gradeless

The Way of Things

“No bad. Just where you are until we find our way, okay?”

Somewhere along the way we got our wires crossed. What I expected and what she thought I wanted were two different things, and, consequently, it affected her performance.

I said as much in my written feedback at the top of her paper, giving her the benefit of the doubt and taking some responsibility that I may have explained it inadequately. Even so, our conference began yesterday with her uttering, “I did bad.”

But she didn’t do “bad.” She just needed clarification, for as we went through the performance (assessment), it was clear that she understood the “what;” she had just gotten mixed up on the “how.” And that’s partly on me, yes?

Once upon a classroom, the conversation would have gone far differently. So differently, in fact, that I struggle to recognize the teacher I once was. Then, I would have simply said that she didn’t follow directions. I said them. I wrote them. And most every other kid followed them. So, it was not my fault. It was hers. And there are consequences for not following instructions. It’s the way things are. And she would have earned her “F.”

Who does that? Well, clearly, I. But as I did, too many still do. But it doesn’t have to be. I will never go back to that place, a place no longer imaginable. But even as I run away from that place where I once dwelt and dealt, I cannot deny that when I was there, I thought I was right. I knew I was right. You know nothing, Monte Syrie.

Even now, in a place far better, I know less than more. I have not the answers. I have not arrived at the magical land of ED upon a yellow brick road. I have no illusions that there isn’t simply a man behind the curtain. But. But I no longer only look behind the curtain for answers, I look out into the room, the space and there I find who knows as well or better than I. The kids.

Oh, there in that place I still have a role. Always will. Somebody has to make it okay. No bad. Just learning. I can do that, and though I will no doubt look back someday and find fault in this space, too, I have to believe–I want to believe–I won’t cringe knowing that I helped a kid find her way, instead of hiding behind the “way of things.”

And so, that’s what I did. I helped her find her way. No wicked witches. No wizardry. Just two humans working together as we seek our way.

This post is also published at www.letschangeeducation.com, where Monte daily shares his classroom journey. 

“In your opinion, what matters?”

A quick preface: If you don’t follow Teachers Going Gradeless, Aaron Blackwelder is the founder, writer and podcast host ofthe organization. Aaron also moderates and contributes to Twitter’s #tg2chat on the second and fourth Sundays of each month at 9pm Eastern time. It is this chat which prompted the writing that follows, which I mostly dictated into my phone on my morning commute and edited for clarity. This response is far more than I could ever communicate in any number of 280 character tweets, and I want to give this question the thoughtfulness and depth of response it deserves. Thank you, Aaron, for leading in this important work and asking the tough questions!

Several years ago as I was making a transition to a portfolio-based assessment system, but still giving out grades on individual assignments, I would conference with students at the end of the semester and them to justify how their evidence met the standards for the course. As they talked about their work they would frequently tell me that they knew that they learned something because they got an A or a particular percentage, and when I asked why they think they got an A I would get blank stares.

We were trapped in the circular logic and language of letter grades and points: I got an A so I must have learned it, and I know I learned it because I got an A.

I got the same blank reaction when I asked them what they learned and what they liked or what they wanted to do — anything that deviated from the narrow scripted conversation about grades.

Even for students who I would say were successful in my class based on their grade were more or less in a constant state of “performing school”, and they would say enough — or know what to say enough of — to get the grades that they thought would please the adults in their life or avoid the negative consequences of poor grades.

That’s when I knew that I needed to replace the language of grading with a language of learning and work to prepare students to have conversations about purpose, meaning, and their vision of achievement and growth that just can’t be reduced down to a percent or letter grade without distorting some part of that deeply personal process.

What I did was brainstorm three questions with students. Here’s a sample of what they’ve told me:

What is the purpose of learning?

How do you know when you’ve learned something new?

How could you show to someone else that you are learning?

How do we honor what students are telling us about the purpose of learning, about how they know when they’ve learned, and what proof of learning looks like?

So what matters is not that they earn a minimum number of points through completing exit tickets, turning in daily work, and passing quizzes, but whether or not they can talk in-depth and make connections to what they have learned, how it has changed their perspective, and how what they’ve done in my classroom has cascaded into some interest that they have pursued outside of the small window of time that we have together.

In conversations with parents it has given me the permission to tell them thattheir kid is going to be okay, and it forces me to start the conversation with qualities, characteristics, habits, and interactions with their child that have shown me who they really are outside of a letter grade. I’ve asked students to write reflective responses to their parents about how they think they’re doing, what they are doing, what is going well, and what they need to work on. A letter grade or percent usually taints that conversation with a deficit lens that shines a spotlight on a students’ shortcomings relative to the standardized curriculum or on a rubric developed by a group of adults somewhere far away from children.

