Five More Thoughts About Grading

The story so far: If the product of a learning experience takes the form of a grade, other possible products and outcomes have less reality and less power for the learner.

Voices speaking out against grades want to shift the focus of learners and teachers, to give priority to those other products and outcomes. I’m going to focus on just a few.

# 1  Teacher support, and student goal-setting, guided by targeted, individualized, meaningful assessments

Focused effort matters, and thoughtful assessment can support that. Very briefly, here are some of the kinds of feedback individual kids could come to expect in my classroom, in place of grades:

  • one-on-one working conferences to look at pieces of writing, reading comprehension progress, math quiz outcomes, etc.;
  • group mini-lessons based on common confusions or not-quite-there efforts or emerging possibilities or spontaneous break-throughs, acknowledging and moving forward from all those;
  • quick skills checks in the form of miniboard warm-ups;
  • written responses to specific assignments;
  • long narrative progress reports twice a year;
  • conversations in preparation for portfolio sharing, and the portfolio conferences themselves;
  • feedback from classmates, students in the wider school community, parents, and other adult audiences.

The previous post has examples of some of these. The feedback for students in younger classes varied from this in developmentally appropriate ways, but always with the same goals: not judgment, but celebration and support.

Each of these activities provided an opportunity for student and teacher to observe patterns in comprehension and skill, or difficulty, and to set goals both short-term and long-term. At the same time, each of these assessment activities was an opportunity to revisit, share, and reconsider the important questions inherent in our content.

#2  Learners who belong to themselves

I remember a conversation with the high-school-aged daughter of a friend. She told me about her classes for that year by telling me her grades. She couldn’t tell me what was interesting to her; couldn’t say what she wanted to learn next; couldn’t describe anything about her learning process. Her grades were high overall, and she assumed that the subject in which she was getting the highest grades should be her major in college.

This young woman didn’t belong to herself as a learner; she belonged to her grades, and to the people who were giving her those grades–even the people who were celebrating those grades.

Especially once we were able to keep students until they were ready for high school, people observing the graduates of my school have been struck by the way graduating 14-year-old kids belong to themselves–how clearly they know and understand and respect themselves as learners.

fall projects NateInstead of pinning their student identities on their GPA, students in ungraded situations learn how to work with their real identities as learners. They learn how to choose meaningful and sustainable challenges for themselves. They know how to manage their own attention, and what to do to sharpen their memories. There may be passages through which they struggle, but a lot of the time they’re having a blast. Above all, they know, for themselves, why it matters. To the left, checking and graphing temperatures.

#3  Authentic and rewarding group learning

Teamwork flourishes best when grades are out of the picture. When I’ve talked about the amount of group work happening in my class, people have often asked, “Don’t kids get distracted by working together? How can you tell who did what?”

I’d have to be crazy to deny that distraction happens sometimes, or that timid students can become dependent on others. Still, young adolescents are ready and eager to learn how to be teams.

as Tsongas 3At Tsongas Industrial History Center, these girls are constructing a working canal system model. As usual, museum educators  commented on how well students worked together–incorporating everyone’s ideas, sharing the dirty work on the floor.

At any age, effective group work doesn’t happen automatically. In order to get the huge benefits of several minds focused on the same task, complementing and helping and challenging each other, kids have to learn how to be task-focused and team-focused both at once; how to do the social work, the intellectual work, the creative work, and the procedural work all woven together.

Kids exposed to plenty of group projects in an ungraded situation get a terrific head start. Without grading to tell them they’re competing instead of collaborating, they learn how to stay balanced within the group process, and how to help the group stay balanced so it keeps on working for everyone.

If you want an argument against grades, focused on future success, you could start with that.

tracing watershed pathway croppedAbove: Working with a parent volunteer, students help each other figure out which direction the rivers are flowing on topographic maps.

Meanwhile, freed from generating grades, I could put time into helping groups design and choose tasks that would engage them, with topics and audiences that mattered to them. The resulting energy helped their bicycle built for two (or three or four) keep momentum.

Often, when sharing work in a portfolio conference, students mentioned their partners and teammates, and told about what each of them had contributed, as I set off quiet internal fireworks of celebration. Yes!

# 4  Deep meanings held in community

As humans, we seem to have evolved to construct meaning, and experience meaning, collectively.

Stonehenge.arp.croppedMany groups of students have been inspired by the collective power of the communities that built Stonehenge, and archaeologists’ ideas about the community events held there.

Archaeologists and paleo-anthropologists have found evidence of the power and importance of community life and community understanding, deep in the past history of our species–and even for the other hominin species before us.

