“In your opinion, what matters?”

Nick Covington
December 5, 2018
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.

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:

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What is the purpose of learning?
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How do you know when you’ve learned something new?
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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 that their 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?

Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
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