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Today, we're deep diving into ungrading. In episode 5, we looked at the gradeless movement and the pedagogy that surrounds it, and now we're looking at how it's incorporated, and the non-academic benefits of implementing it. To be clear, when I say "ungrading" - I'm referring to the movement away from grades. This doesn't necessarily mean that the class does not issue at grade at all. Typically, this means that grades are as limited as possible, as in one final grade at the end of a year, with opportunities to redo assignments or reach that goal in multiple ways.
Almost every classroom one visits today will have a chart on the syllabus which breaks down grades.
First, I don't blame educators for setting things up this way - it's the way it's almost always done. It's the dominant way of thinking about grading. But there are a litany of issues with categorical grades. Does a student who never completes homework really not understand the content, or are they just disobeying instructions to do work at home? If a student never passes a test, but does great in their classwork, are we grading their content knowledge or their anxiety levels?
Abigail French, a veteran public school teacher focusing on sixth grade, whose beginning her journey into ungrading after unrest with the traditional system.
Dr. Susan Blum, an anthropology professor at the University of Notre Dame, author of I Love Learning; I Hate School": An Anthropology of College, who utilizes ungrading in the classroom and is soon publishing a work on gradeless learning.
Dr. Laura Gibbs, a professor at the University of Oklahoma, who teaches mythology and folklore and epics of ancient India . Laura has been teaching these classes online since 2002 which have always been ungraded.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 12 of Things Fall Apart, our podcast on the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris McNutt, and I'm a high school digital media instructor from Ohio. Today, we're deep diving into ungrading. In Episode 5, we looked at the grade-less movement and the pedagogy that surrounds it, and now we're looking at how it's incorporated and the non-academic benefits of implementing it. To be clear, when I say ungrading, I'm referring to the movement away from grades. This doesn't necessarily mean that the class doesn't issue a grade at all. Typically, this means that grades are as limited as possible, as in there's like one final grade at the end of the year with opportunities to redo assignments or reach that goal in multiple ways. I'm so excited to share the messages of our guests today, but first I want to implore you to visit our Patreon page. There you'll find a place to support this podcast, as well as the free resources that we're creating. For as little as $1 a month, you'll know that you're keeping this endeavor afloat, and plus you'll get our professional electronic magazine. A few of our patrons who sponsored this podcast are Steve Peterson, Aaron Dowd, and Tim Vox. I'm humbled at your support, and I can't wait to see the experiences that we create together. You can learn more about our Patreon page, as well as find everything about the Human Restoration Project at humanrestorationproject.org, and on Twitter, at HumeResPro. Almost every classroom one visits today will have a chart on the syllabus which breaks down grades. Homework at 30%, tests at 40%, classwork at 20%, participation at 10%, with some opportunities for extra credit. First, I don't blame educators for setting things up this way. It's the way it's almost always been done. It's the dominant way of thinking about grading. But there are a litany of issues with categorical grades. Does a student who never completes homework really not understand the content, or are they just disobeying instructions to do work at home? If a student never passes a test, but does great in their classwork, are we grading their content knowledge or their anxiety levels? And further, in addition to all the pedagogical issues with assigning grades, from what we're actually grading to how it affects intrinsic motivation, we're also enacting barriers. When we place these systems within our classroom, we're presenting one more step between us as educators working with students to help them learn. Because now the conversation isn't about helping someone get better, it's about ensuring that the categories are adhered to and scored properly. This system causes a breakdown of the relationship between all of us. I distinctly remember being horrified in an English class, which was one of my better subjects, because although I did great on tests and assignments, a huge portion of our grade was participation. My teacher met with me with the advice to, uh, talk more, which for someone like me is easier said than done. The anxiety and fear that I felt within that class meant that not only would I get a lower grade than everyone else, but I just simply didn't like the class. I trusted the teacher less, and I didn't learn as much as I should have. And when my Spanish teacher assigned extra credit to make our points back from tests, which I did very poorly on, I would always do the extra credit, and it took a lot of time. And I remember turning in one of these longer assignments only to have it lost by him, and I got into this huge argument that resulted in me receiving his attention. The point is, is that when we create systems, when there are barriers to just learning, we're demotivating students, because we're making this hierarchical structure that harms our relationships. The teacher becomes an enforcer rather than a coach. And these experiences are commonplace. Most people have some fond memories of school, but many have negative ones that harm them mentally and emotionally. Some of my worst memories are things that happened at school as a result of my teachers. This isn't to say that I blame teachers for acting this way, I'm blaming the systems that they have created and followed. It wasn't necessarily that my teachers intentionally wanted to cause harm, although I'm sure there are some that do, but in many ways my teachers were just doing what the system set out to do. If they waver from the principles set in their syllabus, or perhaps set by school policy, then well, things fall apart. That's a very uncomfortable and unmanageable situation. If you don't have the pedagogical and instructional support to make these transitions to new systems, then it's going to be very difficult to figure out what to do instead. And the guests that I have on today are meant to help you transition to one change in systems, which is ungrading, moving away from the issues that grades cause within the classroom.
Abigail French: I am a sixth grade US history teacher at Peter Muhlenberg Middle School in Woodstock, Virginia. I've been back to teaching for about five years. I had a hiatus when I was a stay-at-home mom for about 15 years. And before that, I had an earlier teaching career. I've had the opportunity, like perspective-wise, to really see how things have changed over the last 25 years or so.
CM: We're starting off today with Abigail French. Abigail is new to the gradeless movement, but she has noticed firsthand the toll that grades take on classroom outcomes.
AF: For years, I have done math activities on the important rivers of the United States. I got out clay, I mean just clay, and I had kids make, you know, United States clay maps and lay out the rivers, and there was the connection between physically manipulating things and placing them that connected those rivers in space and time. And it was on that map for those kids that a piece of paper and a pencil or colored pencils never got for them. I never had success. When I went around and had kids actually show it to me, they knew it, and it stayed within the whole year. I mean, I'm just fascinated by the connection between, you know, the best learning processes, I guess, is what I'm thinking of. We did a lot of different ways for kids to show their understanding of whatever it was was our topic, projects. But throughout this time period, what I started realizing was it wasn't grades at all that were motivating my kids. In fact, those were like the least, nobody was thinking about points, nobody was thinking about grades. They were thinking about doing the best that they could possibly do, either individually or in their groups, with whatever project or problem-based project that we were exploring and looking at. They were bought in, so there was no, you know, having to like twist them on, get your assignment in, get your grade up. It just wasn't like that. It became this whole culture, really, of kids excited about what they were doing. And so that's what has propelled me.
CM: And you know, the typical counterpoint to what you're saying is that many of our students need extrinsic motivators to succeed, as in if they don't have grades, they're not going to do anything because they lack intrinsic motivation.
AF: I don't buy it at all. I think it's bunk and goes against everything I've seen in actual practice. Are there situations, are there kids that are extremely driven by, whether it's competition or whether it's parents or whether it's their own needs to be at the very top of a measurement? Sure. And I think grade level also would impact that a little bit because I'm in sixth grade, it's middle school. I mean, if there's a place to go gradeless and tap into student intrinsic motivation, tap into their love of learning, tap into their curiosity, it's middle school. It's all about social. It's all about development. And I know that there, I've listened to a lot and read about going gradeless at the high school. And I think there are certain places where there still needs to be rankings, I guess, or does there? I don't know, but it gets more tricky at the high school level for sure.
