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Who do you want as your skydiving training partner? (A lesson in Standards-Based Learning)

Who do you want as your skydiving training partner?

I would really love to skydive one day, and I would also love to tell my kids and grandkids about what it was like to go skydiving. My point is, I want to jump out of an airplane and live to talk about it. Therein lies my fear: choosing the right person to train me.

skydive 2The first time anyone skydives they are paired up with a skilled partner. That partner passed some type of certification program, and that person is still alive, so they must know what they are doing. In fact, every trainer there has the same credentials: they all passed their certification test, and they are all still alive. But I want to know more about the person I am going to trust my life with. Surely they can tell me more about their actual knowledge and skill level.

Pretend that I have two possible training partners standing in front of me. One earned an A in skydiving school, and the other earned a B. It would make sense to pick the one who got a higher grade, because an A inherently implies that the person learned more than the one who earned a B. So that’s who I should go with, right? Not necessarily. An overall score of an A is good, but it doesn’t tell me what areas of skydiving they are good at and the ones that need work. I want more information before I choose my training partner.

Let’s say there were 10 topics covered in skydiving school. I know there is much more to learn than 10 things, but this is just an example so go with it.

  • Jim is the first trainer, and he scored 100% in every area except for “ground landings” in which he got a 40%. He is excellent at everything EXCEPT landing on the ground. His overall average is still 94%. Solid A, right?
  • Felix is the second trainer, and he scored 90% in every area except “water landings” and “flip and barrel rolls” where he scored a 60% in each. His overall average is 84%, which is still a B.

skydiving score 2

skydive 5
Jim scored very low in ground landings. (Not an actual photo of Jim)

So who should I pick? This is my first time skydiving, and we are going to land on the ground. Felix is much better than Jim at ground landings. In fact, I have no faith that Jim can help me land without breaking at least three bones. Felix is not good at landing in the water or doing barrel rolls, but we aren’t going to do that on my first day. I don’t need those skills from him. In this case, I am going to avoid Jim, the A student, and go with Felix, the B student, because of their specific competencies.

The owner of the skydiving place might want to know his employees competencies as well. I’m sure he them to be excellent in all areas. He’s not going to make them re-learn all 10 topics. Instead, the owner will give Jim extra training only in ground landings, and he will have Felix work on water landings and barrel rolls. In fact, Jim and Felix can probably help each other. Students are often willing to help each other, especially if the can identify where they need help.

Skydiving school, like all schools, would benefit from standards-based grading

Like Jim and Felix, all students could benefit from the extra feedback of knowing where their strengths and weaknesses lie. One single letter grade for each class does not tell them where to put their time and effort if they want to improve. One single letter grade on a test does not provide the information needed to go back and review the specific areas that they should go back and review. Traditional grading – one score for every assignment and test averaged together for a single letter grade – does little to inform a student on where to practice, where to reassess, where they need to improve to become proficient in all areas of the subject. With standards-based grading, a student can take one test yet receive feedback in multiple areas of learning. As these learning standards are measured and progress is tracked throughout the year, the student receives continuous feedback as to where strengths and weakness lie. That student has the opportunity to practice learning targets throughout the year and also helps the student to spend more time on the standards where he or she is not proficient while still maintaining understanding of the other standards.

Mark Welchert, tandem parachute instructor, and Derek McMullen, 19, of Old Monroe, Mo., land safely after jumping from 12,000 ft., recently at the Hannibal Airport in Hannibal, Mo. via Rapid Descent skydiving (H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)
Mark Welchert, tandem parachute instructor, and Derek McMullen, 19, of Old Monroe, Mo., land safely after jumping from 12,000 ft. in Hannibal, Mo.
(H-W Photo/Steve Bohnstedt)

When students understand their own strengths and weaknesses they can help each other with their learning, just like Jim can help Felix with water landings and Felix can help Jim with ground landings. Metacognition – knowing what we know and what we don’t – helps the individual to help him or herself, and it also allows him or her to help others. It allows every student to become independent and proficient with his or her learning.

