April 2, 2021

Why Not Try Contract Learning?

The Teacher’s Corner:

The idea came in a publication from one of the teacher federations.  As a high school English teacher, I was always looking for ideas to motivate my students, so I took a glance at it and then put it aside in my “Ideas File” and left it there — for a year!  I have always been so thankful that I didn’t just discard it.

The article was about something called “contract learning”.  I had never heard the term.  When I checked it out on the internet earlier this week, I could not find any reference to it so the idea has disappeared somewhere in the great pile of educational research and practice ideas.  Here’s how it went.

Contract learning was presented as an idea to put control of students’ efforts and grades into their own hands.  In essence, it set out a contract of what a student had to do to get an “A” or a “B” or a “C” or a “D”.  There was no option for an “F”.  If a student completed the contract on time, then she/he got the grade contracted for and if not, received an “F”.

The difference here was that no other conditions would apply.  Complete or not complete.  There was, therefore, no “quality control” on the content because the sole purpose of the exercise was to teach them the importance of completing what they said they were complete.  They were the agents of quality control, not I.

The next year, I found myself teaching a group of 25 students in a Grade 10 English class that was designated in the terminology of the day as “Basic Level”.  That meant the course was designed for students who would graduate with a Grade 12 diploma but whose “level of achievement” would not qualify them for either university or college.  In other words, these were students expected to leave high school and go directly into the world-of-work.  They were considered low achievers and many of them were seen as major discipline and/or attendance problems.  All had a checkered history through elementary school.  I guess I didn’t see them that way because I enjoyed teaching them and they knew it and they produced good quality work to the best of their abilities.

I designed a “contract” on a low vocabulary/high interest novel called The Dragon in the Garden. The novel wasn’t important, but the process was.  I set it up in such a way that as one moved from a “D” contract to an “A” contract, more was required from them in terms of quantity and a very little bit more in terms of quality.  In the case of the latter, I consciously used a taxonomy to design questions that would go more deeply into the novel.

Basically it was:  If you want a “C” you do Sections 1 and 2; If you want a “B” you do Sections 1, 2 and 3, etc.

As noted in our webinar series “The Art of Teaching” there was a significant reference in the series to an Ontario Ministry of Education publication called “Evaluation of Student Achievement:  A Resource Guide”.  Included in that guide was a statement about the overriding purpose of student evaluation that went like this: The most important purpose of student evaluation is to help create individuals who are capable of making good decisions”.  Well, contract learning does that.  It says to the student, in essence, “If you decide on this, this will happen” or “If you want to earn an ‘A’ you have to do this”.  It teaches the relationship between effort and achievement and it also teaches the idea of meeting responsibilities — but, in this sense, responsibilities that have been agreed to in advance for the student by the student.

It is a comment on the education system that it took me a full period to have my students believe that the system was not “rigged” in a way against them.  They came up with a range of very good questions of the “what if” variety that were insightful and focused.  In doing so, they demonstrated quite clearly their level of distrust in “the system”.

Q1:   What if I make spelling mistakes?  Will I still get an “A”? 
A1: If you finish your contract on time even with spelling mistakes, you still get an “A”.
Q2:   What if one of my answers is wrong?  Will I still get an “A”? 
A2: If you finish your contract on time even with wrong answers, you still get an “A”.
Q3:   If my answers are too short, will I still get an “A”? 
A3: If you finish your contract on time even with shorter answers, you still get an “A”— and the questions went on for 50 minutes!

In the end, there was another contract in play here.  It was a contract of trust — the trust on their part that I would not, in any way, try to get around what they had been told; the trust on my part that they ultimately wanted to succeed and would follow through on their contract.  When the contract came in, 24 signed on for an “A” and 1 for a “B”.

They were given about three classes to start their work under my guidance (Hunter’s guided practice) and then time to work at home.  On the two days before the contract due date, I gave them more class time.  It so happened that their class was scheduled just before lunch.  On both of those days, the kids asked if they could stay over lunch — and I agreed to stay with them.

In the end, 23 of the 24 earned their “A” and one his “B”.  Only one did not finish, a deeply troubled boy who just couldn’t make it this time (though I got him through the course by the end of the year). The quality was higher than what I had seen in earlier assignments — by a long shot.

I had never seen them so keen, so focused — and so proud when they earned their contracted grades — and it was their work, their goal and their commitment.  And I was just as proud of them.   They earned what they sought — and the pizza to celebrate the next day was just a little addition!

Dr. Dan

Look for more ideas in our “The Art of Teaching Creatively” series to be offered in 2021-2022!