CM: Sure. And it's really about aligning our practice from analyzing what strategies we can use to instead, what systems can we change? We had Dr. Richard Wilkinson on a few podcasts back and his work along with Dr. Kate Pickett, who co-authors with him, is how on seeing systems create inequitable outcomes, and it makes it worse for everyone, whether that be in economics or in academics. When we're branded by this grade within the classroom, whether we're doing well or not, that competitive model makes us feel bad about what we're doing, and it shifts our focus from learning to just being entirely on that mark, whether or not that's subconscious or we're actively thinking about it.
AF: I have a learning disability, and it was identified when I was in middle school. And I explained a lot of heartache and just difficulties with school when I was a little girl. But I had a fantastic teacher, a special ed teacher, and she worked with me and learned, I learned how to accommodate it and coping mechanisms and all different things. I learned how to study, I learned how I learned, and I learned how to advocate for myself with teachers or professors in college or whatever. That was incredibly transformative an experience for me, definitely impacts the teacher that I am. In high school, because of the learning disability and during that, in that particular time period while I was kind of getting it by its tail, my grades were all over the place. I would focus on an area that I was anxious about, like I wanted to improve it or I wanted to keep it. And so I'd really focus on, let's say, math or chemistry. And then other areas, I suddenly was kind of letting the pressure off a little bit so I could focus on that one area, and they would head downward. So then it was a constant, constant, never felt secure, never felt like I had, and the pressure, I didn't want to be seen as getting bad grades or not being able to keep up. To be honest, I felt smarter than a lot of the people that I couldn't keep up with with grades. It was extremely difficult and it was really hard. And I felt a lot of shame. I felt a lot of shame for my parents. I felt bad for my teachers because I knew they were trying, but why couldn't I just come through with the mark, always been about the mark. My whole childhood education is really defined about that freaking grade at the end of the six weeks and what that left me with, carrying that weight. And I think like, I love learning, I love exploring, I love nature, I love reading, I love learning from people. I'm like, I'm a really good learner. And it was about killed out of me because of a system. I don't want that to ever happen to a student in my class. I don't care about their grade, I care about their learning.
CM: Yeah, and I think it's important that we highlight our teachers who make a difference in our lives, but we don't avoid those conversations of the negative impact that school can have. We owe it to our students to reflect on and do better based off the harm that school can cause as it did to us. I know that as a teacher, I've accidentally or perhaps intentionally by the systems I've designed and operated in, I've caused harm to students, which obviously isn't my prerogative. And for the vast majority, it isn't. But if we don't talk about the negatives of our schooling experience, and then work to solve those things, we're just continuing that narrative.
AF: It's very real. And in a lot of ways, it's really messed up. And it's not what is best for kids and their social, emotional self at all. It goes against it. When I was in second grade, this is one of the biggest moments, if I had to have five moments that I told you about in my education, that was impactful to me. I hadn't remembered to do a math worksheet, you know, from our workbook. And I wanted to please the teacher so badly, I didn't want to let it let her down. And I remember we were supposed to turn in our math worksheet to the inbox. And then after it was graded, it'd be right waiting for us in our outbox. Okay, so I knew I didn't have the math worksheet, you know, I panicked, and I'm seven years old. And I go up to the inbox with my pencil. And I take Barbara's, Barbara Janney, the smartest girl in the class, I take her paper, and I quickly erase her name and put Abby on it. And I turn it in. And the next day, Abby's paper is there with 100. And I am so freaking happy. I am so happy. I feel so good. That's the grade I'm supposed to get. That's the paper I was supposed to turn in quickly. It was discovered quickly, very quickly, because Barbara didn't have her paper and I suddenly had mine. And I was mortified. The teacher called me out on it. She took me to the principal's office. I had a conversation with the principal. And I basically just said, I don't care what you do to me. I'm seven years old. I don't care what you do to me. Please don't send this home to my parents. Please don't. Please. I learned the lesson. I won't ever do that again, which I altered report card grades on my report cards. I also got caught. It was just, it was just awful experiences with grades. And it didn't show what I knew either. It didn't show that I knew how to do a lot of the stuff. It just was a horrible cycle. And I know that's personal to me, but the shame that goes along with those moments, I'm 48 years old, Chris, and I can feel it now.
CM: And that story, I think, can be related to the systems that we build. Because of the position you found yourself in being judged and ranked according to others, you start to build up this tendency to get ahead and you're being well, like, narcissistic. Those who do really well in the system have a tendency to become narcissists. I mean, the whole cultural norm of capitalism is getting ahead, which is often at the expense of others. So it should be no surprise that our schooling system, because of this grading system and many other issues, promote individualism and competitiveness, but not so much teamwork or community building. That's reflected in how we rank individuals as well as how we rank our schools. And as a result, the hidden curriculum is teaching undesirable things. It's certainly a way different situation, but when I was in eighth grade in my social studies class, I remember I was working on this poster project with one of my friends and our other group member wasn't there that day. So we did, like, roughly two-thirds of the work, and in my opinion, it was pretty good in comparison to what everybody else had. So in the last 20 minutes or so of class, we decided that we were going to put it away and wait for our other group member to come back because she had the information for the rest of the project. So I took out a book that I was going to read, and my teacher flipped out. I mean, like, he threw something against the board and it shaked and he screamed at me and my friend and told us to come out in the hallway. And he basically, military-style, interrogated us on why we weren't doing anything. And we, you know, we tried to explain it, but obviously that didn't matter. And me being a quiet, nerdy kid who rarely spoke up, I got my first attention ever that day. So, you know, maybe the teacher was trying to teach us to work harder or not waste time or something like that. But for me, even as an adult, I reflect on that memory thinking that I got in trouble for working smart and caring about my classmates' opinion and ultimately for reading a book. I remember my mom picked me up that day and I broke down crying in the car because it bothered me so much. I mean, it was a standout moment in my educational experience. So partially, these issues like this are caused by grades and the performative aspect of school. I know you're just getting started in your grade-less journey, but could you talk more about what this looks like for you?
AF: I am just getting into it and I feel really fortunate. I am in a work situation in a building with an administrator, my principal, I feel a lot of... I send articles to him or podcasts and I'm like, do you want to understand me? Am I thinking, you have to listen to this or read this, this is what I want to do. And then he'll shoot back with, okay, here, I just came across this, read this, you're going to like it. But right now I'm in a, I guess I would call it kind of a hybrid. I still am giving grades. Last year, I still gave grades when I had to, but nothing felt right about it. Nothing felt like what I measured in terms of seeing the kids learning and interacting with them and conferencing with them on a daily basis. And like that is where I struggle because I want to be able to translate that into a grade that feels really authentic from my perspective of their learning and theirs, but mostly theirs because I think that's where the value is, you know, this building grade-less chat that we've been in a little bit talking about, that's been so helpful to me. I know that what I need to focus on this year is a feedback driven class and that's going to be my focus. That's going to be my goal is to find opportunities and ways to increase both the feedback that's going to be given to the kids, my feedback or peer feedback, but also then I want theirs too. And I want to develop them in giving good quality feedback to others and self-assessment. So that is my focus this year.
CM: Very true. And the way you speak of this is similar to how I tackle grade-less learning starting off. I think it's important to communicate that when we say grade-less learning or ungrading, it doesn't mean that we're getting rid of every single grade in our class. I mean, that sounds very odd and that is the end game goal, but most of us aren't in an easy position to change school policy, let alone college admission policy. So what we're doing is we're breaking down the barriers between grades and learning as much as we possibly can, like having one grade that's negotiated on at the end or maybe letting students self-assess and then conferencing with them. It's about transitioning that language of grades to a language of learning, then pushing that further and further every single year. So what ideas are you thinking of incorporating to reduce the usage of grades?