The more feedback we can provide our students, the more they can help themselves become competent in all areas of their learning. Even A students can improve, but without specific feedback, often based on learning standards, they do not know where to spend their time and energy. A standards-based learning approach not only informs the student of their overall learning, but it also helps their teachers, parents, or even classmates provide support as well.

Author’s Note

If you are an active skydiver, please do not be offended by my lack of knowledge regarding what it takes to become certified. My knowledge is in the use of standards to inform learners, not how to jump head first out of an airplane. I respect your expertise, and hopefully you respect mine. Thanks.

How football can explain standards-based learning

Most teachers continue to issue overall letter grades based on a student’s overall average; the teacher takes the average of every score on every assignment over the course of an entire semester then issues a single letter grade to show the student’s accomplishments. The letter grade becomes the goal of going to school, not how much a student learns or how much a student grows.

One of my biggest issues with traditional grading (I have many) is that averages, in my opinion, are meaningless. It’s the results at the end that matter more to me. My usual argument uses a sports reference from when I ran the 100m dash in track in high school, and it goes as follows:

  1. I never earned a medal based on my average times from all my practices; practice helps me prepare but practice itself is not counted
  2. I never earned a medal based on my average times from all my races; each race was a chance to earn a medal
  3. If I lost a race on Monday it had no bearing on my next race on Friday
  4. My times got better throughout the year; my coach really only looked at the last race or two to decide if I would be entered in the next meet but he never took the average of my times to make that decision
  5. I qualified for the state finals because of my time in the final qualifying race of the season; no other previous times mattered

Don’t take my word for it, though. I will turn to Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots and winner of four Super Bowls in the last 15 years. At the halfway point of the 2015 season, a reporter told Belichick that his quarterback is the mid-season MVP. Belichick’s reply was,

“That’s great, but honestly I don’t think anyone is really focused on that… Some midseason report card, who cares? What difference does it make? Give me an F. Give me a C+. Right now we’re focused on the Giants [their next opponent]. That’s all I really care about.”

The reporter then asked the coach what grade he would give his quarterback. Belichick’s response was, “I don’t give grades… We’re trying to beat the Giants. I don’t really care about some midseason midterm grades. Give me whatever you want.”

In football, nothing really matters except winning the Super Bowl at the end of the season. It doesn’t matter where you stand at any point during the season except for the fact that you need to make the playoffs and win the championship. Let’s look at the 2007 NFL season as an example of whether or not a team met the standard. The Patriots were 18-0 going into the Super Bowl; their average was 100%. But they lost the Super Bowl, dropping their average to 95%. Yes, they performed well all year, but they did not meet the standard of winning the Super Bowl. A teacher would still give them an overall grade of 95%, which is an A, yet they didn’t prove they knew what they needed to know.

patriots lose super bowl the catch 2
David Tyree of the New York Giants trapped the pass against his helmet and held on to get the first down. The Giants scored on that last drive and beat the 18-0 New England Patriots to win Super Bowl 42.

Their opponent was the Giants, who entered the playoffs at 10-6 for an average of 63%. They won the next four playoff games to win the title. What was their new average? 70%. For a teacher issuing traditional grades, the Giants would get a C-. But if you look at the STANDARD, which is winning the Super Bowl, they met the goal that everyone is striving for.

Averaging scores for an entire semester just doesn’t make sense to me. It penalizes every student if they do not understand a concept during the week it was taught, even if the student learns later in the year and remembers it forever. Is the point of grades to measure learning at the exact moment that something appears in the curriculum, or is it more important to fully understand the concept before the course ends? Providing students with meaningful feedback throughout the semester – telling them where their strengths and weaknesses lie on a continuous basis – is far more valuable in helping a student meet the standards by the end of the year than issuing a final, single letter grade based on the average of how their scores from assignment.



Curran, Tom E. “Belichick’s Report Card? ‘Who Cares? Give Me an F'” Comcast SportsNet New England. Comcast SportsNet New England, 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015. <http://www.csnne.com/new-england-patriots/belichick-report-card-who-cares-give-me-f>.