What Does it Mean to Lead a Liberatory, Feedback-Driven Classroom?

Nick Covington
June 14, 2022

“Unprecedented” is a word that somehow manages to overstate and diminish every era, and its overuse in the last five years - let alone the last five months - should be enough for us to unanimously agree to excise this basically useless descriptor. To describe each moment of our continuously unfolding present as unprecedented is often a meaningless call to inaction, and to define our age as unprecedented is to isolate the humanity of the present as a special creation distinct from the past. Events and developments in human history have their precedents in technological innovations like writing and space flight or the development of new political systems but, as the first storytellers and artists understood, the fundamental themes of the human experience - identity, struggle, purpose - are unifying and transcendent. The particular tools, technologies, and systems will vary to meet - or not - the challenges of the day, but the fundamental question conscientious people should ask remains the same: who does this humanize?

As educators in a profession under siege, rather than connect our students to the transcendent - that is, to engage in the process of humanization - we’re incentivized to lead with tools and strategies that isolate them, couched in the latest consulting buzzwords meant to eke out marginal gains in assessment. Over the next several months, we’ll sit through even more meetings focused around instructional efficiency to show how we are “managing the pandemic” by “accelerated learning” and recovering some percentage of educational ground ceded to living in “unprecedented times” (tactics which sound like they were designed for the battlefield rather than the classroom, and who are we in conflict with?).

Grades and grading will no doubt be a necessary part of this discussion, and by participating in this session you’ve already signaled a desire to reform and abolish grading systems. Though humans are inherently learning beings, grades are a recent arrival in the history of education that in practice have been used to rank and sort, isolate, and demotivate students, especially those at the margins. The shift to a liberatory, feedback-driven classroom is a necessary step toward fully humanized and inclusive classroom practice.

We can create an assessment system in light of what hooks describes as “liberatory learning”, where students are engaged with rather than to, and the collective power of the room is shared between educator and student. By deconstructing the power narrative and reframing assessment, we not only motivate students to succeed, but create a different system that shares, elevates, and promotes student power. This has far-reaching ramifications beyond assessment, such as democratic thinking, the continuation of student voice, and building a more holistic future. The liberation is not just of the student in relation to their learning, but the liberation of the system itself.

The purpose of this session is not that you take away a specific lesson or a particular tool, though we will use examples and learn from each other what has worked in a variety of institutional contexts. We want you to leave our week together understanding how to use your role to restructure the system itself by understanding the research and practice of “ungrading” rather than - yet again - introducing and expecting fidelity to a buzzword.


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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