AF: I want to keep the student, what I spoke of earlier about their motivation and their interests and their buy-in up. It's going to come from them having some self-direction and choosing like where they go with things and projects and choosing their evidence, their piece, their artifacts, their evidence of their learning for me or to show whoever, if it's a parent, they are going to create a portfolio of sorts that showcase that. That's my rough outline for how I'm going to do it because I do need to show and they need to know that they've had growth and that's really important. The feedback part of that is specifically, I know how I'm going to start out my year. I'm actually borrowing this idea from Mary Servinak who has a podcast that she spoke directly about feedback and I loved her idea. When I'm getting my sixth graders, these are brand new sixth graders coming to middle school, I don't think that they are well developed in this whole giving and receiving feedback. In fact, I don't even think adults are really great at that. I think like we very rarely have to deal with that as adults and when we do, it's difficult. I mean summative evaluations and the conference after, I don't care how well I think I nail something or if I know it's going to be a good conversation, I'm still a nervous rat. My brand new sixth graders, my 11-year-olds coming in, I want to let them warm up to this feedback thing and I think the best way to do that is by giving them the chance to give me feedback so that I can model how to receive it and walk them through how to give it, how to give quality feedback, how to speak to the person you're giving the feedback to. Those things are really big at sixth grade. I have to develop that in them before they can go through the rest of middle school and into high school being able to do that. So I see it as a really great opportunity to do that. I think by them critiquing me, the pressure is not directly on them right from the start. They get to warm up to it. So on Fridays, I'm going to have them do a review and they're going to give thought of probably a Google form or some sort of product to critique how the week went. What did you like about my teaching? What did you like about the lesson? What did you like about your learning? What can we do better? And then eventually, we're going to start as we get into projects or different points. Then we'll turn the focus. Then I'll give them feedback and critique what they're doing. I've learned so much from Aaron, Teachers Going Greylist. He's been so helpful to me and has shared a lot of resources so that I've got some things to go off of.
CM: Yeah, Teachers Going Greylist is a great resource for those that are making this work happen inside their classrooms. It just feels so good to realize that you can make these systems work within almost any classroom and school district. You don't have to worry about that cognitive dissonance of doing something that you know is wrong, but you don't really know how to change it. When you have grade-less learning, you can feel compelled to work on projects and then that builds into critical pedagogy. All these systems tie together once you start going down that path. I finally feel like my head and heart are aligned that so much of what I needed when I was a kid and so much of what I believe in as an educator, working with these kids every day, so much is now there's synergy and there's this connectedness and a lot of it is because it pulls all these parts together because they require it for the whole.
CM: And the research is there too. I mean, it's not like we're making this stuff up to make ourselves feel good. There's an ample amount of backup. It's almost surreal.
AF: Yeah, and I appreciate the Human Restoration Project's focus on sharing that research and sharing the data that supports this because it is there and it's overwhelmingly there. That kind of brings me to my other piece, that underlying everything that I want to do this year, probably the most significant change that I made. It was really one of the most simple, simple things that I ever have done in my practice that had the biggest impact and it was simply by starting every class. Every day we sit down on the floor, my sixth graders and me, we sit down and we have like a general just kind of check-in and I say a rose and a thorn, but other people use a smiley and a frowny face or whatever, a check-in and it's not demanded. It's not if people want to pass, they don't have to, but it's a chance to share something positive, something negative, but most often it's just in general like, what's going on in your life? Talk to me or if you have something you want to share and we share that and it builds this relationship with the kids, with me, between them mostly, empathy increased, happy, joyful celebrations increased, care for someone when it's a negative increased, the working relationships, how that translated then to what we do in school with our content and our projects was just unbelievable because there was this connection. That speaks to the SELP's kind of underlies what we do and it was a single little tiny five minutes at the beginning of class, it was a routine and it was something that even when I wasn't at school, a substitute would leave me a note, hey, your kids wanted to do a rose and thorn activity today, so I let them do it. To me that, and I got this idea from Monte Siree, his blog 180, he's an incredible person, teacher to follow, and I just have learned so much from him and I think that that started really, for me, that started everything.
CM: Right, and educators who are working together to solve these issues, they can see that they're solving problems outside and beyond their classroom as well. When we change our grading policy to be cooperative, to make one care about someone else succeeding and then we build these communities together where we share how we feel and what we value, that has ramifications to our society in building, and it sounds really hokey, but preparing for a better future, fostering better learners, so to speak, but how we feel and treat others is much more realistic and useful than preparing for a certain skill set or to be, quote unquote, academically rigorous.
AF: We have this one part that we can hopefully impact and change for the betterment in education. Yeah, life is much broader, but if we can actually change parts of the system and also in addition to help kids self-regulate and navigate in a better way, then that's so powerful.
CM: Next, Dr. Susan Blum is a professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame whose upcoming work focuses on ungrading.
Susan Blum: I have training in cultural, linguistic, psychological anthropology, which sort of brought me to my study of education, but in a kind of roundabout way. I started my career studying China. I was interested in truth and deception, which led me to a study of plagiarism in China, but also in the US, which led me to a study of education. What are people doing here? Why is plagiarism kind of rational? Not that I endorse it, but a rational solution to a problem, which might be how to get something done really fast that you don't care about, which led me to wonder what is going on with school in general in the context of childhood, adulthood, growing up, what kinds of values we have as a society. So I've written quite a bit now on higher education. I have two books out and I'm working on a third, but I've also got this interest in ungrading, which is why you're talking to me, but that grew out of my dissatisfaction with a lot of things that were happening in classrooms that seemed to be only about school, but not about learning. So I've been trying now in my own teaching to improve the structures so that I focus entirely on learning and don't focus at all on control, coercion, and those kinds of things. I've been influenced as probably many people you'll talk to have been by Alfie Cohen and his work Punished by Rewards. I keep that as a kind of Bible as I try to think through what am I doing? Why am I doing it? What am I really doing? What are the outcomes? And all of that has led me to a focus on ungrading. So there's a book coming out next year, we hope, on ungrading. It's a collection of 13 chapters plus an introduction, and I've just gotten the editor's reports and they encourage me to have some kind of conclusion, so I may be also getting a conclusion.
CM: And as a professor, you utilize ungrading. Could you talk a little bit about what that looks like for you and how you've adapted these practices for your classroom?
