On Grading

I am frightened by @joebower‘s recent post on the Cooperative Catalyst where he pleads with us to abolish grading in schools. I’m petrified because I feel that he must have used some kind of X-Filian supernatural power to inhabit my mind, and then plagiarize its thoughts. Collective consciousness doesn’t even cover it.

Whether you agree with his stance or not, it is definitely a must-consider topic for any stakeholder involved in the education of our 21st Century students. With the support of our awesome school board’s movement towards contemporary assessment theory and practice, I, like Joe, have been finding as many ways as possible to diminish grading in my classroom. I have certainly encountered the same challenges he speaks of, but many more rewards. This passage particularly resounded with me:

My fears are almost too many to count. I’ve feared being different from my colleagues. I’ve feared being challenged by a parent or administrator. These fears still nag at me despite my confidence and research – I routinely have to tell my amygdala to shut-the-hell-up.

Interestingly enough, my fears have never been about the kids.

I thought one way I could contribute to Joe’s post is by quickly playing the self-interview game myself, focusing particularly on common myths about gradeless or near-gradeless classrooms that need to be debunked.

Aren’t you abandoning/copping-out of one of your main responsibilities as a teacher?

I don’t regard the act of handing a letter grade to a student for non-mandated moments as a fundamental responsibility of the teacher. Saying that grading is an important part of teaching is kind of like saying writing speeding tickets is what makes a good cop.

So you’re afraid of hurting your students’ feelings?

Well, yes and no. I do believe that self-efficacy is at the core of learning, and that constantly making authoritative evaluations of students work and progress is destructive in the development and nurturing of it, but this has nothing to do with hurting anyone’s feelings. Focusing on student self-efficacy is not the same thing as preserving anyone’s feelings. Don’t confuse the two. In fact, I’m more concerned about my students’ feelings being enhanced by the artificial experience of a ‘good’ grade.

I remember a time in my life where I wasn’t very good at a subject, but worked incredibly hard at it and received an amazing grade/award which just legitimized everything. Aren’t you taking away this possibility from your students?

Yes, actually, I am. I don’t like that school game. I played it as a kid too. Sometimes I won, sometimes I lost. It is somewhat repellant to me. Don’t confuse Hollywood story arcs with real learning.

Academic rigour is important in education. Doesn’t your class lack it?

If you want to see intellectual rigour, try telling a student who is used to being graded on all their work that it ain’t happening no more. Try telling them that we are going to use exemplars of quality work, collaboratively develop success criteria, provide and receive feedback in multiple ways, and reflect on our learning as a process instead of an end product. Then you will see rigour, not transactions.

But aren’t you doing a disservice to kids who will eventually enter the harsh realities of the real world?

This is one of the main questions I hear when the topic of grading comes up. My response is usually to answer it with my own questions: When was the last time you as an adult were graded on something? Maybe once or twice on a performance evaluation or something? And wasn’t that just a pass-or-fail anyway? Isn’t it true that your life is instead packed to the hilt with instances where you either have to seek, provide, or look within yourself for feedback on your project/work/parenting/etc.? Do you have the ever-evolving skills to do this? Do you think it is important that your own child does?

The only ‘harsh reality’ our grade-filled classrooms will prepare our students for is the one that doesn’t require critical thinking, communication skills, creativity, or collaboration.

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15 thoughts on “On Grading

  1. Hey Royan,

    I think that you answer some critical questions here and some of the critics of getting rid of grades. This answer I really liked:

    “When was the last time you as an adult were graded on something? Maybe once or twice on a performance evaluation or something? And wasn’t that just a pass-or-fail anyway?”

    The whole “real world” argument is usually made when people do not understand changes that happen in schools. When parents bring this up to me, I ask them, “What do you want the “real world” to look like for your child? Do you want it to be where they are compliant and do whatever they are told, or do you want them to be leaders, contributors, and collaborate with one another.” Schools have a lot to do with the real world, but sometimes they help to shape what the “ideal” world could look like. We also know how adults work best in the “real world” but don’t apply the same principles to the classroom. How well would you work if your principal told you, “sit down and do your work”? Alternately, if your principal treated you like a person, cared for your ideas, and valued what you had to say, how would you work then? I know what “real world” I want.

    Here is one thing that I am curious about. The term “abolishing” grading almost seems negative and a little in your face for people that are not understanding of what is trying to be done. As an administrator, I honestly do not believe grading is the best way for our students and am in line with what you believe. When I talk with parents, I know that I would not use the term “abolishing” grading because it would lead to a lot more of the arguments that you speak about. What I really want to focus on is the positives of it and talk about stronger assessment methods that help students look at their own work with a critical eye. It is funny that when I was in the classroom and had marks on test, there were way more instances of cheating because many students were focused on the mark and not on the learning. When I had students focus on what they were learning and try to find their strengths as well as their areas of growth, I never had a student cheat once.

