Face up or face down?
At Russian School of Mathematics, we distribute checked tests face up. It’s a practice that years ago brought me into a spirited discussion with the father of a bright fifth grader I’ll call Mike.
First, some background. For the first 12 weeks of school, we do not grade children’s work. This gives students time to get used to the school and for teachers to adjust the composition of classes, moving more advanced children to higher levels and referring less advanced ones to internal tutoring.
During the preparatory period, teachers gradually introduce the concept of competition. First, children raise their hands in response to questions; then we play a check marks game with them: The teacher writes names of the students on the white board and puts checks for correct answers next to their names. This way, children get accustomed to seeing scores next to their names in the open. As a confidence builder, the teacher makes sure that everybody has at least one check mark.
Why not let students know everybody’s score?I gave the first graded quiz in Mike’s class just after the introductory period ended. It was in the middle of the lesson, giving students an opportunity to look at their results, ask questions and discuss their errors.
Mike’s results were poor. He was somewhat upset, but held up well – until he talked to his father, who was waiting outside the classroom. Mike’s father was furious and let me know it. He told me that revealing the results in public was illegal. I responded that I might have broken a cultural taboo, but not the law. The father, a lawyer himself, insisted he was right. I later checked with my legal counsel, who assured me there indeed was no such law.
I tried reasoning with the father. I told him that some pressure and competition can spur learning. He told me that he had enrolled his son for fun and enrichment, not competition. I agreed with the fun part, and I acknowledged that the pressure should be gentle and the competition friendly. He wasn’t persuaded. I switched tactics, relating his own educational background to his son’s challenges. Surely he had faced pressure and competition on the way to graduating from a top-notch law school and starting his own practice.
I tried sports analogies. Who would attend, follow, or respect a sport that didn’t keep score? Why, then, are we reluctant to keep score in a classroom? Should we really be so worried that making results public will embarrass children, lead to unhealthy competition and erode self-esteem?
As the founder of the school, I had considered these questions early on. I had to decide whether to follow the educational custom of this country and keep all grades private or that of Russia and much of Europe and make all grades public. I quickly realized that this was a false choice. Regardless of what we teachers do, children always figure out how their fellow students are faring. If anything, keeping test scores secret could serve as a perverse incentive, causing students to focus more on concealing their weaknesses than on working to correct them. Besides, returning tests face down won’t stop children from being competitive. They will engage in stealth competition – occasionally petty, sometimes mean and with lots of bluffing and everybody out for her or himself.
At Russian School of Mathematics, we encourage open competition. How does it play out? Are children hurt and humiliated? Are their egos shattered?
By applying the right teaching techniques, we find the answer is no.
At first, it can be hard on new students when they discover their shortcomings, particularly if they had been accustomed to getting high grades in public school. As Mike’s story demonstrates, it can be even harder on the parents. We address this problem by meeting with the parents and children to analyze the situation together.
We start by looking at how the student achieved good grades in public school. Typically, we find that the child is naturally smart, quick and alert. Why then poor grades at Russian School of Mathematics? The reason is that our method tests whether students have a systematic grasp of the material; when they have gaps, they can’t mask them with quick responses or guesses.
Some parents still feel that protecting self-esteem is paramount, and they withdraw their students. But most realize that with effort and time, their children will not only achieve high grades but also build a solid base of knowledge. With those students, we start the hard but gradual work of forging true confidence.
We begin by getting students used to seeing their results discussed in public. To do that, we invite a lot of them to work at the board on a regular basis. When we discuss homework questions, we divide the board into four sections and call four volunteers at a time. We make sure that all students at the board have something to contribute and explain to others. This way eight to 10 kids are called up at least once a week. Once children are comfortable with peer review of their answers, we introduce competition. But we encourage children not so much to compete against each other, but to challenge their teacher.
In our school, teachers solve problems together with the class. Sometimes, they make a real mistake (yes, it happens!); sometimes, they plant a mistake for students to find. When children catch their teacher’s mistake, they get an “A” and a lot of praise. You have to see the scene: There is no end to their joy and triumph!
Our students are encouraged to present their classes with difficult problems from math teams and other places. The class as a group then competes with the teacher to solve the problem. When I cannot solve a problem right away, I sometimes say: “I need more time. I need to take this problem home.” Students then see that the teacher, too, has to think hard and that mistakes are nothing to be ashamed of, so long as one knows how to learn from them.
Eventually, students and their parents come to view tests scores not as a potential source of humiliation, but as a way to measure progress and guide the never-ending process of learning.
So how did things end up with Mike’s father? We went back and forth for a while, but I never was able to win him over. The discussion ended when Mike’s mom told her husband to stop arguing. Mike remained in school a number of years and wound up doing very well in math. On that most important score, everyone was a winner.
Inessa Rifkin is principal of Russian School of Mathematics; visit www.russianschool.com.