SB: I think it's in some sense the same problem in higher ed as in other levels of education, and I'm so committed to that that I have five chapters in the ungrading book from people who are not in higher ed, even though it's in a series on teaching and learning in higher education. So I think that all of us who are involved in the project of education are grappling with the same issues. My own experience has mostly been in higher education, so I'll talk about that. It's to really remind students that, yes, they're here for all kinds of reasons and there are all kinds of consequences, but one of them surely has to be learning. And if we focus on that and what that means for each student, which might not be the same thing for every student, then they're willing to take risks and they're willing to take mistakes as information or as experience rather than something that will doom them to some sort of future, perhaps not even admitted to medical school. I was trying at first not to talk about grades, but actually at first I tried to tell them don't think about your grade, which makes them think about their grade. Then I tried not talking about grades, but I still gave them. Finally, three years ago, I encountered Starr Saxton's book, A Hacking Assessment, which is how to go gradeless in a conventional graded system. That gave me the courage to not give grades at all. It wasn't that I kept them secret. It wasn't that I didn't talk about them. There just weren't grades, which isn't to say there isn't a lot of assessment. There's a lot of assessment because I'm trying really ultimately to make what's happening in the classroom more like life, more like life outside the classroom. In real life, we learn things, we try things. Sometimes they're better, sometimes they're worse, and that's okay. We don't expect perfection out of everybody with everything they do all the time. In that sense, there's not a single scale in real life. Are you the best plumber there is? I know now we can go onto websites and we can rate plumbers and we can rate therapists and we can rate doctors and restaurants, but is a Japanese restaurant better than an Italian restaurant? There's no single scale in real life, and so there doesn't need to be a single scale in the learning that happens in a classroom. Finally, with all of the kinds of self-assessment and then reflection that students do and I do back to them, there's a lot of information and a lot of feedback which people learn from. All kinds of research shows that when you put a grade on an assignment, even if you also give comments, students fixate on the grade and they almost never really pay much attention to the comments except as they see them as justifying the grade. But if you don't put a grade on, then they'll read the comments, and that's really what I want.
CM: What does this all then look like when your peers see this in practice?
SB: Mostly I've spoken with high school and middle school educators on this podcast, but not a professor. A lot of people are curious about it. I've had a couple people ask for help. Maybe they could do a little piece of it or something. I've heard of a couple colleagues, maybe not in my own department, but who are trying it themselves. But then other people say, yeah, that's all fine, but I have to wait until I get tenure before I can try something risky. And then other people disregard it because it really changes the entire way you relate to students and how you think about everything, and it's a lot of work. It's a lot of work to do it. It's a lot of work to think about how to do it. And not everybody has the time or energy to fixate on pedagogy. So I've had people argue about it, but what about medical school? What about graduate school? What about the real implications of this? Certainly we have to tell people where they stand. And I argue that my whole life purpose can't be preparing my students for the next level of schooling. That can't be what four years, 40 courses is all about, although it often is.
CM: And I think it's hard for people to really understand what grade-less looks like in practice. Like they might understand the pedagogy or what tools there are, but they don't really grasp how transformative this can be. In your experience, what has grade-less learning done for your class?
SB: It's made teaching so much more joyful. It's made the relationships with my students much more honest. They're not trying to play me. I think. I mean, I may be wrong. I've written a book about deception, so it could be that they are. But they are not trying to go through the game of school. They're not trying to lie about why they're not in class. I've actually, I keep tweaking almost every element of my classes. So this past year for the first time, I've stopped taking attendance. But I still, because I have a relationship with the students and they have relationships to each other and I try to foster a community of learners, they have a responsibility to be there. So if they're not there, they explain it. But they don't lie to me. If they tell me, I just was really tired because I had to do X, I had to prepare for the MCAT or something, I'd so much prefer that than them saying, oh, I was taking care of my roommate who was sick or some kind of story. So there's that. I've had students be so much more honest about what they're doing, why they're doing it, how much effort they've put into it. They're not all putting on a game, playing this game of trying to look engaged if they're not engaged. I accept that not everything is engaging for every student every minute of the day. I have found students have so much more fun. They try a lot of different formats for producing their work. They sometimes don't do a great job with everything and that's okay. They then start to feel a little bit more ownership of the class and of their learning. They're willing to suggest things rather than simply following the checklist that I provide them. And that's exactly what I want. My dream is, what happened to Kathy Davidson? My dream is that the students would take over and they would just say, this is what we want to learn. This is how we want to learn it. This is why. This is what's going to happen. And then they just say, we're so committed to learning that this is all we can think about. I have had students say, I got so absorbed in this project, I forgot it was for school. And I can't think of anything that makes me happier than that.
CM: Exactly. That willingness to learn the intrinsic motivation that our students have to learn in a classroom that cares about them is a fact that we can't pass up. There's this negative viewpoint of students that are always trying to game the system or that they hate school and you have to manipulate them to control them. This is all a recipe for disaster. If you're planning your class without trusting students, the structure you're building is going to lead them to not trust you. The words and practices we use, especially when we're initially developing our relationships with students, has serious effects on how they view us and the value of learning within our class. If we set up the situation like they're doing something wrong or we think that they're going to do something wrong if we don't control them, it shouldn't be shocking that they don't trust us in return. And trust is key to learning. We have to model the behavior that we expect. And so if we're going to encourage learners to be more cooperative and trusting towards one another and build a community and focus on soft skills, then we have to have a classroom where we are building that place where these things flourish. And I also want to talk about, too, there's an element of privilege there as well, because those that have the most resources tend to send their schools that do focus on all these things like cooperation and soft skills. The most expensive schools tend to be progressive, like Montessori schools, and they have really small class sizes. And that's just interesting in and of itself, because people say they want the best possible outcomes for their children. But then you look at the most rich and powerful people and they're sending their students to progressive schools, like I think of Elon Musk, who has like five kids in this design-focused school. And so there's also those that aren't privileged, and their variation of these quote unquote elite schools is very rigid and it drills academics. And one more thing dealing with privilege, those who are very privileged, who have support networks and have financial resources and just attend your average everyday school and their children receive the highest grades and have great test scores, they also have a hard time understanding why everyone can't get an A or they don't understand why grades might not be working because their student is doing well with their extensive support network.
SB: I hope so. One of the things that really concerns me is the mental health of the students. Of course, our society anthropologists and other social scientists talk about neoliberalism and the fact individualism, focus on competition and all of that, foster a sense of self-absorption, but also anxiety because you're just one failure away from disaster every minute of the day. So if failure is not the threat all the time, then it does release students to follow their curiosity, which I believe everybody has. I have to just make a little aside here and say that I love the name of your project, the Human Restoration Project. I think that's just so beautiful and we clearly need it in school and out of school, but at least for those of us who are in education, our sphere is education. And so that's where we try to have an effect. Back to the question about privilege, certainly students at places like Notre Dame, where I teach, are very privileged. Not all of them come from economically privileged backgrounds. We have first generation students. We have students who come from other countries, not all the children of professionals. We have increasing numbers of people of color, people from minoritized backgrounds. But generally speaking, anyone who gets into Notre Dame has been able to figure out how to play the system. And so they're very good at it. So I think the biggest pushback I've had has been from a handful of students over the three years that I've implemented the ungrading because they see teaching is grading, school is getting graded. They don't see that there's any sort of contradiction between those and they kind of see grading as the raison d'etre of going to school. And so if I take that away, I had a student once tell me when I wanted the students to organize some of the discussion, why don't I just do it? Isn't that my job? I can understand that that's all they've ever known, but showing them another way, I think really prepares them much better for life than giving them a constant checklist. So students, yes, they're privileged and they probably do have fewer barriers and everything, but sometime in their life, they're going to encounter a situation where nobody tells them what to do and they're going to have to figure that out. So I'm trying to give them some practice in that.
CM: Yeah, and I think all of this builds into a great need for just reevaluating how we do assessment in schools. Just to throw this out there, is there greater autonomy for professors who are looking to go gradeless? This might be some ignorance on my part, but it's difficult for many K-12 educators to attempt gradeless learning just because they're worried about how administrators might look at them or how peers might judge them. But to me, it seems like professors have way more leeway in whatever it is that they do.
