#TG2 in Science – Part 1

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am looking into the idea of having students and teachers discuss and decide on a suitable grade at the end of a grading period by using one-on-one conferences. During the conference, the teacher asks the student to reflect upon their own learning by evaluating their growth.  I have been inspired by a group of educators that has formed a group DM on twitter and a Facebook group.  We have called our group #TG2 (Teachers Going Gradeless).  Many of the experienced members of the group are English Language Arts teachers, whose curriculum is based mostly on skills and processes (see Common Core ELA Standards).  Practicing skills allows the class to continually go back over the same principles again and again and show growth.

But what if the course is more content driven than process driven?


My cooperating teacher, Tom DiGaetano (Mr. D to the kids), during my student teaching always used to say “Just as a house is made of stones, so too is science made of facts, but a pile of stones is not a house, and a pile of facts is not a science”.  I agree the content (aka, data or facts) is essential to learning science, but the doing of science is not fact gathering.  So how can we practice content?  How do we show growth in content?  How can we ask students to discuss their improvement in collecting a pile of stones or acquiring facts?  I have come to the simple realization … We can’t.  But what we can do is demonstrate growth by demonstrating the doing of science.  So I am looking towards the Next Generation Science Standards (and NY State Science Learning Standards) for answers with a little guidance from my #TG2 friends.

NGSS for High School Life Science:

8 Science and Engineering Practices(SEPs)

14 Discipline Core Ideas (DCIs) in the Life Science

7 Cross-Cutting Concepts (CCCs):

With all of these standards – Where do I start?

  • 8 SEPs, 14 DCIs and 7 CCCs …
  • Do I start with the content?  The practices? Cross-cutting concepts?
  • I didn’t even mention the performance expectations, mostly because there are 24 of them.  Having too many standards means too many things to try and remember.  Having too many standards means it is difficult to show growth.

So, here is my dilemma, how do I show growth through content when most of the content is explored in a one-time deal in class and rarely recursive.  For example, LS3A Inheritance of Traits might only be covered in a traditional Genetics Unit.  True, it might be covered again in Evolution, but certainly not to the same depth as in Genetics and even if it was, is two enough to show growth?  In my opinion giving the students only two chances to show mastery is not much of a chance to show growth.  It is not sufficient to use it as the foundation of one’s assessment practice.  The scenario was going around and around in my head …

I couldn’t get past it.  I couldn’t get past it because I was stuck in the paradigm of asking for a pile of stones while expecting a mansion.

Like Mr. D would say, Science is not a pile of content, but the content is foundational to the doing of science.  However, the science practices ARE the doing of science.  Once I was able to get out of confines of my mental block I could see alternatives.  The alternative … instead of measuring growth in the DCIs, I could measure growth in the SEPs.

Measure growth through improving student science practices rather than their memorization of disconnected content.

Use the Science and Engineering Practices to measure growth.  I do believe that content provides the foundation for success in science much like a solid foundation is critical to building a house.  But more questions remained … Do you need to build a house on a perfect foundation, or can you build a house on a foundation that is adequate for the house being built?  I wondered the same thing about being able to do science.  Do students require perfect knowledge base or will an adequate base suffice to start doing science? (More on how to achieve an adequate knowledge base in part 2).


Is one foundation better than the other or will they both adequately do the job?  
Should we spend all our time on the perfect foundation when we really are interested in the house that is built on top of it?

These questions made me think about what type of students end up making the best scientists.  Are they the students who can memorize all the facts?  Well, sometimes, but is that most important in order to practice the doing of science?  One must get into the science practices by practicing science.  If a student spends all their time memorizing facts to get closer to the perfect foundation, what time is left to actually DO science?  Students will learn science by doing science.  If the students are doing science practices over and over then couldn’t growth be measured?

The Crosscutting concepts are a huge part of the NGSS and I do not want to leave that out either.  When it comes to the number of standards needed to demonstrate growth – less is more.  If there are fewer standards to demonstrate growth, then those standards will be addressed more often.  If they are addressed more often then there is a greater opportunity to show growth.  With that in mind here is a (very rough) draft of my standards to measure growth in science:

  1. Connecting cross-cutting concepts in biology (A combination of all the CCCs)
  2. Asking questions, planning and carrying out investigations (A combination of SEP1 and 3)
  3. Analyzing and interpreting data in order construct explanations (A combination of SEP4 and 6)
  4. Obtaining, evaluating and communicating information in order to engage in argumentation. (Combination of SEP7 and 8)
  5. Developing and using models (including using mathematics and computational thinking) (A combination of SEP2 and 5)

But what about the Foundation?  How do we know what is adequate?  More on that in part 2 …

In the meantime, please let me know what you think.  Can growth in a science class be assessed with these five standards?  Do they address the NGSS standards?

What if there were no grades, would students still learn?


Get a room full of teachers and eventually, a few topics comes up … Grading, Student motivation/apathy, and testing to name a few.  However, more and more I am seeing fewer teachers talk about learning.  I have found myself drawn into conversations on twitter and other social media platforms about what grades should really mean.


Are grades a motivating factor or a demotivating factor in regards to student learning?  Are grades actually required to encourage student learning, or do they get in the way of student learning?

Are grades meant to encourage compliance?  If you do your homework you get a 10/10, otherwise, it’s a 0/10.  Are you complying with the teacher’s wants and needs?

Are grades meant to show what a student has learned? Standards Based Learning/Grading takes this completely to heart.  Show the students a learning target and evidence that shows that they have reached those targets and only assess that.

The research I have been reading “Why don’t students like school?” by Daniel T Willingham, “Drive” by Daniel Pink, “The Gift of Failure” by Jessica Lahey, “Visible Learning for Teachers” by John Hattie, to name a few, seem to point to the idea that external rewards (like grades) may motivate in the short term but actually demotivate in the long term.  And more importantly it totally short circuits creativity.  So although the year is not complete (we are not even into the final quarter yet), I am thinking about next year.  As a teacher and (hopefully) a motivator, what can I do to spark student curiosity and creativity?

One idea is to remove grading from the equation.

I have been really encouraged by a few other teachers I have connected with in Twitterverse to leave the grades up to a one-on-one Student – Teacher conference at the end of the grading period.  John Hattie reports that Self-reported grading has by far the biggest effect on student learning based on his research.  During that conversation, some important questions should come up.


During Student-Teacher one-on-one conference, some important questions should come up.

Aaron Blackwelder (@AaronSBlackwel1) uses three questions: What evidence do you have that demonstrates mastery of the standards? What is your evidence of growth? What evidence you have that you can create your own projects to meet standards (transfer of knowledge)?

Adam Lester (@CoachLesterBHS) has 5 major questions: What areas do you feel like you improved over the course of the grading period/year? What areas do you feel like you didn’t grow as much as you should/could have? What major assignment is the best representation of your skills? What major assignment do you feel isn’t representative of what you can do? What grade do you think you deserve and why?

I am not sure I am going to go in this direction but I am definitely going to look into it.

What do you think?  What are the advantages of traditional grading?  Standards-based grading?  Self-reported grading?