Friday, March 26, 2010

Grades are Distracting

In grade 8 science, we are learning about life. We are examining animal cells, plant cells, human body systems, diseases and anything else the students feel like learning about. They have a lot of autonomy and choice in selecting what they want to learn about.

Some students are learning about Leukemia while others learn about the organelles that make up the cell. Sarah approached me and asked* if she could do a poster project showing what she can learn about breast cancer. I said, "that's up to you."**

She began her research and poster during class, and come lunch she asked me if she could work on her project during her lunch hour. Again, I said, "that's up to you."

As she continued to glue new information on her poster, she turned to me and asked something very peculiar. "Mr. Bower, will I get an A on this?"

This was very odd because it was March, which means she hadn't recieved a grade from me on any project for six months.***

Another student overheard Sarah's question and replied, "Why are you asking Mr. Bower that? You know nothing is for grades!"

I too looked at her in confusion and said, "Why are you asking me if your project will get an A? You know I won't grade it."

I asked, "Why are you doing this poster?"

She look perplexed and said, "I want to get an A."

I asked her to stop working on her poster so I could ask my next question, "Sarah, why are you really doing this poster?"

She stopped and looked at me. She started to tear up a little, and said, "my aunty has breast cancer."

I was moved by her honesty and sincerity. It was very clear to me that she cared deeply for her aunty. I said, "Sarah, I couldn't think of a better reason for you to do this poster project. You do this poster and share it with your aunty."

Two days later, Sarah and her mom came in for student-led portfolios. I started to share this story with Sarah's mom when she started to cry. Then Sarah cried. I didn't cry, but I was close. Her mom shared with me that Sarah was reading more at home and showed more interest in learning than in past years.

Honestly, I can not think of a better reason for Sarah to learn about breast cancer. And yet, if I graded students, this whole experience might have ended when she said she was doing this poster to get an A. Another teacher might have smiled and thought to themselves good for you, Sarah. You are such a good little student.

Can you see how ultimately distracting grades can be? They run interference on our motivation and learning all the time. We owe it to our students and our own learning to abolish grading as much as we possibly can so all students can find more authentic reasons for learning.

If you give grades, and your students are uninterested or disengaged, might it be because they are searching for a more intrinsically motivating reason to give-a-shit? It's easy to blame the kids, but it takes more than a little guts to look at our own practices and make changes to how we have done things for so long.

I could choose to use grades in order to artificially induce my student's learning, but to be honest, I'd rather help them find a real reason for learning.

Grades seem so utterly uninspiring compared to Sarah's reasoning. I abolished grading 5 years ago, and I won't ever go back. When will you?

For more on abolishing grades check out this page.

*Yeah, that's right, my students ask me if they can do projects - no, they aren't freaks - rather, their intrinsic motivation is a by-product of the autonomy and extrinsic-free learning environment that I provide them with.

**You'll notice I didn't give her permission. You see, I don't want to say 'yes' or 'no'. I want my students to make decisions without having to look to me for permission to learn. It's a slow and painful process to wean them off of the "teacher's teet" but it's a worthy endeavour as I begin to see them make decisions about their learning because they feel ownership over their own learning. It's damn cool!

***The only time my students ever receive a grade from me is on their report card. In March, they receive their second of three report cards. It is possible that this latest 'hit' knocked Sarah off the 'bandwagon' and might explain her 'relapse'. Remember, friends don't let friends do grades.

6 comments:

  1. Your 8th grade science class sounds much like my 3rd/4th grade. They choose more and more what they want to learn, and this is a long process, from wanting to please me to knowing what they really want to inquire into. We don't grade, I mentioned that before, our reports are narratives.
    And we use three-way and student-led conferences as well.

    Grades as a motivation are like doing the homework for the sticker.

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  2. Thanks for your comment. Your grade 3/4 class sounds like a place I would want my daughter to learn.

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  3. Hey Joe,

    So this is the next piece in weening kids off of grades, choice. Thanks, btw, for bringing up that kids need to be weened off of grades because I hadn't considered that. What is nice is although I still have kids bringing up grades or asking about a grade other students are the ones reminding that I'm no longer giving grades! I keep saying though that we are still being assessed, just not graded.

    So do you give students choice over what to study often? How often? I like @chadsansing post on self-directed learning (http://classroots.org/2010/03/24/giving-19-8/) because the 19.8% made me think about how to introduce students to the science kits I use while still giving them freedom of choice. Real freedom and not just, "do you want to blog about it or glog about it?" :o)

    What's exciting is all the new ground I'm treading here and I'm so glad to have folks like you, @chadsansing, and all the others in our PLN's to help me along the way!

    Thanks!
    @educatoral

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  4. Totally agree. As a grade 5/6 teacher two years ago, I abolished grades and one of the the biggest struggle I faced was with parents. They always wanted to know where their child stood in comparison to others. One parent even thought their child could not be learning anything if they did not know where they "stood" and I quote her "How can I help my child if I don't know how well he is doing?". What followed was IMO a great conversation around descriptive feedback, assessment for learning, and education as a whole. I am not sure I got too far but at least the conversation was initiated (although it probably ended as the student moved on to the high school). What I always dreaded was the day that I had to take all of my feedback and somehow assign a grade for their report cards...
    @mrwejr

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  5. Totally agree. As a grade 5/6 teacher two years ago, I abolished grades and one of the the biggest struggle I faced was with parents. They always wanted to know where their child stood in comparison to others. One parent even thought their child could not be learning anything if they did not know where they "stood" and I quote her "How can I help my child if I don't know how well he is doing?". What followed was IMO a great conversation around descriptive feedback, assessment for learning, and education as a whole. I am not sure I got too far but at least the conversation was initiated (although it probably ended as the student moved on to the high school). What I always dreaded was the day that I had to take all of my feedback and somehow assign a grade for their report cards...
    @mrwejr

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  6. Joe:

    I commend your good work on no grading. I'm curious how you get away with it. In other words - is there no school authority demanding grades?

    I've taught theater for years. Almost always non-graded, other than perhaps pass/fail. With my high school sophomores we would assess ourselves by establishing goals, agreed on by the class, at the beginning of the year. Things they wanted to learn in theater class. Then we'd stop and check every so during the year to see how we were reaching our goals, if we wanted to add to them, or modify them in any way. Although I only did it once a year, to meet a school requirement, I also asked my students to write a self-evaluation. They would write a page or so on how they thought they were doing, in terms of the class goals we'd established. I would respond in a comment that went to them, their parents, and went into their school folders. Often I would find myself referring to those written comments when asked to write a college recommendation. Since it was a theater class, most everything we produced was performed for the rest of the class, or perhaps a small invited group. That too, was a useful form of assessment. Perhaps the most potent of all. The best part of the class was creating work that then got shared with others. Mistakes, warts, imperfections and all.

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