You Can…Until You Can’t

I remember the little train that could.

I remember a poster from my fifth grade teacher’s room.

I remember my junior high wrestling coach quoting Henry Ford.

My young life was full of talk about “can.” Seems we pay a lot of homage to such sentiments in society, in school. We CAN do whatever we set our minds to.Well, until we can’t.

Learning requires an “I can attitude.” We want our kids to believe in themselves, so their attitudes take them to higher altitudes. And so on. We certainly seem to offer a lot of talk in ed about the power of can. But I wonder if our walk matches our talk.

Can they turn that in late? Can they retake the test? Can they use resources? Can they demonstrate differently? In many classrooms, yes. But in the “other many,” kids confront cannots. And that, then, certainly puts a damper on their “I can attitude.” Even if they think they can, they can’t because they come up against a policy that will not let them, and their cans become can’ts. And I believe this impedes learning.

In the 180 classroom, I want kids to retake assessments. I call them “performances.” And I call the approach, “Performance Learning.” Here are the basics.

  • I structure the learning in my room around our grade-level priority standards.

  • I design practice and experiences around those standards.

  • I provide performance opportunities (assessments) that naturally follow the experiences and practice.

  • I evaluate kids’ performances, giving them feedback, using three simple marks: 3=Met Standard, 2=Near Miss, 1=Far Miss.

  • For 2’s and 1’s I provide descriptive, actionable feedback that indicates not only why they did not meet standard but also what they have to do next time to meet it. The next time is key.

Learning, I believe, is not a line that’s drawn and followed by content considerations. It is this thinking, I believe, that creates can’ts. We have to get to get to the next unit, chapter, etc. That assignment, test was from the beginning of the semester. This suggests only moving forward, often before kids are ready, and it also suggests that going back is impossible.

So, I offer learning as a circle, a recursive cycle that creates a feedback loop, creating as many “cans” as necessary, as determined by the learner. And I believe each successive time, from that feedback put into action, kids learn. My goal is not to do and move on. My goal is to get all kids to a 3 on every performance. I provide possibility. Does it take more time? Of course. Does it result in covering less content? Certainly. Does it result in learning? How could it not? And that is why I do it. I believe it creates a place for learning. It creates a realm of possibility.

Is it perfect? No way. Can kids survive can’ts? I suppose. They do every day. But I wonder if they CAN do more than survive. Either way, seems whether kids think they can or cannot does depend on the possibles we present.