lunedì 22 marzo 2010

a word on grades

Back from a long hiatus of indifference to blog-writing. Turns out when the suns out it can be hard to stay inside. Also my parents were here, and I was busy running around with them and eating. Word to the wise: All the pain and suffering to make a reservation to see Da Vinci's Last Supper is worth it!

I've been thinking a lot about grades and motivation, especially after an incident a few weeks ago at Zappa. Zappa is the technical school I teach at, as opposed to the classics and scientific high school, and I have noticed that the average level of English is lower here. Some of the kids are still wonderfully positive and allegri, but they do struggle more than the kids at the other schools. (This goes in hand with the common belief that linguistic and classics high schools are the best schools with the highest-achieving students, followed by scientific high schools, and then by technical and vocational institutes. As with all common beliefs, it is not entirely true, but I have noticed general differences in the academic levels and economic status of the students at my schools.)

Anyways, in one of my 4th year classes at Zappa where we were learning business English, the students, in pairs, had a project of conducting a mock interview. One was the potential employer and one was the potential employee. One boy, M, missed the day we assigned this project and, because these kids rarely check up on the work they missed when they're absent, did not have a partner and was not prepared to act out the interview. We decided that I would be the employer, he would be the employee, and we would do the interview next week.

The next week, I sat down with him in front of the class and asked him questions, not all of them from the script in the book, and he responded decently. He stumbled over some phrases and didn't understand every question, but I could understand him. The teacher then asked me to give him a grade.

I knew about the Italian grading system already, even though I almost never give grades myself. It goes from 0 to 10, with 6 as passing, on the surface pretty similar to our 0 to 100 scale. However, I had been surprised in the past when I heard students rejoice over 7s and 8s. For me, those grades seemed low.

I thought of the boy's performance, and decided it deserved about a C. It was hardly spectacular, but he had reacted well to unexpected questions. So I whispered to the teacher, "Perhaps a 7?"

M overheard me and immediately began cajoling the prof in Italian to let me decide. I could tell from her face that she disagreed with my opinion, so I asked what she thought was best. "Listen," she told me, "you have to understand how its works. If you give these students a passing grade, they will not study anymore because they think they have done well. They stop working. If you want them to study more you have to give them a lower grade. M especially will not study."

She didn't think he had done a good enough job to pass. Also, his relentless attempts to convince the prof to give him a better grade began to change my mind about his effort. We compromised and gave him two options: accept a 6 or re-do the interview the next week with the teacher. He accepted the 6. When we continued with the other interviews, the highest grade was a 7.5, and the kids who received it were quite happy.

Both the students' contentment with lower grades and the teachers' philosophy for motivation surprised me. While a student at a good public high school, I was never obsessed with grades, I always worked hard and appreciated an A as a reward. Maybe I was a little nerdy, but even my less smartypants companions wanted good grades, at least in the B range. Rarely did people fail.

Here, students regularly worry if they will pass the year. And the teachers, convinced that the kids won't study if they aren't worried, seem to keep them in suspense. Small errors lose you entire points off your score. I've never witnessed anyone receive a 9, and I asked F if he knew of anyone who had received a 10 when he was in school. He said, "Mai, never." The system here embodies the idea that you cannot reach perfection, as a opposed to U.S. system where it is possible.

So, I wonder, which system is better? Perhaps a question that I will continue to chew on as the months wind down...

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