What matters is that students become comfortable with their self-image as a learner — which may or may not be through the lens of the social sciences which I teach — and have the opportunity to develop a rich and descriptive language of learning that goes beyond the what and into the how and why; that allow the opportunity for curiosity, dead-ends, spontaneous connections, and creative, passionate displays.

If the answer to “what” and “why” is “That’s what my teacher wanted me to learn” or “told me to do”, and if the answer to “how” is “I did exactly what the instructions said”, that’s certainly evidence of profound compliance but not really of learning. It likely that this profound compliance will yield an A or a B in a traditional system, but could very well be reflective of very little actual thinking and very little growth.

The most natural next step is to give kids the opportunity to make meaningful work for themselves and support them in developing and flexing this language of learning.

What matters is that we cultivate an environment in which students are able to find their obsession and throw themselves into meaningful and purposeful work, work with them and let them develop the language they need to describe these experiences. If we support and allow this the learning and the growth becomes self-evident.

You can hear in the way they speak, in how they interact, in how they write, and what they create that they are changed because of these experiences.

How can the depth, the complexity, and the personal and iterative nature of this learning process possibly be captured and faithfully reflected in a letter grade, who would even want that?

Being That Teacher: Shifting Towards Student-Centred Learning

We will know we’ve been successful as educators if a student we taught can at age 30 pursue any option in life they desire — Ira David Socol.

As teachers, it seems the system measures us by the “success” (see standardised test scores) our students achieve while in our care, but perhaps the truest measure of an educator should be defined by the number of options our past students have available at age 30. What job opportunities exist for them? What kind of adults/partners have they become? What kind of parents may they have turned out to be?

Do you ever pause to wonder about your past students? As I prepare to farewell my current crop of young learners, my mind has drifted to students of years past. Where are they now? Did I have a positive impact on their lives? Did I help steer them towards finding their purpose in life? Do they remember school fondly?

Jack*, a former student who has just finished high school, popped into my room recently for a visit. While we were catching up, he shared that I had been his “best teacher. I made a “did you drop out after year seven?”wisecrack, but I was humbled to hear it. And shouldn’t this be our aim as educators? To be that teacher? We all have them. It’s rarefied air to belong to the select group of educators that another person carries around with them for the rest of their days.

I had some amazing teachers over the years, but large chunks of my school experience were still pretty miserable. The recurring theme on my report cards growing up was “he has the ability, but needs to apply himself”. Actually, what I needed was learning that had meaning. What I needed was a sense of purpose and control. I needed to move & create. I needed adults who believed in me.

Deliver the best curriculum content the world has known and it won’t rate a mention against the educator who believes, who champions, who sees the potential of a young person and inspires them to pursue their purpose and passions above all else.

“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” (John Lennon)

“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” (John Lennon)

This got me thinking about the experience Jack had in my room as opposed to his sibling who I’m currently teaching. Seven years ago I was a very different teacher. I epitomised teacher-centred practice. I decided what content and skills mattered and how each would be measured. I created the assignments and assessments which were completed in lockstep. I wielded strict deadlines, zeroes, and a trove of one-size-fits-all summative assessments to keep kids “accountable”. I got really good at getting kids to do my learning, now I’m trying to get better at helping kids find purpose and meaning in their learning.

Even though I cringe when I recall many of my past methods, my classroom wasn’t a bad place for kids and I wasn’t a bad teacher. Jack is a testament to that. I just had a lot of unlearning to do. I still do. Early in my career, I was mired in the left-hand columns of this continuum.


EdPartnerships International: I think graphics like this can be valuable for educators who want to create more opportunities for student agency, but don’t know where to start.

EdPartnerships International: I think graphics like this can be valuable for educators who want to create more opportunities for student agency, but don’t know where to start.

By viewing growth along a continuum, it gives us actionable feedback and invites us to continue growing in an authentic and natural way. Instead of seeing co-design as a scary choice that we either plunge into head first or not, we can now see it as an extension of what all educators already do — helping students grow in capability and independence over time. - David Ng commenting on In Search of a Co-Design Continuum

Every educator offers a different experience and it’s this diversity which creates rich learning environments and school cultures. There is not one best way to teach and educators should be allowed to stay true to their authentic pedagogy. But to paraphrase Monte Syrie, one end of this spectrum relies heavily on compliance, the other end relies on commitment. Doing school tokids is easy. Doing school with kids, that’s where the artistry of teaching comes in.

