’t think of at the time of writing.

Suffice to say, I disagree wholeheartedly with the statement in the thread, for a variety of reasons.

-Skill acquisition does matter “on a clock”. Imagine you were being taken care of by a nurse in her probationary period – sometimes 6 months. “Hi, I’m here to start your IV.” “Have you done this before?” “No, I’m not good at it. My probationary period ended 4 weeks ago. Now let me see your veins…” This also goes to running your own business – deadlines could be artificial and self-imposed. But if you don’t meet them, good luck at getting repeat business from your customers and staying afloat. I don’t want to turn this into a tit-for-tat, but I’d argue that even the soft deadlines are important to hit more often than not, even if they are arbitrary.

-If you want to give students meaningful feedback, then deadlines matter. If you have to assess them and let them know if they are on the correct track or not, you have to take a look at something they do – a portfolio, a lab, a report, SOMETHING, and then get it back to them timely. Your deadline is important because the student’s feedback is important. Ergo, the deadline is important – for both of you.

-Learning to break work into manageable chunks is a skill – that cuts across any subject, any discipline. Hitting deadlines prevents you from making everything a rush job (and prevents crappy work). If cross-cutting concepts are important in education, deadlines should be justifiable from here alone.

I could go on. But I don’t want to turn this into a blog about deadlines. The NGSS thread only got me thinking about a larger topic. It’s a blog about the middle ground that’s disappearing when trying educate and prepare our kids. And I think that, in part, is why we’re failing them.

Gone are the days (and I hope most agree, thankfully so) where adults are allowed to just run over kids. No longer can we paddle them, berate them, verbally abuse them in schools. And that’s a very, very, VERY good thing. The problem as I see it, is how far the pendulum swings. In the effort to be nice (and motivate with rewards only), we take away necessary structure and yes, discipline. Not harsh discipline, but a true understanding of what consequences are and what they feel like.

For instance (and in my case, this is all made up, I don’t know of anything that has actually gone down like this)…. Let’s say I have a student making a poor grade (or poorer than they desire) in my class. They ask for an extra credit assignment to boost their grade. Let’s suppose I say “no” – it’s not in the syllabus, they had extensions on homework (of which I have a generous policy for), and it would be unfair to give them an extra assignment that I’m not affording to other students.

Now let’s assume the parent gets involved. They ask for the same accommodation/request. I explain myself again and I dig in with a polite but firm “no.” What happens if the family goes to my principal? Then what? Suppose I cave in. Suppose I HAVE to. What lesson is being communicated to the student? It’s not too hard to see where this is going.

The problem is this. In the effort to be appropriate – as parents and as educators – what if we’re too nice? Part of education is test your limits and push yourself while you have support systems in place. Part of that pushing involves temporary setbacks. Setbacks that you have that you learn from in the short term. Setbacks that are lessons so that small problems don’t become glaring weaknesses when one is older (is it not better to “fail” when supports are in place, when the consequences are not dire even though they feel like it?) The students need rewards (good consequences, and bad consequences (if and when necessary). The trouble is, most of the focus is on promoting good consequences, and merely avoiding the bad ones. That just doesn’t work. This does a disservice to the preparation of one’s child, the student, for adulthood.

I don’t have a specific solution – in part because I’ve not been in education long enough to tackle it from an educator’s perspective. I would love to somehow get inside the head of every parent and somehow communicate, “Please, if your child messes up or gets a bad grade in my class, don’t get mad at them. And don’t get mad at me. Find out what happened and why. Point out to them where they went wrong. Then, let’s help them fix the reason, not the result.” Even that sounds hippie-like for me, but it gets to the heart of what needs to happen. Don’t fix the grade, fix the reason behind it. Don’t fix the punishment or consequence, go to work on why it happened. If I’m being honest, it actually puts more pressure on me to get things correct when parents are working with me – because if they are, and things go sideways, odds are increasing that maybe I’m the one that needs to look in the mirror.

I do feel like pediatricians (especially the AAP) has fallen into this trap – there’s so much emphasis on rewarding good. But that doesn’t always work – you have to let children/young adults experience the results and consequences of when they do wrong (and you CANNOT shield them). That doesn’t mean beat, berate, abuse, etc… But it does mean that you shouldn’t protect someone from “natural consequences” of messing up (thanks, Ms. Castelli, I stole your line).