SB: Yes, mostly. I mean, there are accreditation agencies, which sometimes try to assess what's happening and assessment in the colleges has been driven in part by the accreditation process. But there have been schools like Hampshire College and Evergreen State and formerly Santa Cruz that were grade free. Yes, certainly private schools have a lot of leeway to determine how they do things. But there's also the scale question and a lot of things are connected. Financial aid is often tied up with how many credit hours you're taking and making progress toward degree and having a certain GPA and eligibility in sports is dependent on those things too. There are a lot of things that really aren't part of the educational mission that do ride on conventional metrics. And so a school that wants to cast off some of these conventional metrics may then have to be a lot smaller and have to have other kinds of funding. In one of the questions that you sent me in advance, you asked about a future that might have more authentic learning and there's kind of the aspirational future and the actual future that I foresee. In some sense, what we're probably going to see is more of the same, but with fewer players because a lot of small regional colleges are folding and a lot of small liberal arts colleges are folding. But there is still room for innovation and I use the word innovation in scare quotes because I have trouble with the idea that everything should be innovative all the time. But there are probably going to be other places experimenting with the very framework of the whole thing. So do you need classes? Are classes the best way to organize learning? I'm actually part of a project called a theory of public higher education and we're trying to imagine what higher education could be like and classes may or may not be part of the mix. They may not be the necessary and default organizing principle. So experiential learning, I think, is something that all schools are doing often in addition to conventional classes, sometimes in conjunction with conventional classes, but rarely in place of conventional classes. There's problem-based learning, project-based learning, place-based learning, community-based learning, and internships and placements and field placements and co-ops. And a lot of schools are doing those things. I would love to see more of it as long as it then doesn't become just another kind of checklist that people go through the motions of.
CM: I agree with you and I look forward to all the schools that experiment with and showcase the ways that they're becoming more and more student-centered. And building off of that, I wanted to ask you a question about college admissions. You wrote a relatively recent blog post about the mastery transcript and last year we spoke to Tony Wagner, the author, education reformer, whatever you want to call him, and his contributions to the mastery transcript. He's one of their board members and I'm sure a financier and the mastery transcript is being pioneered this year at the Hawkins School in Cleveland and it's being adopted by a few other schools as well. And for those listening, the mastery transcript is a portfolio that college admissions counselors look at, they're taught to read it, and in lieu of a traditional graded transcript, it's just like a list of skills that are somewhat standardized where you would look at student work and that would be a way to get into college. So it would be on a pathway to eliminating grades. However, in your article, you talk about how it's dangerous to prescribe certain skills because it is still very standardized. Could you go into more detail about this and, you know, whether or not it's even possible to have college admissions without any kind of standardization?
SB: Yes, I spent an hour on the phone with Scott Looney, who was the guy behind it, to talk to him about it and he was very generous with his time, very thoughtful, really had students' well-being in mind, really trying to figure out a kind of middle path between what we do now and some ideal system where every student is evaluated on the basis of their own needs and goals and skills and this is kind of in between. And there was a lot that I loved about what he was saying and he was trying to get colleges on board so that the people in high school wouldn't think that there was too big of a risk because college admission workers work really hard and they read a lot of files and they don't have much time for them so for them to learn about an entire new system, it has to be worth their while. So there have to be enough high schools doing it so that the college admissions people learn how to read those transcripts but there also have to be enough colleges so that the high schools can do it. So I know he's trying to pilot it at a bunch of schools, not all affluent, not all private schools but it has a range of students at all different income levels, all different kinds of schools and I think that equity idea is really brilliant. So I did write something critical about it but just eight days ago, Inside Higher Education, the online journal about higher ed had an article about it and I wrote a supportive comment about it which was then critiqued by people who were challenging it. So I clearly have mixed feelings about it. I just want to put out there though on Inside Higher Ed in April as a response to the Varsity Blues scandal, the college admissions scandal where all these wealthy people were bribing college admissions people and coaches and stuff. College admission is actually not that selective for most students. Fewer than 3% of all colleges admit less than 20% of their students. So most college is open. More than half of all colleges admit more than two-thirds of all the applications. More than 80% admit more than half of all applications. So we want to be careful not to exaggerate how selective colleges are. There are 50 schools or so that admit less than 20% of all applications. Those might be the schools everybody wants to go to. It might be Harvard, Yale, Princeton and admittedly Notre Dame, those kinds of places but most people can get into college. So making high school entirely about college admission seems still to be a kind of misplacement.
CM: That's a very good point and our extreme focus on next step education is making our students lose a lot of that place within the now. As in, they're spending a lot of time living their lives in K-12 just wasting it. They don't feel like their lives start until college and then once they're in college, they feel like their lives don't start until they're an adult and by that time, time has flown by so quickly that they're relatively purposeless. They're missing out on all those moments of just being a person. So we're fortunate as a school to be located near Ohio State, Ohio State University, which is where I went to school. It's a 100% acceptance school so if you don't get into the main campus, assuming that you haven't been expelled or anything, you'll be placed at a branch campus, which if you're at the branch campus for a year and you have a C average, you can transfer to the main campus, that for us is a strategy to tell students who are really anxious about college admissions to realize that, I mean, OSU is a public school, but it is a fairly high ranked school, even though the rankings are, I mean, that's a whole separate story about the rankings, but it's a decent school and you can get in no matter what and there's not any college admissions drama. In the same vein, the book Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be by Frank Bruni is a great resource to demonstrate, you know, how many successful people they don't go to Harvard or Yale and in the grand scheme of themes, like 99.9% of people, it doesn't really matter where you go to school. As long as you're acting with a purpose and you know what you want to achieve, you'll likely get there as long as you keep trying or at least you'll feel like you're on that path. That being said, though, the grading element and college admissions drama seems to be more about financial aid than it does about admission. Most of the conversations that I have with parents about ungrading is less about, you know, is this going to get my student into college and more about am I going to still be able to get scholarships, tuition rates are crazy right now, and, you know, I personally believe and I put it out as part of the Human Restoration Project's mission that college should be free because it guarantees equity, students' equity to get into higher education. It isn't reserved for the privileged and those that have greater pocketbooks. And there's, you know, there's so much pressure among scholarships and tuition aid. What are your thoughts surrounding that competitive pressure to get into colleges because of that financial connection?
SB: It depends on their situation. You know, some people can afford modest college tuition at regional campuses, but they can't afford private school tuition at national, highly selective colleges. Community colleges are affordable largely, although not entirely, but there's also foregone wages and there's housing and there are all kinds of other things. I mean, the cost of college is a huge and really pressing topic. It's part of our political conversation. It's part of the conversation in this project I mentioned and I'm part of to imagine future of public higher education. But I do want to just suggest that if everybody's going to college to have a credential that's higher than everybody else's credentials so they can get the few remaining good jobs, that's not a solution to inequality. We need also to focus on having everybody get access to jobs that pay moving wages, not just to pit people against each other to get the few jobs that still pay living wages and benefits. So if the college, as I will reiterate, doesn't solve the problem of economic inequality for the society, but it can help individuals position themselves above other people who are also competing for those few jobs.
CM: It's very well stated and I think too that ungrading, as you're writing about in your work and pushing for, is an element of the social justice component to ensure that learners can be successful and have the tools they need to be equipped in the world. Also too, in the scholarship vein, ungrading allows for more opportunities like project based learning to make things that could get you a scholarship, at least until we make things better. And I suppose too that when we don't grade, we're making sure that we don't rob people of these skills that they might have naturally developed.