Young adolescents work hard to begin to understand huge things: life and death, economic reality as they observe it, the concept of scale, the notion of one image symbolizing whole realms of experience. Whenever I asked groups of students what they’d like to understand better about the world, I was astonished anew at the ambition of their questions, knowing this at the same time: the really heavy lifting they can’t do alone, any more than adults can.

Lizzie Bright croppedIn my own most emblematic image of this, a group of learners listens to a challenging novel read aloud. As I write, I realize that I’m thinking particularly of Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, a novel about racial prejudice in early 20th century New England, beautifully written by Gary Schmidt. Sharing a novel like this, the students build understanding together through their various comments and questions. Sometimes I sense their collective bravery in their silence for a tricky passage, or just after.

If somebody out there knows a way to assign grades to the quality of a shared group silence, let me know.

Now hold that in contrast to this: When individual achievement is the only test of an experience; when shared learning is considered cheating; when it’s constrained by the “level-playing-field” concept that requires teachers to do exactly the same things for every student; when teachers face such large classes that they have no way of knowing who’s doing what without completely isolated graded assessment–the deepest and truest parts of learning are hobbled, compromised, or outright lost.

It’s not impossible to nurture community, and the deep meanings community can hold, in the presence of a grading system–just harder. In fact, in my experience, over-emphasis on individual outcomes in any form–either grades or some supposedly benign substitute–works against the development of community, and the construction of shared meaning.

#5 Powerful connections with content

When grades aren’t the focus, content itself–the world!–gets more attention. The world is alarming to young adolescents–and to all of us–but also fascinating. Grades wind up being a smokescreen in the way of that fascination.

That’s what broke my heart about my friend’s daughter, mentioned earlier. She was experiencing very little actual engagement with the world and how it works and what we make of it. Her grades were like junk food, no fit substitute for actual encounters with the depth of time, or the mysteries of prime numbers, or the relationship between surface area and heat loss, or the way human history offers such contradictory evidence of both altruism and cruelty.

I think of a student long ago who wanted to read novels about the Holocaust. She had no assignment. She just kept coming back to me for more books, and talking about them to her classmates and parents. She was choosing her own path to a deeper understanding of the world.

Or I think of a student, now grown to a man, who used his sketchbook, during morning sketching time (which was completely open, unassigned), to make a very long narrative map, which continued from one two-page spread to the next, and the next, for months. The map as a whole incorporated everything that kid was noticing about the world through which he traveled: about geography, transportation, and the designs of buildings and other systems; about humor; about continuity and discontinuity.

Looking back, I remember now that this student’s family had just gone through an unusually messy divorce. His rehearsal of continuity in the built and natural worlds, page by turned-over page, feels tremendously poignant to me now. At the time, I was focused on his thinking and processing and creativity. But it seems likely, now, that the mapping was working for him on levels I couldn’t even guess. He gave himself the assignment that let him live in his intellectual strengths, and use those strengths to help him live through his family’s troubles.

Although he made me copies of some of the pages, I have no idea where they are. Hooray for memory so vivid and dear that it doesn’t need props. Hooray for learning so rich that no grade could encompass it. Hooray for the safe haven, also a highly effective launching pad, in which such work could happen.

I have a feeling I’m still not done with this topic…

Never, Nada, Zip, Zilch: No Grades

In the teaching and learning I’ve written about for this blog, some things never happened–things taken for granted in most schools. I was lucky.

For starters: because my school didn’t require me to, I never summarized my assessments of students’ work using grades. No number grades; no letter grades; none of the judgments about mastery (not as clear a concept as you might think) summed up in terms that are just grades thinly disguised. None, never, nada.

Alhambra Caroline and Isy croppedLike all my colleagues, I gave plenty of careful attention to student work. The students received many kinds of feedback, and even more kinds of support. Above all, in ways small and large, we celebrated the culmination of authentic learning.  But not with grades.

I was still a kid myself (and getting A’s) when I decided that grades were meaningless and dangerous. As an adult, I’ve been known to refer to grading as institutionalized child abuse.

Still, I’m used to the fact that people I respect may disagree. Occasionally, Touchstone families have decided they wanted grades, going somewhere else to get them. Other families have wished for the crispness of grades, but stayed for the quality of their children’s learning. Almost all our graduates have gone on to schools that use grades, and almost all of them have continued to belong to themselves and care most about meaning.

