Grades? NO grades? Notes toward a sane system

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Grades are a little barbaric. There's a line of thinking that's common in some educational reform circles:

Grades are repressive. Grades wound children's spirits. Grades sap creativity. Grades only keep kids in line. 

I agree with this — well, I half-agree! But there's wisdom in grading, too. And forging a new kind of schooling — an education truly for humans — will require bringing these two perspectives together. It'll require a new take on grades.

Trouble is, we don't have that "new take" yet. Consider the following, then, a scattershot of ideas that we'll need to play with!


Grades don't give enough feedback

Our school will run with a radical idea from the academic study of expertise: talent can be made. A student's skill in math, or reading, or anything can be improved. (This is, of course, our second major goal: mastery.)

But the psychologists of expertise tell us that there's only one way to do that: deliberate practice. (If the concept of deliberate practice is new to you, here's a helpful breakdown.)

We need to weave deliberate practice into every part of our school. And one crucial element of deliberate practice is feedback. The feedback needs to come quickly (ideally immediately), needs to be honest, and needs to share specific advice (tweaks) the student can try out next time.

Grades don't do that. They can come quickly and be honest, but they don't (in and of themselves) share specific tweaks. 

Of course, teachers can share tweaks as well as give a grade. But the grade tends to obscure the tweaks. There aren't that many people who can shrug off a bad grade and focus on the tweaks they should make next time. In fact, there aren't that many people who can shrug off a good grade and focus on the tweaks they should make!

What our schools might, then, do:

  • Instead of stamping a grade on a small assignment — an essay, say, or a piece of artwork — our teachers might instead respond with one thing the student really excelled at, and one suggestion for future improvement.
  • Feedback would be given with knowledge of what the student's history. What has she succeeded at, and struggled with, before? The tweaks can be ultra-personalized. Teachers can become talent coaches, and schools can become talent factories.

Grades aim too low

An 'A' is not high enough. There are exceptions, of course: an 'A' that you slave for, that you suffer for, and that you finally achieve — a sweet joy indeed!

But these experiences aren't (for many of us) especially common. Some of us rarely get 'A's. Others of us too commonly get 'A's. I'm in the latter camp: throughout my — goodness — twenty or so years of formal schooling, I remember only a handful of 'A's that really satisfied me. The rest? Meh.

And even when an 'A' seems to satisfy, it's not (I think) the 'A', so much as the self-overcoming. The grade is merely the evidence that we've achieved the goal. (If it was the 'A' that satisfied, then wouldn't every 'A' satisfy just as well?)

Raising children to care about 'A's is — can I say this in public? — stupid, because an 'A' by itself is so paltry. We're each capable of so much more. Part of the goal of our school is to help students forge excitingly-high-yet-still-realistic goals for themselves, and to help them pursue those goals.

But we'll be working against ourselves (or rather, against our students) if we distract them with grades. We each have only so much motivation: sucking up part of it with grinding for grades seems guaranteed to subtract from the motivation they have to pursue important goals.

What our schools might, then, do:

  • Instead of distracting students with letter grades, we might help students identify high and exciting goals for themselves.
  • These goals would, ideally, be tied into what we're providing in school: art and story-telling and math and handwriting and science and everything else. (Otherwise we need to re-evaluate why the student is in our school!) But the goals would be individualized, allowing students to steer their own way through the curriculum.

Grades are monologues.

One of the common complaints against grades (at least in the hippie books on education that I read!) is that grades are external, and external = bad.

We don't (the argument goes) want to train kids to give a darn what others think about them — we want them to value themselves.

I think this goes against everything we know about human beings.

Well, I'm overstating that! But we know that humans are the most social apes. There is, in fact, a non-B.S. argument that this is precisely why humans evolved such big brains in the first place: just to keep track of who (in the community) thinks what about whom! Our brains may be built for social assessments. Living in community means constantly keeping track of what people think about you.

Now, there's another side to this. We can obsess over how others think about us. There is, of course, deep wisdom in shucking off concerns about status and popularity. But what's needed here is a balance. Throwing away grades in favor of some hippie nonsense doesn't strike that balance. But grades, as traditionally given, don't strike that balance, either.

What's needed is for evaluations to become dialogues. Students shouldn't just receive feedback, they should participate in it. They should be evaluating their own work, and on occasion quarreling with the teacher's evaluations.

What our schools might, then, do:

  • Ask students to evaluate each of their projects. (What are you proud of? What can be better? How might you get there?)
  • Ask students to respond to the teacher's critique. (Too harsh? Too easy? Do you think the teacher's suggested tweaks are good? Are you going to do it, or try something different?)
  • At regular intervals (say, each quarter) have students and teachers look back over their work, praising growth, and identifying new directions to explore.

Again: We're still thinking our way through this. But it does seem clear that we want to synthesize the best of letter-grading systems, and the best of non-letter-grading systems.

Evaluation is a core human concern. Is what I'm doing good? What do others think of it? What should I?

We need to get this right. If we do, we can get further to creating a new kind of schooling truly worthy of humans.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA