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September 1, 2008

Students at Bat

Students can learn to act responsibly by practicing meaningful decision making in school.

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Neighborhood baseball games were the highlight of summer days while we were growing up. Each game began with a bicycle trip around the neighborhood to round up equipment and every available player, boys and girls alike. Sharing was essential because not everyone had a ball, bat, or glove.

Games started with the selection of team captains who then picked their teammates. The traditional bat toss between captains and a hand-over-hand climb to the bat's end determined who chose first. Teams were different for every game. We chose our positions, decided the batting order, and established rules. Although we all knew the general rules of the game, we had to decide on a multitude of local rules: Where were the bases? What was a home run? How much of a lead from the base was permitted? Would the younger kids be allowed four strikes instead of three? Issues of fairness governed all these decisions.

When disagreements arose, we resolved them through compromise and consensus. An unresolved dispute might end the game, and nobody wanted that. We all cheered good plays; we laughed at mistakes and then quickly forgot them. An injury brought everyone on both teams together to help. Older kids taught younger ones about batting, fielding, and base running. Most of what we learned about baseball, we learned in those neighborhood games.

Today, few boys or girls take part in neighborhood baseball games. Their experiences with baseball come primarily through leagues that adults have organized. The adults pick the teams and determine the schedules. Adults assign players to positions and arrange the batting order. Adults establish the rules and do all the teaching. When disagreements arise, adults do the arguing. Players watch, wait, and abide by whatever decision the adults make. The players' only responsibility is to show up and play the game. Even kids' attendance is determined largely by the adults who drop them off and then pick them up afterward.

Sadly, for increasing numbers of children, their baseball experience is more restrictive still. They play baseball on a computer that sets all the rules and determines their skill level on the basis of how carefully they time their key press on a remote control.

Doing What They're Told

In school, children's experiences with responsibility are similarly restricted. Pressured to improve scores on high-stakes assessments in language arts and math, many teachers drastically limit the choices that students are allowed to make. Using the guidelines provided by the state or district, teachers determine what students will learn, when they will learn it, and how they will demonstrate their learning. In most classrooms, teachers choose where students will sit, with whom they will work, and how they will spend their time. Teachers even decide when students can and cannot talk, when they can eat, and when they can go to the restroom. As students advance in grades, these decisions become more formalized and restrictive through course requirements and structured school schedules.

Both in school and in the neighborhood, children today have few opportunities to learn about sharing, establishing rules, fairness, and responsibility. They seldom experience the challenge of resolving disputes through compromise and consensus. They rarely actively participate in decisions about learning goals, classroom procedures, or rules of conduct. Yet despite this lack of experience or guidance in responsible action, adults often become incensed when students show little personal responsibility for their actions and the possible consequences.

Research and common sense suggest that students should experience increased opportunities to demonstrate responsibility as they progress into higher grades in school. Educational psychologists have long acknowledged that as children develop into adolescents and young adults, their abilities to critically evaluate choices and make responsible decisions greatly improve (Grisso et al., 2003). Researchers also have demonstrated that adolescents clearly want to be responsible and wantto make meaningful decisions (Midgley & Feldlaufer, 1987).

Ironically, studies of classroom procedures reveal not only that students have few opportunities to be responsible and make meaningful choices in school but also that those opportunities actuallydecline as students progress into higher grades. For example, one study showed that middle school students thought they should have more opportunities to make decisions in math class than they had in elementary school (Midgley & Feldlaufer, 1987). However, their middle school teachers believed that students should have fewer opportunities for decision making in class than their elementary school teachers thought they should have the previous year.

A Combined Effort

Many educators believe that it's the parents' job, and not theirs, to instill a sense of responsibility in children. Parents clearly provide an important starting point; their support for developing autonomy in children is crucial (Ryan, Deci, Grolnick, & LaGuardia, 2006), particularly for boys (National Institute of Child Health and Development, 2008). Teachers can purposefully build on this early and ongoing work by offering parents specific suggestions for building students' autonomy and sense of responsibility. They might recommend that students help plan family meals and food purchases, make decisions about family outings, or engage in community service.

Optimal results occur, however, when responsibility is encouraged in both settings. In school, developing a sense of responsibility in students depends in large part on the opportunities that educators provide for meaningful decision making throughout the day. If teachers make nearly all the decisions for students and give them little say, then students are unlikely to develop much of a sense of responsibility. Believing their thoughts, opinions, or preferences do not matter, the students also are unlikely to take much ownership of their learning. Without ownership and personal responsibility, students have little motivation to succeed. When students feel empowered to be responsible in school, however, they tend to prefer more challenging academic tasks, set higher academic goals, and persist when confronted with difficult tasks (Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998).

Teaching Responsibility

Educators can implement a variety of instruction and management practices at the school and classroom levels that encourage students to develop a sense of responsibility (see Anderman & Anderman, in press; Guskey & Bailey, 2001). A key element in all of these practices, however, is a positive orientation. Rather than punishing students for irresponsible actions, these practices teach students to make responsible decisions and follow through with responsible actions. They also involve having students take ownership of the consequences that stem from their actions, both good and bad.