    I am not really sure of the proper term, but I have learned from my mentors that if we want to really encourage people to move forward, focus on the positives first and what you are bringing(which you speak of so well), as opposed to what you are taking away. Is there a “better term” that focuses educators and the public on the HUGE positives that are done by focusing students on their learning as opposed to their grading?

    Excellent post. Having these answers ready when we are trying to move things forward in our schools really helps to move people forward.

    • So true about what you say about the language of ‘abolishing’. I’m going to change the title of my post because of it.

      Also, I’ve noticed that the more people use the term ‘real world’, the less they are in fact talking about it.

      Thanks so much for the insightful comment.

  2. Excellent post! Collective unconscious indeed. I particularly love your line about “rigour, not transactions.” If only we didn’t live in a society that regarded scores on standardized tests as benchmarks of student learning and quality teaching.

  3. Thanks for voicing some of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head, but have been too afraid to write concerning grading. I think we put too much emphasis on “marks” and not enough on thoughtful feedback. Also, I agree that learning as the process (not the facts we memorize and promptly forget) is key and unfortunately that gets lost in many classrooms…. Great post!

  4. @George I see what u are saying but my old man always told me to tell the truth. And the truth is I am advocating for grades to go bye-bye. Now, I can agree that we all need to emphasize how we move forward rather than just the negatives, but don’t we have to be honest and say abolish if in fact that is what we are doing?

    But maybe u are right and I just need to learn diplomacy & marketing better.

    @Royan thanks for this. What a great read. I too liked your transactions comment. I also really liked your comments re:real world. Loved your point about the more people talk about the real world the less they understand real world.

    Joe

    • @Joe Here is the question? Why do you want grades to go? In the answer which you speak about so passionately here, in your blog, and Twitter, is all about positives for kids. There is absolutely nothing that is misleading or untruthful in that at all. “Selling” those beliefs to people that already agree with you and are doing this is not the hard part. It is about the people who are uncomfortable and don’t agree at all. How will you bring them along? How will they feel comfortable about changing a practice that has existed for years? How will parents feel about seeing a different way of working with kids that was totally different from what they experienced in school? That is when you will see true reform in this area.

      One of the best videos that I have seen this year was about Simon Sinek who talks about the best organizations and how they start with the “why” and not the “what”. It is 20 minutes long but definitely worth it. Does everyone know your “why” or do they know your “what”? The “why” you have is extremely positive and should be shared.

      Probably the most influential video I have seen this year along with Dan Pink’s Ted Talk.

      Here it is if you haven’t seen it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qp0HIF3SfI4&feature=related

      • @George What’s interesting is that the people I talk to the most about abolishing grades say that I talk enough about the why and say I need to focus more on the how.

        I agree the how is important, but I can send a smoker to a week long how-to-quit smoking seminar, but it they don’t get why they should quit, they won’t give two-cents for how to quit.

        I find that many make excuses for not changing. First they want the why, then the how, but then I talk too much…

        I will watch that Sinek TEDtalk right a way. Haven’t seen it yet. The Dan Pink stuff is good. It’s a very very junior introduction to Kohn’s Punished by Rewards and Deci and Ryan’s Self Determination Theory.

        @technolit I agree that we don’t have to go all or nothing and in fact, we shouldn’t. That’s why my Grading Moratorium (http://www.joebower.org/p/grading-moratorium.html) is for people who have abolished, are abolishing or just want to abolish grading. My efforts work toward helping even those teachers who are working in schools that would have them on pacing guides with prescriptive worksheets and daily or weekly grading quotas.

  5. Great post, Royan (again) and great discussion. I agree with George, on several counts!

    At my school, the focus isn’t on the grades, students reflect on their own learning, teachers and students report on the process and progress, not just the product. We have 3 way interviews led by students, student portfolios showing their growth, reflective journals,… and STILL..there are always parents who want a grade, so they can see where the kid is in relation to others or in relation to some imaginary ‘norm’. It’s the parents who need to be educated.

    Student led conferences are a great step in the direction of educating the parents. The child has an opportunity to talk her parents through her portfolio, show her progress, share her learning. Most parents (once they get used to it) find this valuable and enlightening.

    But the key is in the teaching and learning, rather than in the grading itself. Learning needs to look different than it used to, if assessment and reporting are going to look different. Teachers who teach in ‘old ways’ will still be reporting in ‘old ways’ If learning is meaningful, concept based rather than facts based, trans-disciplinary and transferable… it’s virtually impossible to encapsulate the achievement in a single letter grade.

