Monday, August 22, 2016

Grades what-if

Starting our second week together Monday, I asked 82 eighth graders to respond to this in writing...
What if school didn’t have grades? What would be different? What would stay the same? How might this be better or worse than the way things are now?
Their thoughts ran the gamut from verbal shrugs to fire-and-brimstone proclamations that abandoning grades would lead inevitably to Armageddon.

Among the responses (paraphrased and noted by yours truly during class conversation):

  • Without grades, nobody will be motivated, and everyone will put in less effort.
  • Why should students work hard if not for good grades? Aren't grades why we come to school?
  • Students would enjoy lower stress.
  • What would colleges do? How would they decide whom to admit?
  • Without grades, teachers won't know how students are doing.
  • Without grades, how will students know how they are doing? How will parents? (who often feel out of the school loop, outside of grade communication)
  • There'd be no more tests and quizzes or, if there still were, students wouldn't care about them.
  • Tests can still show what people know, independent of having grades attached.
  • Maybe self and peer evaluation would become more important, but these methods have their own flaws.
  • Some people go too easy or too hard on themselves when judging their own work.
  • Social situations can bias peer evaluations. That's one reason mixing it up and not always getting feedback from the same person or people could be worthwhile.
  • Teachers would still have evaluative parts to play, grades or no grades.
  • Grades serve the purpose of identifying a "good" level of work.
  • Poor grades signal mistakes that students can learn from. How will such growth unfold in the absence of grades?
  • Ditching grades might provoke more creativity and risk taking in learners, but might also cause some students to pull up short of their potential.
  • Spending less time grading and worrying about grades would benefit both students and teachers who would have more time for family and fun.
  • What about middle ground -- not keeping grades exactly as they are, but also not throwing them out entirely?
I craved food for thought, and now I suspect my students and I won't go hungry for quite some time seeking shifty middle ground.

20 comments:

  1. Great question and interestingly insightful responses. We moved to Standards-based grading about five years ago, and still worry about motivating factors when it comes to losing traditional grades. Parents do NOT like it.
    Kevin

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hear you on that last thought, Kevin. All parties have made progress in these parts re: standards-based grading. Whatever next steps students and I take this year, I'm cognizant that we need to keep parents in the loop.

      Delete
  2. Perfect way to begin a new year... kids are thinking now and will keep thinking about grades- what's the point???? Bravo Brian. Wish I could have started my year with you as my teacher.
    Bonnie K.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow! What a great question, and I loved reading the kids' answers!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good for you for asking! And interesting responses! Were you surprised by the results?

    ReplyDelete
  5. It is always interesting to throw out "thought bombs" like this and hear the results. I suspect my third graders would have similar answers (and they do not even get grades per se).

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thought bombs... Ha! It was notable how many MSers juxtaposed their current views on grades and grading with experiences recalled from elementary school.

      Delete
  6. Oh, the horrors of no grades! How sad that most don't recognize learning for the sake of learning as a goal. I love the one who thought it might spur students to be risk takers. Great question!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, the pervasiveness of extrinsic motivation is bugging me, too. It's got a strategic place, but not at the front of the line, in my view.

      Delete
  7. Can you imagine how great the staffroom conversation COULD be around assessment and the beliefs that underlie it if you used students' responses to those provocative questions? Cool. #imaginED...!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nice ideas, Gillian. This did become lunchtime conversation between me and another colleague today. (He had independently brought up this what-if at a gathering with other adults outside of school.) We'll see where things lead next...

      Delete
  8. These comments mirror many of the teachers' comments when we switched to a standards-based grading model last year!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I love that you are having the conversation with students.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It's great to read about your 8th graders reflecting on a tough question. Middle school students never cease to amaze me with their insight when they embrace an interesting and relevant topic.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Fascinating responses, and I love that you threw that question out to students! I also think it's interesting how their responses mirror so much of what we hear from teachers. I wonder what different thoughts you might get from asking younger or older students. Makes me sad that so many think that grades are the only reason why they do anything in school, or the only feedback on their performance!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great post Brian! I was having a Tw convo about this not too long ago, and I wanted to push the kiddos to consider the alternatives to grades, and they got stuck. We've built this culture in our students where they can't see past the grade for the learning. And I think the culture has spread to teachers just as much. Even I have to admit, although I dream of a reality in which we just commit to learn together with nothing but the knowledge gained as our reward, it would be a major paradigm shift for me to think beyond grades. But these convos help to spur this thought!

    ReplyDelete
  13. What a great question. I love their responses. Too often we approach teaching as something we do TO our kids instead of something we do WITH our kids. Our older kids especially have insights...we just need to ask! Thanks for posting!

    ReplyDelete
  14. Interesting responses! Although I am worried about the kind of outlook students end up having on grades - As if it is the "One letter/number to rule them all!" ;) We have a major problem with this in India where everyone (parents and students) are only concerned with grades and not with learning.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agreed, Nithya. To me, that outlook and learners' mindsets feel inextricably linked. I'm curious how the former might be a hinge to swing the latter in a different direction. Assuming grades won't suddenly vanish, how can we recognize them as (imperfect) symbols and enhance the value of their representing power?

      Delete