If you want to read essays about the uselessness (or outright harmfulness) of grades, track down the writings of Alfie Kohn. I think often of a less famous heroine, Meghan Southworth, a working math teacher and trainer for the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance. She wasn’t able to eliminate all grades, because her school required them at the end of every quarter. In order to have some basis for those grades, she had to administer tests and other graded assessments, and record the results.

Here’s the kicker: she had stopped showing her students the grades they received through the term.

Instead, she continued to give her students written comments. I didn’t see hers, but I’m guessing they were a lot like mine: suggestions for ways to rethink problems, ways to improve quality control, ways to balance carefulness and momentum–along with acknowledgement of the kinds of engagement and effort, no matter how tentative, that can help a student move forward. Here’s a small sample of comments on a test:

math quiz comments croppedThis student was working to overcome test-taking anxiety,  and needed to focus on how close she was to the full answer. Thus “almost” instead of an X.

Like most teachers everywhere, Southworth wanted her students to improve, not just stay at the level of achievement they arrived with. She had noticed that they wouldn’t really absorb or use the support embedded in her comments, as long as the shortcut of a grade was available. She quoted a student who caught on to her new system very quickly: “Oh, you want us to read the comments instead of just looking at the grades!”

Southworth also cited research describing most students’ response to grades: “Is this what I’m used to getting?” If the student is used to getting A’s, and this is an A, no need to stretch. If the student is used to getting C’s, and this is a C, no need to worry.

To put this as harshly as I’ve sometimes felt it: If it’s a teacher’s job to sort kids into levels, grades make sense. If a teacher is meant to be a gatekeeper restricting access to future opportunities, ensuring a scarcity of qualified applicants for those opportunities, then grades make sense.

But if a teacher’s job involves paying attention to learners, understanding them, and working with them to help them grow, then grades aren’t worth much, and can actually get in the way.

Think about what freedom from grading meant for me and my students, as we worked together:

  • math work and progress croppedFreed from grading, I could put much of my energy into assessing what each child needed in order to make the best possible progress. I took lots of notes, and reviewed them less often than I thought I should, but often enough to keep my concerns and hopes for each student fresh.
  • We could make frequent and thoughtful use of student self-assessment. That’s awkward to incorporate into a grading system, but really important in helping students move forward.

math self-assess and my response croppedWritten quickly on the back of a math quiz, this is part of a student’s routine reflection on test-taking strategies and skills, with reading self-assessment croppedmy response.

Here are some of the sentence starters for a reading journal self-assessment, leading up to a portfolio conference.

  • My students and I weren’t in the more-or-less adversarial relationship that grading so easily encourages. Kids treading line-up cropped with Colin and Samended to be fully invested in the goals we had set together. So I got to hear them say things like this: “Something in me just rushes right through instructions, because I want to get started on the answers. So I’m trying to build the habit of stopping myself and reading the instructions again.” Or: “Now I can really understand what I’m reading, I get involved in what’s happening, and hate it when you say that reading time is over.” These are kids realizing what they need–habits of rechecking, reachable books–and figuring out that they can provide that for themselves.
  • Freed from grading that would imply class standing, we didn’t have to worry about an “even playing field.” I could help kids make individual choices of topics and materials comfortable enough to encourage confidence, interesting enough to inspire excitement, and challenging enough to nurture flexibility and pride. Like our physical education teacher, I aimed for “challenge by choice”–and I found that well-supported students motivated by genuine interest almost always aimed high.

nate with tube and vortex croppedThere had been a rage for home-made marble chutes, in a run of rainy-day recesses. This student worked on his own to explore a new idea, incorporating a toy vortex.

At a professional conference, another teacher asked me, “But why do kids work, if there’s no grade as a reward?” I didn’t actually burst into tears, but I felt some despair. We are in real trouble when teachers themselves have been conditioned to forget the intrinsic rewards of learning, the joy of feeling powerful as a learner, the genuine appetite kids bring to talhambra mattheir mutual effort to understand the world.

What about my own reward? Immeasurable. My students grew like weeds, not just physically but intellectually. They bloomed! That was the real delight, for me, in teaching at a school that disavowed grades: I got to watch kids learning like mad, bright-eyed and working tirelessly, full of the meanings in their learning and full of themselves, taking off and flying for their own reasons.

I wouldn’t trade that for nothin’. (Nada. Zip.)

I could not fit this topic into anything resembling my 1000 word target. So I’ve saved some aspects for another post: the relationship between grading (or not) and group work; ditto the development of class community. Also: in the absence of grading, kinds of feedback students could come to expect–and my continuing fascination with learning that happened in odd little corners (like rainy-day recess) where feedback wasn’t a factor.