SB: Absolutely. I mean, I'm a social scientist, at least in part, and we don't operate in a vacuum and our students aren't created anew every semester in our classes. So there are many, many big, daunting social factors that really have way more to do with anything we can do on our own. I do want to say, though, that one social justice dimension of ungrading and the way I approach teaching now is to believe it's the kind of anti-competitive model that says, my job is to help every single student learn the best and the most that they can and want to. And so if they all learn really well, then I think I've done my job well. And that seems to me a matter of justice, not trying to pick the winners and say, I'm going to help the ones who are the best because they've already been helped a lot. My job is more to tell the other ones, you know, maybe you haven't been told that you're the best up till now, but what does best mean and how can I help you? And it seems to me that's a much more, for me anyway, morally responsible position to take than simply to say my job is to identify winners.
CM: For sure. And I mean, a lot of these huge ideas take so much time and effort and it requires a big push in our classrooms. It takes a lot of work to spread the practice and even pushing for equitable solutions outside of our classroom, going beyond it, that can take a really big toll.
SB: I feel this heaviness every minute of every day. I don't know if you do, but, you know, in my work, I don't really have that much power. I do protest. I do go out there and try to do my political work. But in the classroom, it's political work that doesn't call itself politics, you know, it's not with a party. I mean, it is anybody who is looking can figure out what party it is, but it's about power and who has power and what we do with power. And I've concluded, you know, I'm a white woman and I have tenure and I'm at a private school and I have all this privilege and I need to use it. And so I feel this great responsibility to use it for the things that really will make a difference for people. And I don't necessarily feel I do that that often, but when I can, it makes it worthwhile.
CM: And finally, we have Dr. Laura Gibbs of the University of Oklahoma. She teaches mythology and folklore and the ethics of ancient India. Laura has been teaching these classes online since 2002 and has been gradeless ever since she started to.
Laura Gibbs: And I think for me, the ungrading and the being online go together like some of the techniques I use. I know people have used in the classroom to work for them. But my ungrading happened at the same time that I went online and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to go online was so that I could stop grading and start having the courses be individualized. When you teach online, you can, if you want, design the course so that each student is doing their own thing based on what they're really interested in and tapping into that motivation instead of the motivation to just do what the teacher says to get an A. And so when you are able to give them a real motivation, something that they're choosing and that they're enjoying, that allows you to get away from the grading and also gives you this great basis for sharing because if they're excited about what they're doing in the class, well then that means they're eager to share that with other students. And it's fun, it's cool to find out what people are doing when people are really interested in what they're doing. In both the Ms. Bocor class and in the Indian Epics class, there's this huge range of readings so people choose what they want to read and then each person is working on a project and they're writing their own stories. So in a sense, I've got these two separate classes. It's kind of one big class and it's also kind of a hundred individual classes. And we use a blog network to bring that all together. So it sounds kind of strange, but when you see it in action, it makes sense, it works.
CM: And you are very progressive in multiple ways, both in the early adoption of online classes and going grade-less as an individual. What led you to tackling these ideas?
LG: I just made it up as I went along. I knew that as a teacher, just giving grades was so painful for me. I mean, it was just, it was basically impossible. I mean, I did it, but I agonized over it and I didn't have any confidence in the grading system that people use that kind of, you know, 90 to 100 is an A. Like, what is that? I just couldn't wrap my brain around it. And so when I switched to the online courses, right from the start, I used a micro assignments approach is what I call it with lots of little assignments that the students are doing every week and just accumulating points as they go. And it's more like a record of work completed. It's not me evaluating what they do and they don't do a lot of evaluation either. They reflect a lot and they set goals and they revise. But I really don't use that evaluation vocabulary very much at all. And so that's what I was doing from the start when I was teaching online. Like I said, back in 2002. And then when I met other people who were not grading, like Jesse Stommel and people like that, I felt so affirmed and started speaking out about it openly. Like at first, I didn't tell anybody what I was doing. But then when I realized I'm not the only person who feels this way and I saw other solutions that other people were using, I read Star's book, the one in the Hack Learning series. And I thought, oh, this is so cool. People are even doing this in high school. And I met more K through 12 teachers. And so that helped a lot. So it is possible to just sort of go out there and do it on your own. But feeling like you're part of a group where you can brainstorm and share ideas has been really great.
CM: Was this an easy shift for you? For many of us going against the grain, it's a really big stressor. When I even first started considering going gradeless with my class, I was afraid of a lot of the outcomes, how other people would see my class, whether or not it would work, you know, if the students would embrace it. Did you have any anxiety?
LG: And like I said, for me, the emotions were all positive in terms of the class. Like for me, it meant I could do the job I wanted to do as a teacher, which is to help people discover what they're excited about and give them the resources and encouragement and feedback they need. And so the classroom side of it was easy for me. And the students were really enthusiastic, too, because I teach these writing intensive courses and nobody really feels comfortable with grades on writing. You know, the students weren't asking me, could we please have grades? I got rid of them. No student ever asked for them. But with my colleagues, wow, that was what was really hard. And I remember very naively giving a presentation maybe two years after I'd started teaching online where a group of faculty at my school invited me to come in and speak to them about what I did and just show what we were doing, because these were really the very first online courses at my school. So people were curious and I showed how my system works, which is that the students declare their own work in the gradebook. I have them fill out these things that I call declarations, but they're really just true false quizzes where they have a checklist of what counts as complete and then they say true at the end. And that means they completed the assignment. They get the points automatically in the gradebook. And all these faculty members that, you know, that I liked, that were my friends, they were just appalled and looked at me and said, well, don't you think they're going to cheat? And I just know because it's all in their blogs and we're reading and we're sharing and they're working really hard and look at their projects and everybody's excited about what they're doing, you know, that they're like they're going to cheat idea. It hadn't even crossed my mind, really. I mean, it just that's not what was happening. And because it was online, I was really in touch with the students and aware of all the work they were doing. And so it just wasn't a problem. And I realized that what I think are problems and what other people think are problems are not the same set of assumptions. And so I can help people solve the kinds of problems that I've worked on that I found hard to solve, which are how do I give really good feedback to the students and how do I help the students give feedback to each other? But if other people feel like they have other problems they're working on, it's kind of like you're on different planets or something. That's been what I've struggled with the most is that my assumptions and goals are maybe not the same as everybody else's. And so it's harder to have a dialogue with with other faculty members if you have different goals and assumptions.
LG: Now, taking that plunge into a gradeless classroom is more than just saying I'm not going to give grades anymore. There's a lot of work that goes into what that looks like, because if you just remove all extrinsic motivators, well, now your course has to be engaging because no one's going to do anything otherwise. So it really shows what kind of assignments and projects you're going to be offering and the guides that your students are going to have to follow when you're not giving grades. If it's not good, then we can't expect students to magically be intrinsically motivated within that class. I hear that a lot from teachers who are afraid because they know that their work is not up to snuff. I know mine wasn't when I first transitioned over and it was it was kind of embarrassing for me.
