Diving: An argument for Standards Based Grading

In order to become a certified diver an individual must master certain tasks and grasp certain concepts.  The concepts are assessed in written format while the skills are assessed by actually completing them for the instructor under water both in the pool as well as in the ocean.  As I've written about in previous blogs, I recently underwent diving certification.  The experience has resulted in significant reflection on my part.

In the process of certification, if a student struggled with a skill, he/she continued working on that skill until it was mastered and then moved on, often catching up with the group.  The expectation was that everyone would eventually master all the skills.  All students encouraged each other to gather courage and complete the tasks, especially if anyone was feeling nervous or even scared. 

If a student wasn’t successful with the written assessments, he/she was required to complete some additional studying and then reassess, continuing the cycle until sufficient content was mastered.

As a diver, you need to know how to enter the water several ways, including "walking in" to deep water as shown here.  As a diving student you must perform each method for the instructor.

Modifications were built in all along the way to make sure students had the proper support to master both skills and content.  Extra time was given, further instruction was offered, and additional examples provided.

During my own certification process, on our last open water dive, a student did not properly assemble her gear and during the checks it was determined that she had an empty tank preventing her from beginning the dive with us.  She had to remain on the boat waiting for a full tank of air.  It didn’t matter that she had a good attitude, she’d done her homework, she participated in class, and had almost rigged her gear properly.  The skill wasn’t mastered so she could not enter the water, as her life would be in danger.  She had to wait and redo the task before entering the water.

In diving you must be able to properly set up the gear in order to survive under water.  

Furthermore, another student lost his mask in the water, an honest mistake.  The rest of the group tried to figure out a way to help him, finally, the girl without the tank gave him her mask.  When one member of our group fell overboard before we had arrived at the dive site, we all helped him back into the boat making sure he was safe and prepared to proceed.  There was a team effort to make sure everyone had a fair chance to succeed.

In diving, if the focus weren’t mastery of skills in addition to understanding of content, life would be endangered.  While good attitude, completion of homework, attentiveness, and care all help in mastering skills and understanding content, these attributes do not determine a good diver and therefore are not included in determining whether an individual has qualified for diving certification.

As I’ve reflected on this experience, I realize how much I advocate for this same approach in the classroom.  Shouldn’t the expectation be that all students attain the skills and master the content?  Shouldn’t we have “back up plans” to help teach students who don’t “get it” the first time around?  Shouldn’t the environment be supportive and positive with students cheering each other on and helping each other out? Shouldn’t pupils be allowed extra time and additional assessments, if necessary, to demonstrate mastery?  If it were so, wouldn’t students be less intimidated about asking questions and would feel more encouraged with a determination to succeed?  Furthermore, while completion of homework, attendance, neatness, and preparedness (i.e. having proper supplies) are important learning behaviors in helping a student to succeed, these attributes do not determine whether a student has, indeed, mastered skills and understood the content.

As teachers everywhere are returning to the classroom, we are all considering what type of environment we seek and how to achieve it.  In the end, we all want a positive learning atmosphere in which all students thrive in the learning process.  The question is how do we ensure it for this coming year for all of our students?  I suggest, that if we look to the model of diving certification, we might find some answers to take us in that direction!