Many teachers equate developing opportunities for student autonomy, purpose and meaning to “letting ’em do whatever they want”. They can’t fathom how student-centred learning can be rigorous, challenging and engaging. During a recent podcast (Things Fall Apart: Human Restoration Project, S2: E18), Tony Wagner, suggested that when it comes to innovation, teachers are highly risk-averse. According to Wagner, we “teach in the ways we’ve been taught, it’s not our fault, it’s all we know” and “you’re not going to change your teaching because you’ve read a book…or seen a movie”.

I agree that educators are unlikely to find their “why” for change in the pages of a book, but the rest of this quote, I’m not so sure about. My school experience mostly served to inform the type of teacher I didn’t want to become. We have to overcome the limitations of our own experiences if we are going to transform school for all learners. We could change nothing and a large percentage of students who play the game of school just fine will find success and purpose in life. But all means all. Be that teacher.

A Different Sort

Maybe instead of clinging to the “some-win-and-some-lose” approach to education, we should embrace the “all-need” approach. The former pushes competition, forcing us to rank and sort kids, enabling us to wash our hands, for the results fit the model — it’s the natural order of things. It’s how it’s been. It’s how it is. It’s how it will be. But it doesn’t have to be. I reject wholeheartedly, in spirit and practice, the notion that we have to award winners and, in turn, name losers in the classroom. Such sorting carries serious consequences.

What if we sorted kids differently? What if instead of letting them win or lose the game, we simply let them play the game? I know, this is where those who cling to competition will object to such openhanded offal, warning that we have to have to winners and losers, but we don’t have to, not in school, not in the critical development of our young humans whose growth is dependent not upon the labels we level but the help we hand.

Let’s, then, sort by need, for that is where help begins. But such sorting is not so simple. John needs this. Mary needs that. And sometimes, Jane’s needs lead us down a spiral from which we may never return. I recently went down such a path.

“Can’t avoid it any longer, Mr. Sy.”

“No, ‘spose not, kiddo.”

She had turned it in blank. Well, she never even started. I knew–we knew–there was no point. Her anxiety had come to haunt, so I just told her we could do it another day, maybe during the next day’s Access Time we could sit down and work through it together. But that day came and went (the ghosts still lingered) and so did three other Access Time opportunities. But yesterday, will intact, she decided we needed to get Performance #4 done. So we did.

We cleared off the corner of my desk; she pulled up a chair; we gathered our materials, and we set to work.

We set to work. But I didn’t walk for her, I walked with her. She needs me to. She is plenty able but her needs are a little different, so I meet her at her needs. She gets easily and confused and frustrated; her anxiety creeps along, settles in, and she shuts down. So we walk at her pace.

“Okay, kiddo, let’s go to the passage. Read it and look for the universal theme(s) that Elie is addressing.”

“Loss of Faith.”

“Great. Now, what is Elie saying about the loss of faith?”

“Um, well, in dark times, people question their faith, and…”

“Okay, let’s write that down.”

And she did, or she tried, and then she stopped. Wringing her hands, she began to recite “d,” “b” making symbols with her fingers.

“Dyslexia?” I asked.

“Yeah, she sighed. Elementary was awful. Teachers yelled at me all the time.”

Yelled. All the time.

“But you seem to be dealing.”

“Yeah, I just gotta slow down and focus. My fingers help. My dad taught me that.”

And so, we made our way, me giving little nudges here and there, her working with her hands to find her focus and avoid her anxiety. And many minutes later, her Performance was done. And done well.

With help. And, of course this brings questions. Is it learning? Did she do the work? Did I do the work? If we did the work, is it then invalid? Can she earn a 3 on the Performance since I helped her? Is it fair to the other kids? Will this prepare her for the future when she may not get help? Is teaching helping or is teaching testing?

Teaching has to be helping, right? If helping is not teaching, then why does it feel right? Testing has never felt right. Never. It’s always felt that it was something I was doing to the kids. Not with the kids.

Yesterday, I walked with her. I helped her. I taught her. And I think that is the essence of my job. Help.

Sadly, I cannot help all my kids in all the ways they need help all the time. But I will try. It’s all I can do. As for the other questions and criticisms that may come with my giving such “help,” I don’t care.

I. Don’t. Care. Not anymore. It’s my room, and I will help kids. That is my purpose. That is my why. And as the outside world puffs and proffers under the pretense of what is and isn’t “good teaching,” I will be here helping kids. I think it’s that simple.

My Pragmatic Journey to Voice & Choice in the Classroom

I thought I was doing everything “right”.

