Potty Passes

I heard an interesting story from one of my college students last night. He had visited a mathematics classroom and witnessed pretty much the most standard classroom that there is:

The teacher collected homework, went over it, taught a new lesson via lecture, then gave new homework that students could work on in class for a few minutes (Yipee! What a benevolent treat!)

We can talk all day about why you may or may not agree with this. Students won’t self start, they won’t be able to apply content in a unique situation, and finally they won’t really care. Any grade or learning that results from this is more a measure of being able to endure boredom and monotony rather than actually learning math.

This is the kind of classroom where any break from the tedium is heralded as fantastic teaching. I once had a teacher come sliding into the room on his belly riding atop his overhead cart. This was talked about for days. As a teacher, a decade later, it blows my mind that this is all I remember from Pre-Calc. What an effing joke, but wait, it gets better.

Hajj of the Potty Passes:

I've always wondered, should there be apostrophes?

My student observed a weekly ritual. The reclaiming of the potty passes. Students are given two potty passes a week, and, you guessed it, that’s how many times they can go to the bathroom during the week. Here’s the mind numbing part (<= not hyperbole), the students can turn unused passes in for extra credit at the end of the week. This is happening right now. In real schools.

Let’s not throw this teacher under the bus quite yet. Why are potty passes inflating grades? Obviously there’s a hallway issue in this school. Obviously students want to leave their classes. The potty pass is the sticker-chart solution to these issues.

What’s a better, more learning-centered solution? Two things: Lesson design and grading.

The lessons I’ve given that have gotten serious, total buy-in have the following in common:

  1. Narrative. This is Dan Meyer’s thing. The students are aware of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and finding the answer, knowledge, or meeting the objective is motivated clearly. That motivation can have nothing to do with pleasing the teacher or covering the next chapter for the sake of covering it. Example: Motivating the magic 1/2 that shows up in many physics equations. These equations are the results of experiments, but the magic of certain constants is often what turns kids off to thinking in physics class; just accept the magic and carry on blindly. The narrative is designed around attacking what students would tacitly accept.
  2. Students feel like they’ve somewhat derailed or are in control of where the lesson goes. I might introduce pendulums with this sweet video, but the questions generated are the property of that class.

The grading changes I’ve made that support this type of lesson design and promote student success rather than adverasarial relationships:

  • Change the way you use your gradebook.
  • Don’t grade work that practices a skill. Only grade valid assessments of those skills. If your students won’t do ungraded practice, then that’s the first philosophical shift you need to help them make. Don’t settle for “my students won’t do ungraded work.” Fix that problem; it’s a disease.
  • Allow students to show proficiency however they can. In the end it doesn’t matter what that student does, it matters what they actually learned. This looks like one student writing a paper while another designs an experiment that both show the same proficiency with energy conservation.
  • Here’s one that I suck at: find a way to show the public/parents what you are doing such that those people can give students feedback. If the PowerPoint your student just made is destined to rot on a hard drive, that’s not good enough. When parents email me once a week to tell me that their kid was telling them about what happened in class, I feel accomplished. This is embarrassing: parents should always know what’s going on, and they should be pumped about supporting that at home, especially if it’s something they don’t already know about, like, say, um, calculus.

Points for potty passes? Really?