Let Students Decide How to Use Their Time

Teachers can set aside a block of time once a week and outline three tasks that students should accomplish during that time, clearly describing the criteria for success. In the younger grades, after teaching students how to effectively manage their time, teachers might set aside one hour. In the upper grades, they might set aside as much as two hours. After the teacher advises the students to use their time constructively and responsibly, students decide how to allocate their time to accomplish the tasks.

For example, in an elementary classroom, the teacher might suggest the following three tasks for students to complete related to a story they just read: (1) write a paragraph summarizing the story, (2) draw a picture of your favorite scene, and (3) write an alternate ending. The teacher could give the students a 90-minute block to complete the three tasks. At the end of that time, the teacher and the students would examine how much the students accomplished. The teacher would ask those students who did not complete all three tasks to suggest ways they might have used their time more efficiently.

Let Students Choose Classroom Rules

Instead of simply providing students with a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors at the beginning of the year, teachers can engage students in developing their own rules for the classroom. Students can divide into four or five teams, with each team assigned a particular rule category. For example, one team may decide the rules for using the classroom computers, whereas another team may work on rules for cleaning up the classroom after science experiments or art projects. Teams then present their rules to the entire class, along with their rationale for choosing them, as well as a description of consequences for not following the rules.

Initially, teachers will need to provide examples of rules—some good and some bad—along with the rationale behind them and possible consequences for not complying. Students can then discuss their interpretations regarding the fairness of each rule and offer alternatives if needed. When disagreements arise, teachers will need to guide the students through a consensus-building process, showing how people share divergent perspectives and develop meaningful compromise. Once students decide on the rules, they are all held accountable for following them, for taking responsibility for their own behavior, and for knowing the consequences of misbehavior.

Let Students Choose Work Locations

After assigning a particular task, teachers can let students choose where they will complete their class work. Students develop a sense of responsibility when they decide whether to work at their desks, at the reading center, or at some other work location in the classroom. Elementary teachers may need to ask students to choose from a list of possible options. Teachers may need to remind students in upper grades that some areas in the classroom—such as right next to the door or close to their friends—might be distracting and less advisable choices. In some schools, teachers can give students the option of working in the library, computer laboratory, or study center. Teachers typically set explicit time limits for completion of the work and outline specific criteria for success.

Let Students Choose Tasks

Teachers also can encourage responsible decision making by allowing students to choose from a variety of academic tasks. Not all students in the class have to be working on exactly the same assignment at the same time. Anderman and Anderman (in press) distinguish between within-task choices and between-task choices. In one classroom, for example, all students might be working on a unit on the planet Mars. Even though they are assigned a given task—studying Mars—students can choose how they want to explore it—a within-taskchoice. Some students might go to the library to find books or other reference sources about Mars. Others might use the Internet to gather information about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Mars Exploration Program. Still others might use a telescope to find Mars in the night sky and then draw or photograph the planet.

In contrast, in a language arts classroom, the teacher might let each student select the novel of his or her choice to read as well as the method to report on it—a between-task choice. Some students might choose to write a traditional book report, whereas others might develop a Web page, prepare an oral presentation with slides, or compose a song about the book.

Let Students Develop Rubrics

When included as part of the instructional process, carefully structured rubrics dramatically improve the quality of students' work, especially in writing (Andrade, Du, & Wang, 2008). After students become accustomed to using rubrics, teachers can increase student responsibility for learning by engaging students in developing their own rubrics.

For example, the teacher could ask students to read two paragraphs describing a similar situation and determine which paragraph they liked better. After some group discussion, students would individually construct a list of five things each one thought made one paragraph better than the other. Next, they could compare their individual lists and develop a shared list of characteristics of high-quality writing. Finally, they would write a paragraph on a different topic using their shared list of characteristics as a guide. This kind of involvement not only improves the initial quality of students' work but also encourages students to take greater ownership of—and become more thoughtful judges of—that work (Andrade, 2000; Arter & McTighe, 2001).

Implement Student-Led Conferences

In student-led conferences, the teachers' role becomes that of facilitator. During the conference, students lead family members through a discussion of their work, which is usually organized in a portfolio. The portfolio might consist of several examples of the student's writing from the current school year, mathematics exercises, results from science experiments, and recently completed art projects.

Typically, several conferences take place simultaneously in a classroom, with family groups seated far enough apart to guarantee privacy. The teacher circulates among family groups, stopping long enough to offer pertinent comments and answer any questions. Instead of offering specific comments about the student's work, however, the teacher simply clarifies project goals and explains activities. Students take charge of explaining the nature of their successes and describing areas in which they are working to improve. Organizing these conferences requires significant planning to assemble the portfolios and help students develop skill in presenting their work to parents. However, increasing numbers of teachers find that student-led conferences enhance students' ownership of their learning and improve parents' involvement in school activities (Bailey & Guskey, 2001).