I had prided myself on unpacking standards, planning engaging, performative lessons and units that were well-paced and tech savvy; putting together complicated, ambitious projects and writing prompts with standards-referenced, multiple-tiered rubrics and criteria for students to meet or exceed.

Yet my journey to student voice and choice in the classroom was born out of an intense frustration that what I and my co-teacher were spending hours planning, and daily troubleshooting, just wasn’t having the impact we were intending. Students frustrated with technology, bored with a topic, or just not feeling like learning about the Reformation for three weeks would act out, speak out, lash out, just anything to get away from a classroom that, now, so obviously demanded that students care and learn about and think important what I, an adult with a history degree and a shelf full of history books, cared and found important and demanded they learn about.

But they didn’t care and didn’t think it was important and they weren’t learning (which is kind of the point of teaching) and by October I went home almost every night wondering if I was going to be a casualty of fifth-year teacher burnout. So out of that frustration I did what every tired parent has done in a moment of exhaustion and said “Fine, what do YOU want to do?!”, and it turned out to be the most important decision of my teaching career:

It turns out that, if you let themstudents will partner with their peers to research, create, and send a presentation to the school board about Eurocentrism in our history curriculum (and fume over the board’s complacent response).

Students will interview a local funeral director and present to the class a history of American attitudes toward death, dying, and an overview on the science of embalming and preservation, if you let them. (the same student later presented on existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre and read from Nausea in French and English so we could hear it in the original language)

Students will teach a lesson to their peers about the technological advances of the Roaring 20s, complete with a pre- and post-quiz Kahoot to demonstrate their classmate’s learning, if you let them.

Students will blog openly about controversial and deeply personal topics, post their work to an online audience, and solicit feedback from friends and strangers alike, if you let them.

What do you want to do?” was followed by “How are you going to do it?” and “With whom?” which was then followed by “For whom?”, “What will the impact be?”, “What tools or resources will you need?”, and “How will you know when you’ve gotten there?”

This kind of problem-solving questioning is how I learned to make molasses cookies and the same line of questioning that put human beings on the Moon. Too often, student voice and choice is singled out as an idealistic pedagogy, but it turns out that this simple set of questions can be used as a lens to look at almost any issue, topic, or problem imaginable, and with that set of questions came the simple but powerful permission to imagine.

I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding versus meeting and not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before.

So how did I grade all of this? Well, I didn’t, really. I didn’t need to, and I couldn’t let grading and evaluating and points and what was exceeding-versus meeting-and-not-quite-there-yet interfere with deep, meaningful student learning because it didn’t matter what the rubric said or what the levels were: students were more motivated to learn, were more engaged in their learning, and sharing in their learning together in a way that hadn’t existed in my classroom before. I went from being a micromanager of student behaviors directed at teacher-focused outcomes, dreading each class period and waiting to see how these students could screw up my lesson plan, to a learning partner, sharing in the joy of learning with students, talking openly with them about their learning with no evaluative agenda, and learning alongside and from them as a result. I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

I did less, students did and learned more; we were happier and had a healthier classroom culture.

What really is an "A"?

Grades are meant to be representative of a child’s progress. If a student is doing well, they receive an A or B, so on and so forth. Often overlooked is the actual measure of progress: feedback. If you want to tackle objectives for a student, look no further than the descriptive notes on what they need to improve. The letter grades are a summary, the notes are where one learns. However, as most teachers will recognize — students, parents, and schools care mostly about letter grades. The stigma of an A-student constantly chasing all As — “How dare you give me a B!?” and the demotivated, struggling student receiving Ds — “Who cares anyways?” Rarely do you find a student saying, “Huh, I never knew this! Thanks for pointing this out. I’ll try it out next time!”

So many households are infatuated with the grade a child’s been given. It makes sense — grades are actually a fantastic motivator for students — but only when they’re doing well. Children who perform well on assessment will often chase that opportunity (consequently being nervous, anxious, and self-gratifying), while those who are behind fall even further behind. Any parent or teacher is familiar with a child receiving a report card — prompting a fist pump or look of dismay — then seeing the aftermath. One will continue to excel, the other will give up. In fact, researchers showcased how students with first semester high grades saw little to no change in emotional and behavioral engagement in the second half, whereas those with low grades saw drastic drops (Poorthuis et al., 2014). This is quite the conundrum, as grades are meant to communicate standing, but it actually affects standing.