CM: Tricky because there are a lot of different pieces to the puzzle, a lot of different moving parts. So it's partly about the philosophy and being able to communicate that to the students. And that's really not very hard. But for me, I think probably the most important thing I've learned is if you're not going to have grades, you need to fill up that space with feedback. And so that's feedback from me. And the students get a lot of feedback and I design the assignments in a way that it's manageable for me to give them feedback. So when I'm looking at an assignment, that's one of the important things. I ask myself, is this a student need feedback on this assignment? Are they going to be able to get it from me or from other students? And I also spend a pretty substantial amount of time helping the students learn how to give feedback to each other. Like a lot of people want to do peer feedback. It's great. I mean, it's an incredibly important part of my class, but you have to invest in serious time on the front end, working with students on how to give each other useful feedback and how to make use of the feedback that they get. And so I spend a solid four weeks now where I call it feedback boot camp and we work on those skills and I give them different kinds of strategies to use and explore before we start really getting into giving feedback on the projects as a kind of peer project. So those are important. And I would say, too, that one of the reasons that people use grades is a sense of accountability. I don't think of it as accountability, but I do think documenting learning is really important. So in these online classes that I teach, every assignment leaves some kind of trace in the student's blog. So it's very easy to see what they're doing. They can see for themselves what they're doing. They can see what other students are doing. I can see what they're doing. So at least for me, using blogs as a way to document the learning has been really important, not writing it, but documenting.
CM: Does that blog then build into the portfolio or?
LG: Oh, and this is kind of like portfolio on steroids because they've got a project that's like a portfolio. In fact, that portfolio is one of the project options and the blog is kind of like a class notebook. So it's everything. It's notes on their reading. It's their reflection posts. It's Wikipedia trails when they're doing research and just all the stuff. So most students end up with, I don't know, it must be around 50 or 60 blog posts at the end of the semester in their blog. And if they choose to leave the blog online and most of them do something, take them down, but some leave it online, it's so great when someone needs a letter of recommendation from me, even years into the future, I can go back and look not just to their project, but actually look at their blog and remember who this person was, like what they were into and how the semester went for them. And it's been great for me. And I should say, too, another trick I use in my classes and this really only works online. It doesn't work so well in the classroom, but I enroll myself as a student in my classes. And so I do blog posts and a project and all the same assignments that the students do because online there's not teacher up at the front of the classroom. Right. So as a teacher, I prepare all the stuff and, you know, the framework for what we do. But as the semester goes on, I actually get to be a student. That really creates this idea once again of co-learning. It's not about teacher evaluating you. It's about us all learning together.
CM: And could you go into more detail about what those blogs look like?
LG: There are different kinds of assignments, but it's consistent every week. So they get into a routine. They're reading notes posts. And so each week they're doing a pretty substantial amount of reading and they take notes on the reading. And it's not notes for a quiz or something. I call it reading like a writer. The idea is that they're taking notes about the stuff they like best in the week's reading because they're going to tell a story of their own based on the weekly reading. And so for some students, that's a really different kind of note taking than they've ever done before. But that's great. You know, it breaks up their habits and gives them something new to try. So they take reading notes. That's a blog post or two. And then each week they tell a story. And so they tell a story in the form of a blog post with an image, a note explaining how they wrote the story. And then the other kinds of blog posts they might do are, like I said, the things they choose. So Wikipedia Trail is doing research on anything that's related to the reading or your story or whatever is going on in class. They do growth mindset posts if they're interested in learning about learning, reflection posts, like I call it, famous last words where you can keep sort of a week by week diary of what's going on in class and your goals, lots of different kinds of things. But everything, like I said, leaves a trace in the blog and they use blog labels so that it's easy to browse the blogs either by week, like to see what you did week by week, or if you're doing these Wikipedia trails every week, like some students do, because they really get into it, they can click on the Wikipedia trail link in their blog sidebar and see all their Wikipedia trails, click on the stories link, see all their stories.
CM: Yeah, I know I should have been prepared for this because when I worked at a writing center in college very briefly, I saw the level of writing and I was shocked by how poor some of it was, even at the college level. But I mean, I should have been prepared again. But when I started teaching ninth grade, I was shocked at the different levels of writing instruction. Like we're talking students learning a first grade level all the way up to writing at a post college level. And it's really hard to wrap my brain around. How do you then use gradeless learning to ensure that all writers of all different levels are going to become better?
LG: The students who struggle with writing and that is, let's put it this way, all writers struggle, right? Writing is hard. And so each week the students are working not just on these storytelling blog posts, but they're working on a storybook or a portfolio of blog posts from there that they pick from their blog and put in their portfolio. And they get really detailed feedback from me about their writing. And that's mostly Senate level feedback. So for the students who already do have some good writing skills coming into the class, I'm pushing them farther in terms of stylistic stuff and really extending their range as writers. But for the students who are struggling with writing mechanics or, let's say, ELL students, because I do get students in the class for whom English is not their native language and they're really working hard on Senate level things, even things like word choice and spelling, they're getting all that feedback from me and they're using it to revise. So revision is a huge part of how the classes work. And by putting in all that time writing every week, revising every week, if they do all that work, they're accumulating those completion points for the assignments. They're going to end up with a good grade at the end. There's this arbitrary scale that I set and it's totally arbitrary just the way that 90 to 100 is arbitrary, 80 to 90, 90 to 180, 90 would be that whole thing. So they're accumulating these points as they work and that's how they get the grade. So I literally don't have anything to do with it. They complete their assignments, they record it in the LMS gradebook themselves, the points accumulate. And, you know, some students really just want to pass the class. They just want to get a C. So that might mean they do a little bit less work every week. It might mean that they finish the class two or three weeks early. They just say, I've got the points I need to pass. I'm done. That's all fine with me. And that's actually really not an important part of the class. Like my goal is that everybody should pass the class. That's important to me. And I worry about the students who look like they're skating near the edge and might not pass. But the real effort is in that revision, getting feedback from me, getting feedback from the other students and working really hard to improve your writing. The improvement is dramatic and it's really exciting to see because a lot of students have never gotten sentence level feedback on their writing before. And for some of them, that's what they need. That's what they're working hard on. It takes time. And I design the assignments, like I said, so that I have time as a teacher every week to give them the feedback they need. Like the stories, they can't be more than a thousand words long. You know, and sometimes students, they want to go, they want to write more. So I tell them, make it a two parter. This story really needs thousand more words. Well, do a part A and a part B. That'll work because I can only do so much feedback every week. And they respect that because, you know, they can see I put a lot of time into the feedback and they put a lot of time into the revising based on that.
CM: So you've been going on grading and a pretty unique course design, a self-directed design for 16 years, which is an amazing amount of experience. How do you recommend that we get others on the same trajectory, this mindset?
LG: I'm going to recommend a book that's not actually a going grade list book, but I think is a roundabout way to get at the issues that we're really talking about here. Right. Because notice, like in our conversation here, once you say we're not going to talk about grades, opens up the space to talk about all this other really important stuff, which is how do you support students and how do you make the work meaningful? And when you're doing that, that a grades issue and the cheating, they sort of just naturally become non-issues. So anyway, the book is called The Meaningful Writing Project. And this was a college level study that was done on three different campuses and University of Oklahoma was one of those campuses where they did this amazing thing. They surveyed graduating seniors and asked them what was the most meaningful writing experience you had in college. Very open ended, very qualitative survey based on what the students then told them about what they considered to be their most meaningful writing experience. They connected with the faculty members who had taught the classes that the students were in to gather more information and they pulled it all together. And there's one called The Meaningful Writing Project. And I think if you look at something like that, where you see these really cool writing projects that are being done in all kinds of ways, across all kinds of disciplines, courses that are in someone's major gen ed courses like the ones I teach, you will find so many ideas about how to address these issues of what's truly motivating for students. And if you can tap into something that's really meaningful and really motivating, then you won't need to use grades anymore as a motivator. I'm guessing that when people think about giving up grades, they worry, oh, the students aren't going to do any work. I won't be able to make them work. Well, if they're doing meaningful work, then it's not an issue. You don't need to make them do it. They want to do it. They're motivated. To do it. And so I know for my classes, creative writing and lots of choices, that's great. But, you know, if you're teaching in STEM or you teach history or you're teaching in a business school, you know, there are different approaches that are going to make the meaningful writing experiences for the students. So if you want to find out what students say are meaningful writing experiences, this this is the book. It's a pleasure to read. It's really great.