Report Achievement and Behaviors Separately

Most teachers today combine a wide variety of achievement and behavior indices when assigning grades. They mix scores from major assessments, projects, reports, and quizzes with records of homework completion, class participation, punctuality of assignments, effort, and other work habits. The result is a hodgepodge grade that is difficult for parents or students to interpret (Brookhart, in press; Guskey & Bailey, 2001).

However, schools using standards-based grading typically distinguish grades for learning or achievement from those for different aspects of student behavior (Guskey, 2001, 2006). Teachers using standards-based grading report that students take homework, effort, work habits, and other aspects related to responsibility more seriously when those grades are reported separately (Guskey, in press).

Once the system is in place, this kind of grading requires no additional work because teachers don't need to gather any additional information. It also helps avoid irresolvable debates about how best to combine diverse types of evidence on achievement, attitudes, and behaviors into a single grade (Bailey & McTighe, 1996).

It Takes Practice

Although the decisions young people make become more important and the consequences of their decisions grow more serious as they get older, the opportunities they have to make responsible decisions and learn from those experiences in school decline (Eccles et al., 1993). As a result, many students have not developed this vital life skill.

Students inevitably experience difficulties making responsible decisions at first. For example, if a teacher allows students to choose their own work locations, some students may initially make irresponsible choices. A student might choose to work in the library, but end up spending most of the time there talking with friends and reading magazines rather than completing the assignment.

That student will suffer the consequences of having made an irresponsible decision. The teacher may call the student's parents, offer fewer options for doing the next assignment, or assign a low grade. Most students learn quickly that poor choices lead to undesirable consequences—and that they have control over these consequences. If students continuously receive support in this area, they become more comfortable making responsible decisions and actually choose responsible options far more frequently.

Some educators undoubtedly fear that if we give students greater autonomy and more opportunities to make responsible decisions, many will choose less responsible options, and problematic behaviors will result. But no evidence that we know supports this claim. To the contrary, research suggests that students actually become more engaged and more task focused when they are allowed to make responsible decisions (Skinner, Zimmer-Gembeck, & Connell, 1998).

Teachers need to provide these opportunities for increased responsibility within the context of an effective classroom management system. Students can learn from small decisions first, recognizing consequences that might be relatively minor, before they consider major decisions with consequences of great significance.

The lessons we learned in neighborhood baseball games serve us well today. It is imperative that we help all students learn similar lessons. Few life skills are as important.

References

Anderman, E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (in press). Classroom motivation. Columbus, OH: Pearson.

Andrade, H. (2000). Using rubrics to promote thinking and learning. Educational Leadership, 57(5), 13–18.

Andrade, H., Du, Y., & Wang, X. (2008). Putting rubrics to the test: The effect of a model, criteria generation, and rubric-referenced self-assessment on elementary school students' writing. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 27(2), 3–13.

Arter, J., & McTighe, J. (2001). Scoring rubrics in the classroom: Using performance criteria for assessing and improving student performance. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Bailey, J., & Guskey, T. R. (2001). Implementing student-led conferences. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Bailey, J., & McTighe, J. (1996). Reporting achievement at the secondary level: What and how. In T. R. Guskey (Ed.), Communicating student learning. 1996 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (pp. 119–140). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Brookhart, S. M. (in press). Grading (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill / Prentice Hall.

Eccles, J. S., Midgley, C., Wigfield, A., Miller-Buchanan, C. M., Reuman, D., Flanagan, C., et al. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents' experiences in schools and in families. American Psychologist, 48(2), 90–101.

Grisso, T., Steinberg, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., Scott, E., Graham, S., et al. (2003). Juveniles' competence to stand trial: A comparison of adolescents' and adults' capacities as trial defendants. Law and Human Behavior, 27, 333–363.

Guskey, T. R. (2001). Helping standards make the grade. Educational Leadership, 59(1), 20–27.

Guskey, T. R. (2006). Making high school grades meaningful. Phi Delta Kappan, 87(9), 670–675.

Guskey, T. R. (Ed.). (in press). Practical solutions for serious problems in standards-based grading. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Guskey, T. R., & Bailey, J. M. (2001). Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Midgley, C., & Feldlaufer, H. (1987). Students' and teachers' decision-making fit before and after the transition to junior high school. Journal of Early Adolescence, 7(2), 225–241.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Early Child Care Research Network. (2008). Mothers' and fathers' support for child autonomy and early school achievement. Developmental Psychology, 44, 895–907.

Ryan, R. M., Deci, E. L., Grolnick, W. S., & LaGuardia, J. G. (2006). The significance of autonomy and autonomy support in psychological development and psychopathology. In D. Cicchetti & D. Cohen (Eds.), Developmental psychopathology, Volume 1: Theory and method (2nd ed., pp. 795–849). New York: Wiley.

Skinner, E. A., Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., & Connell, J. P. (1998). Individual differences and the development of perceived control. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 63, 2–3.

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