I don’t want this to be rant or a lament. It’s more “thinking out loud” how to get over a big hurdle. Children/young adults/students deserve and demand our respect. That’s a given. That should be a starting point that everyone can agree upon. But if we all have a vested interested into molding students into preparedness for the future, I’m going to argue that we need to make a mid-course correction. Our young people are being shielded from too many consequences of what they do inside a school. And if we don’t make an adjustment, we’re going to have 30 year old adults that are not going to be fully equipped for what life is going to throw at them.

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ADDENDUM

I do want to be clear on this – as I’ve had a night to sleep on it. I do feel like it’s important to give positive feedback FIRST. You can give any student a list of “don’t do these things” and tell them all the “bad things” (thanks, Drake!) they’ve done – and they still don’t know what they need to do and know. A punishment/don’t do this list is not helpful. I always try (to the best of my ability) to point out to my students what they are doing correctly first – so they can keep doing that and applying those ideas. It’s more important to know what TO DO than what not to do.

However, my argument is not one of total focus, but on how far the pendulum has swung. From my residency, Dr. Sadiq (maybe on the Mt. Rushmore of Cardinal Glennon) was my first NICU attending. I think the other neonatologists there would agree he’s the best they’ve got. Anyway, I was on service as an intern for maybe my third or fourth day. I was taking care of a preterm infant on a ventilator, and I had blood gas that I got back. I was scared, and elected not to make a change. We were doing rounds, I read my blood gas and he asked me what changes I made in relations to the blood gas. I said, “None.” He told me that I had to change something, or this premie would never get off the vent, and their lungs would get beaten up in the process. I started to defend my position (not stating that I was just afraid), and he made it clear to me (in front of the team) – very politely but FIRMLY – that we always had to try to make progress when possible for the sake of the infant. So, what changes would I make? I suggested a slight decrease in pressure. He smiled, and added one further drop in pressure to my suggestion and asked if that was sufficient. I saw where this was going and assented. The point is this – that was “negative” feedback. It was appropriate, and it helped me learn. He didn’t berate or embarrass me, but the point was made – always try for progress.

When I’m talking “negative feedback” or consequences, this example is what I’m envisioning. As parents, adults, and educators, we don’t have to berate, embarrass, or treat students in a disrespectful manner. But these experiences are invaluable. And it’s better to learn NOW, while the safety net is still in place. I’ll tell you, in the moment, I thought I was going to die when being questioned by someone of the stature of Dr. Sadiq, and I’m glad someone wasn’t there to let me tap out. Negative doesn’t always mean “bad” but it can mean the opposite of instantaneous praise.

I just wanted to clarify my position. I think there’s a middle ground in between how we used to educate students (going too “old school”) and how we do things now (where we’re too loosey goosey with some things and sometimes over effusive with praise). There’s a middle ground – I’ll even admit that maybe the middle ground is a bit closer to the positive end of things, but we have to have the ability to correct issues before things become a problem, and we can’t always “praise” our way over and around the issue.

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Author: Jason Kesselring

I am a 42 year old high school chemistry teacher (and former pediatrician), happily married, and a father of two wonderful children. I'm occasionally active on Twitter; you can find me: @STLLenny and on Facebook (@trialofmilesjk)

2 thoughts on “Mid Course Correction”

  1. Totally agree Jason and well said. It is true that we learn more from mistakes made. I believe it is far better for kids to learn about consequences within the safety of childhood and their formative school years. I can not think of an adult job that would tolerate missing deadlines, etc. As a nurse practioner working in health care for the past 27 years I have seen health care becoming more and more consumer driven at the expense of evidence based care. When you have parents driving education instead of educators and patients driving health care instead of health care providers there is break down. It is in everyones best interest but especially the kids to learn to deal with age appropriate consequences and deadlines as early as possible. They are lucky to have you teaching Jason because you bring a rich pallette experience of the real world to share with them.

    Cousin Chris

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    1. Thank you. It’s a balance. There’s plenty of good data (and it’s part of the reason I added an addendum) that positive feedback (or letting someone know what they did correctly) is more useful than giving someone a list of mess ups. I think that bears out. But, there are times when you have to lay out some boundaries and say “look, here’s where you’ve got to do better and here’s why.” I think you can be blunt (or at least honest with things that are tough to hear) and respectful. I think we have to be – and that part has been lost a bit recently. Trust me, I’m someone who doesn’t relish confrontation; I’d rather heap praise. But if the goal is improvement, we have to let our young people know what they do well AND where they need to pick it up. It doesn’t mean we get to be jerks about it, but it does have to be said.

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