CM: That's such a great point. And I'm always impressed by the learning that students will demonstrate. I'll never forget doing my first learning portfolios a few years back and students coming to our little conference, some of whom I didn't really know what to expect. And almost universally, every single student not only presented something really good, it was excellent. It was way better than anything I could have asked for, way better than anything I ever assigned or prescribed. And they, you know, they put their own spin on it, which was really cool.
LG: I think of it in terms of like taking off the controls and also just opening up this space where you say, show me what you care about, show me what you're here for. And and that can be a little scary, I guess, if in the past you had filled up that space with your own stuff as a professor, like I'm here to teach you about X, you know, because I love X. And as a professor, you can fill up the space with stuff that you love. Absolutely. But that doesn't necessarily mean the students are going to love it. And so if you can clear out that space and get them to come back into that space and show you what's meaningful to them, then you can say, oh, OK, then I need to find more about this or more about that. Like in the Miss Folklore class, students are bringing in new topics that they're interested in for their projects every semester. And I learned so much that way. Like when I first started teaching Miss class, I knew nothing about Japanese folklore and fairy tales. And now it's one of my favorite topics because the students have educated me about it. And then that's provoked me to go read and learn and find resources for them. And it never would have happened if I had opened up that space because I wasn't into Japanese folklore. I didn't know I was ignorant. Now I'm better educated.
CM: Revisiting the point that Laura just made surrounding space, it's important that when we discuss ungrading, we discuss the systems that allow for ungrading naturally lending themselves to experiential learning, critical pedagogy and all facets of progressive education. We can't have an ungraded class with traditional assessments because students won't do them. We can't solely provide feedback and expect students to do better if they don't trust us or we don't give them space to learn for their own sake, their own interests. Many educators who contact me and something I reflected on early in this process, they'll ask, how do I make projects that have meaning? And the simplest answer is ask students what matters to them. That's kind of a lame thing to say. It seems really obvious, but but almost any educational scholar or speaker says this all the time. You just have to ask the students. But education at its core is a very simple thing once you take out all of the systems that get in the way between us and student learning. When we remove grades and remove traditional assignments and we implement things like restorative justice and trusting our students more than more effectively designing a space where we ask students and then just guide them. There's still a place for an interesting discussion or a teacher led project every now and then, but our primary goal is to provide that space and the guidelines for students to receive help from us and to do amazing things instead of making insane systems that control students by making over the top assignments or just going crazy with gamification to the point where it's just it's manipulation. Instead, we can rely on intrinsic motivation of just doing things that people love to do or are inspired to love to do. There's still that place for the passionate educator to have students try new things we can we can do that without killing a love of learning or forcing anyone to do anything. Just by providing that space and being a guide, we can have students discover new opportunities and new things that they enjoy doing. Starting your ungrading journey doesn't have to be this over the top endeavor. Let me briefly describe what this all looks like in my context. Students are supplied a list of objectives at the beginning of the year. There's just student friendly written standards that have been translated into like miniature themes. Some of them are very specific and others are very broad. And in my digital design class, there's 20 of them. For example, like the easiest one is you can organize Google Drive. And one of the harder ones would be you understand marketing and branding, such as like logo creation and what that means and how your brand looks. So each month, students have a formal check in and a week before they have their check in, they submit their portfolio. I check it and then they present it that week later. And we use that time to go over what they've done. And I give them a lot of written feedback, pretty extensive written feedback. I supply it to their family. I send it home both physically and virtually to make sure that they get it. And then I record their progress for state compliance reasons. So I write down a number that doesn't really matter in the grade book that students don't even see. I use that just for athletics and things of that nature. I also keep track on my end of what objectives that they're completing to make sure that they are covering everything and how well they're doing. After we have this meeting and I supply all this feedback, we discuss ways to revise for next time or suggestions on where they should go next. There's a lot of different paths. Sometimes we'll review something like that Google Drive situation. If it's six months into the class, we might look at that again and make sure that everything is still up to snuff or more often than not, the big things that we're focused on is now that we've had our relationship together and we are learning more about each other, I give them suggestions on, you know, you're really into, you know, photography or you're really into your cats or something. I don't know. Let's start a cat Instagram or, you know, something more serious. Maybe it's they're working with a nonprofit for one of our projects and their logo design isn't very good. Why don't you try making something for them? So just offering some kind of suggestion, which doesn't have to be adhered to. We just need to come to something that they're going to be working on for the next month. We have that meeting every single month that the halfway mark families are invited to do a more formal check in where we discuss a great last year. This was a requirement for school policy. So this was a workaround in a sense. We had to give a grade at the halfway mark. So we did a normal portfolio check in and the parents were there this time. I can say with certainty that is probably the most powerful thing that you could potentially do, because it's one thing to get some feedback in the grade book or get something sent home to you. But when a parent sees their child really being open about school, when they see this whole portfolio check in, they're usually really wowed by it. And at the end, we have students at the halfway mark propose a grade. They know in advance that the grades going to be overwritten by whatever the final grade is. So it's not meant to be a pressured situation. Again, this is just for state compliance. So in the scenario where a student wasn't doing well, instead of giving them a D or an F or something like that, we brainstormed objectives together to increase that grade way earlier. So like we would say something like, hey, we're not going to write down a grade at the second in two weeks. Show me a few things we can at least write down like a B or something like that, because there's psychological benefits to that. You don't want to give a student a very low grade because it's not going to incentivize them to do better. The final then worked the exact same way. We'd invite everybody back and do it at the end of the school year. And to be honest, the majority of students produce work well beyond anything I used to do when I first started teaching. I used to have four tests, four projects, a bunch of assignments. It's really embarrassing. I look back at how much time I took meticulously planning lesson plans. And now now doing very little outside of school and just working with students at school. The quality difference is absurd outside of just making some adjustments during testing week by cramming a little bit. Mostly students are just working on these portfolio check ins week to week or month to month for formal check ins and having some class discussions and every now and then doing an activity. It's way more self-directed, which means I can focus way more on building relationships because I can talk to them one on one and I can connect with them and I can guide them to success. After that final, we discuss their final grade so we can still work within a very traditional public school system. And that's the way that it is for right now. And happily, that's now transitioning to more and more teachers. Our entire ninth grade now does this whole system. So all of our check ins are at one time to make things less confusing. And the practice spreads because it works. You see what kids produce and it's really hard to ignore that. Be sure to check out the show notes. We've cataloged a ton of information there from our guests, as well as some things that we have that can help you on your gradeless journey. Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes, Spotify, social media or anywhere that you see fit. Do us a favor. If you've listened this far, it was probably a pretty good episode. If you could tweet it out or post it on Facebook or put it on Instagram or wherever ad buys are very expensive and we totally rely on your word of mouth to spread our reach. So let's push forward together and restore humanity.