In response, schools are shifting to mastery-, competency-, and other updated grading scales. Some shift the traditional academic scale, for example allowing for retaking of assessment and moving those on who eventually end up with an “A” or “mastery.” This falls victim to the same issue of demotivation, as those who perform poorly are less likely to push themselves to succeed. Others change the paradigm to skill-based assessment, ranking on “soft skills” such as creativity and leadership. In every circumstance, the moment a scale is enacted, the results are skewed.How can we rank creativity on a 1 to 5 scale? What happens if a student has a “3” in creativity, then a year later has a “2”? What does a “5” leader look like? Do they look the same to everybody?

Rubrics are, without a doubt, the pinnacle of grading assessment. Everywhere one looks there will be a new “improved” and ‘faster” way to grade — more complex or more streamlined rubrics. These charts are the case-in-point example of the subjectivity of grading — why, when questioned — grading makes little sense. What is a “3” on grammar? Does sentence structure earn a “5” or a “4”? Does a student “pass” their formal presentation? There will be obvious successes and failures, but what about all the steps in-between? Won’t accessors all grade differently? Despite the motivating factors at play, what if the entire system was flawed from the beginning?

via TeachersPayTeachers

via TeachersPayTeachers

The easiest way to put this to the test is to create a rubric of one’s choice for any assessment with a small group of teachers. Then, have each teacher grade using that rubric a series of papers (presentations, projects, whatever the assessment may be), without seeing what each other marked. It is almost a guarantee that discrepancies will exist. Furthermore, by placing even more teachers and even more assessments, the results will become more and more skewed. At this point, what does a grade even mean anymore?

Why not throw out the entire system? If there’s no way to grade without implicit or explicit bias, why not just give feedback? After all, research shows that students learn the most from purely given feedback without a grade (Butler, 1987). Of course, the traditional system has been in place for a long time, and rejecting and exiting its hold requires bravery, a lot of hard work, and methodological change. Not only does one need to convince themselves it’s the right thing to do, they must convince students, parents, teachers, the district, and higher education. But if this is what’s best for students, why would we not go all in?

It seems like the obvious solution to the problem. Instead of formulating a dozen new educational frameworks for assessment (despite the financial incentive of doing so), why not drop grading entirely and focus on what great assessment looks like? After all, what barriers may exist?

Students

Students may be dependent on grades to have a constant reminder on how they’re doing. How do they know if they’re “doing well” without a grade? They must then rely on feedback alone to critically think on what to improve and do differently. Just how most people learn naturally, we should be in a constant ebb and flow of learning, remembering, and doing. We shouldn’t always do well nor always do poorly — and measuring using grades has taught us otherwise. Students should feel empowered to learn for the sake of learning through authentic, meaningful assessment. A drastic shift would occur that then deemphasizes outdated work (daily homework, worksheets, “fridge” assignments), as no one would bother to do them. Instead, students would do the work they find beneficial — and we must give them a voice to us to learn.

Parents

Parents utilize grades to track their child’s progress. Are we not responsible for letting them know where their child falls? All things considered, what does a grade actually communicate to parents? How well a child listens? How good they are at following directions? How much of what is taught and memorized is relevant regardless? In a system without grades, parents would need more communication from teachers (and their child) as they’d be focused on “what did my child learn today?” rather than “how is my child doing?” — which are important philosophical differences.

Teachers

Teachers use grades for communicating, but at many points as a motivating factor. Would students do any of their work if it wasn’t for a grade? How can you design compulsory work at school without a system that reinforces compulsion? Simply stated, you cannot. It’s up to teachers to deliver innovative, practical, and emotionally-connective lessons and projects that engage learners so they want to learn. It’s relatively simple to state: design lessons that students care about. To do so, have students lead the discussion and class as much as possible — act as a guide and mentor rather than a taskmaster.

And grading does not mean an end to assessment. The easiest — and emancipating way for teachers and students alike — is to let students track their own progress. When students assess themselves, they’re more likely to be empowered learners and take away much more information than the traditional model (Hattie, 2012).

Higher Education

It’s a myth that colleges reject students who don’t have a class rank or grades. The highest ranked schools in the country consistently take in young adults from gradeless institutions. More of an emphasis is placed on the experiences and work these students have done (which they’ve likely had many due to their reimagined classrooms.) Interestingly enough, it could be argued that students who have no grades or class rank are more desirable as they’re unique.

Even though change is difficult, we owe it to the next generation to make lessons empowering. Ironically, those who perform best in our current system — achieving all As — tend to go on to do less. Valedictorians rarely go on to do great things because their main strength is the ability to comply — not developing creative solutions (Barker, 2017). We need students who can find knowledge for themselves, can listen and improve from feedback, and are tasked with problems that they can solve in the real-world. There’s no reason to practice hours on end to receive an “A” when one could be doing practical work to help someone in need — or learn more about themselves — or make strides in philosophical inquiry.