I play a lot of speed games with my students. Being able to figure out how to say, "Where is the airport?" in Spanish after five minutes of thought is okay. But it isn't the foundation to being able to communicate in a normal conversation. Most people you stop on the street to ask for directions have about 0.25 seconds to spare, but not five minutes. Language exchanges are quick, and therefore, so are my classroom language games. Both speed and accuracy are rewarded. And yes, students will do amazing things for a small piece of candy, such as one tiny Jolly Rancher.
What was so special about that little Jolly Rancher or Hershey's Kiss? Well, earning candy was the only way to eat candy in my classroom. However, I doubt any student of mine was so addicted to candy that he couldn't wait less than 45 minutes to devour as much junk food as he pleased. But when my winners would earn their candies, inevitably another, candy-less student would maneuver herself for the reward she didn't earn with the plea, "Don't we all get candy? Aren't we all winners?"
My answer: "Not in this classroom we're not."
Does telling a student that not everyone is a winner seem harsh? Maybe it's because many schools have been systematically perpetuating the myth that no matter how much or how little effort applied, no matter if the goals are achieved or not, everyone is a winner. The message seems to be, "You don't have to work for anything. You've already earned it by showing up."
I hold that my students didn't race around like crazy and prepare for games that were essentially speed drills because they liked the candy I gave them. I believed they did it because they like the recognition of their accomplishments that came with the candy. That recognition is extinguished if another student gets the reward simply for playing.
Of course, I vary the games and how I set them up so that at some point, everyone does have a chance to feel that sense of accomplishment. No one likes to feel like a permeant failure, either. Additionally, my students knew what they needed to do to master the material and win the games. How? Because I clearly communicated my expectations and help students reach them. This is school. But, if I don't let students struggle with not succeeding and then experience success after the struggle, then I would be robbing them of some of the most satisfying human experiences. I would also be failing to prepare them for dealing with challenges outside of school. The philosophy of "everyone's a winner" fails to teach life skills and it can potentially handicap students.
Apparently, "we are all always winners" also seems to handicap the moral judgement of adults. An anonymous teacher in the Pennsylvania cheating scandal decided that cheating was a way of helping her students. She said, "... if somebody asked me a question, I wasn't willing to say, 'Just do your best.' They were my students, and I wanted to be there for them." Personally, I think that high stakes testing administered by teachers whose jobs are at risk is not the way to improve or effectively monitor education. However, "Do you best," is exactly what I say every single time a student asks me for answers on any type of assessment, no matter how big or small, even if it's not actually for a grade.
Assessments, which can vary from the pencil and paper type to speed games, show the students, and me, what material has been mastered and what I need to teach again, teach differently and give students more time to learn. If a majority of the class does poorly on an assessment, game or paper variety, that's my problem. I didn't teach it well enough for the unique students in my classroom. It doesn't happen often, but I accept responsibility for it. If individual students don't do well, I don't just let them sit in their failure and struggle alone. I do my best to work with them, often one-on-one. I need to better understand how they learn so I can teach them. The goal isn't to simply earn a certain grade. The goal is to be able to use the language. Additionally, assessments are part of the learning process. They require a different kind of recall, which in turn, helps students learn.
1) Know what you expect students to be able to do after each lesson, each unit and the year.
The concept of backwards design is to start with what you want the students to be able to do, then figure out how you're going to get them there. My goals were always variations on the same theme; I want my students to be able to function in the language. Any path that lead to the development of worksheet skills and not functional language skills were forbidden entry into my classroom. (It's amazing how many activities in language books can be completed correctly without actually having a clue about the language itself.)
2) Assessments are not an end in and of themselves.
Poor grades are only failures if you let the grade be the end of the story. Assessments, summative or otherwise, are simply feedback forms. Help students learn what they missed the first (or second, or fiftieth) time around. In language, like math, missing concepts is a formula for long-term failure. Anything less than mastery needs to be revisited, drilled, retaught, and drilled until is automatized.
3) Model the behaviors you want to see.
I've always been annoyed when teacher flaunt school rules. Even seemingly little ones, like chewing gum. I hold myself to the same high standards I hold my students to. Teachers modeling cheating, which seems to be plaguing many US schools, is the quickest way to say, "This test does not matter." And neither does your learning. Teachings helping students cheat is also an admission that they don't believe their students are capable of success on their own. (And yes, maybe the whole system is broken, but cheating is not a path to fixing it.)