    • I totally agree with you that it’s the teaching and learning in general that needs to change, not just whether or not you are grading. You could certainly have a horrible classroom program with no grades in it.

      The one thing I will say is that I work with a lot of teachers who, at times, make professional decisions in their classroom regarding instruction and assessment that they otherwise wouldn’t make were it not for the fact that the pressure to evaluate was there.

      It’s what one of my friends calls the CYA (cover your ass) policy, and it kills real learning.

  6. I love this blog-post, and the thinking it provokes. We may not be at a point where we have the luxury of implementing completely grade-free classrooms (at least not in Ontario, yet), but I believe whole-heartedly that this honest discussion can affect teachers’ practice on a very deep level.

    Removing the discussion of marks helps us see all the other possibilities for our students more clearly…. possibilities that can exist even within our marks-driven system for now. It’s not all or nothing. Sometimes we need to live in the grey area for awhile. I think sometimes we fear that we have to jump directly from the white to the black (or vice versa), and that can lead to utter immobility & stagnation (sometimes of an entire system!). But, having this discussion WHILE we still have marks allows us to muck about in the grey zone for a bit. Going whole hog will be so much easier one day.

    Change often occurs in small increments, so small that we are often unable to trace it back to its impetus. I’m going to promote this discussion among my colleagues by posting a link to your blog via FirstClass. Just know that this discussion could be that impetus for us.

    I’ve run out of time tonight, but I’ll be sure to watch @gcouros ‘s video link to Simon Sinek tomorrow. I haven’t seen it but am intrigued.

  7. LOVE this topic… so many ideas/questions running through my head…forgive the stream of consciousness approach to this reply…

    *assessment literacy remains one of the most jagged fronts in education among teachers AND parents
    *this vision of classrooms that run on assessment ‘for’ and ‘as’ instead of ‘of’ learning is indeed attainable, but it will take time…and support if we are to take the risk
    *achievement involves so much more than marks…let’s lead by example…
    *we need to do a much better job of showing people what grade or mark-free classrooms and schools can and do look like… if we build it they will come…

    HOW?
    *changing generations of grading traditions requires a non-traditional approach-*WWJDD=what would john dewey do?
    *how would students tackle changing our school and grading systems? have we asked them?
    *thinking about Freire’s empowerment spiral: Awareness, Reflection, Analysis, and Action
    *if we asked them, could students advocate for classrooms where FEEDBACK and EMPOWERMENT/OWNERSHIP of their learning is the focus? maybe through web 2.0 tools
    *are there parents who could give talks to other parents about how their students thrive in these environments?

    We know this is where we should be… but we need help navigating how to get there.
    Who can lead the way?

    Thanks for this thought provoking post Royan and others!
    Tania

  8. Awesome post Royan! I just love reading the Spicy Learning Blog — always so flavourful, satisfying, and keeps you coming back for more!

    You make many good points here, and especially with our board’s push towards more formative assessment, this definitely seems to be the directions we should be going. While I agree that we’ve got a long way to go, by having educators such as yourself advocating for this type of change is a big step. (Makes me think of the Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy – http://bit.ly/crRsuH) As more people buy-in to this idea, the more it gets embedded within school culture, the easier it will get.

    I’m convinced. While I don’t see myself “abolishing” grades completely, I am really going to think hard about when and how I evaluate students in the new year. Fortunately I’m transferring schools, so it’s a great time for a fresh start!

  9. Watts, in What is Tao, explains that human beings will always be greater than anything they can say or think about themselves. If we judge or describe ourselves, those ideas are always going to be qualitatively inferior, “that is to say, far less complicated and far less alive than the actual author of the ideas themselves, and that is us. There is that about us that we can never define.” Apply the thought to assessment of learning. Most educators understand the inadequacies of assessment.

    Educators are aware that there are limitations to assessment. We must take them for what they are worth. What I am not so clear on is the degree of awareness proponents of grading and standardized assessment have. It must range from denial to some sort of functionalism: a compromise where proponents acknowledge grading’s limitations but see the practicality on balance as a necessary injustice. Research on people’s propensity for denying facts and evidence tends me to the less optimistic conclusion. Educators prefer to see grading as equitable and valid.

    That said, I think the shift is being made here. If we are not abolishing grades, we are certainly deemphasizing them. The wonderful discussion above demonstrates that. Grades appear three times during my students school year. It is a transitory return to the stresses of competition and meeting the norms that seems to fade quickly as my students return to the lived experience of learning through feedback.

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