Minggu, 29 September 2013

The end of The System makes front-page news

The System was my homework/classwork/general incentive policy for about 20 years. I developed it in the early 1990s and was very happy with what it did. But I abandoned it this year, and the abandonment led to a front-page (below the fold) article in the school newspaper with two photographs.

Baird Terminates System

Because few things are as exciting as my 20-year old homework policy. Winning the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching did not result in nearly this much Mirada ink. Ah, the whimsical and fickle world of The Press.

The System was my attempt to encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior. If you came to class on time, prepared to learn, and kept up with daily assignments, I'd grade you on a relaxed grading scale. Instead of the traditional grading scale, students who qualified for The System were graded as follows: 80%-100%: A, 60%-79%: B, 50%-59%: C, 40%-49%: D. In 20 years of The System, I could count on my fingers the number of students who qualified and earned a C or worse. My fingers on one hand.

My hope was that The System would make Physics an attractive course in that you could earn a pretty good grade (B) even if you routinely performed badly on tests, etc. (60%).

I gave out plenty of non-A or B grades. Many students elected to not partake in The System. With no immediate gratification ("Scoobie Snack") offered for homework completion, many students chose not to do it. Such a choice invariably leads to poor test performance, and sub-80% totals. But there was a lesson to be learned there, as well.

Homework was checked randomly and at random intervals. Different assignments were checked in different periods. Other elements folded easily into The System (tardiness, on-task behavior, excessive use of the bathroom pass, etc.).

Doing the right things earned you System Points. Angelic, perfect students could end up with 20 System Points at the end of each semester. To qualify, all you needed was 10. Ten out of twenty. Plenty of room for lapses of any sort. Great flexibility. But not unlimited.

Every semester would end with some students having 9 of the 20. They missed more than they earned. They naturally saw unfairness. If it were only for that one thing that one time. But it was never one thing one time. Their bargain with me was that they would behave in a manner so as to earn all the System Points.

Every student of Intro to Psychology is taught to despise B. F. Skinner, but Skinner works surprisingly well while "higher-minded" psychological schemes do not. Still we harbor a visceral hatred of what Skinner tells us: that we often operate so as to maximize extrinsic rewards and minimize extrinsic punishment. To oversimplify: psychologists despise Skinner; economists swear by him.

Over time students figured out ways to game The System. The Holy Grail in this pursuit was to qualify for the relaxed grading scale while not completing daily assignments. Assignments were copied, word for word, mistake for mistake, among students. Students with older siblings who took my class would turn in the older sibling's work as their own.

I could catch some of them by changing the numbers in my numerical problems. Cheaters would blissfully turn in homework with all the wrong numbers. No such cheater ever confessed to their transgression. But oh, the stories they would spin.

Changing the numericals for this purpose was a giant hassle; changing word questions was essentially impossible. All of it wasted time and energy spent to beat the cheats.

And as the years went by, students became less and less apologetic about copying homework. They were too busy with other things to be bothered with homework. Consider this student sentiment expressed by a Rio student, "Work is for school. I go to school to learn, but I go home to have fun. I don’t think homework helps. It really just ruins my day. It ruins my day 100% of the time."

Many parents take the position that there's too much homework. They're forever hoping for a school wide homework restriction policy.

Some teachers are in on this, too. A language teaching colleague complained that so much homework is tantamount to child abuse.

Another colleague invited us—his fellow teachers—to examine our homework practices. He invited his faculty piers to ponder these questions.

"How long will it take students (slowest AND fastest) to complete?
If all of a student's teachers assigned the same amount, how many hours would that take?
How much time is left for sleep, family and other interests that make up a full life?
Is the assignment absolutely necessary for the curriculum, or is it homework for homework's sake?"

When parents and teachers give comfort to the notion that there's too much homework, students feel entitled and licensed to subvert the homework load by any means necessary. "Of course I copied my homework, everyone knows the homework load is too ridiculous around here. My parents support me in this, and so do the cool teachers."

Since offering any extrinsic incentive ("sugar") for homework completion was resulting in more and more homework subversion, I had to pull the plug.

Front-page news.

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