Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The shelf life of grading and the factory model

I am overly critical of traditional summative forms of assessment, and I've gone so far as to show that testing and grading is cancerous to education's culture.

In his book Disrupting Class, Curtis Johnson writes about how our constants and our variables have been mismatched:

Just as manufacturers had to test each product when it came off the end of the production line because they couldn't predict which products had been made correctly, educators had to test their students because they couldn't predict which of those in each batch had learned what. Repair, rework, and rejects became costly elements of both systems. Just as a professional discipline of inspection emerged in industry, a professional discipline of assessment has emerged in education.

This shift from individualized instruction to monolithic content delivery targetting batches of students changed the teacher's job. We estimate that at least 80 percent of the typical teacher's time is now spent in monolithic activity - preparing to teach, actually teaching, and testing an entire class. Far less than 20 percent is available to help students individually. A profession whose work primarily was in tutoring students one on one was hijacked into one where some of the teacher's most important skills became keeping order and commanding attention.

When students learn through student-centric online technology, testing doesn't have to be postponed until the end of an instructional module and then administered in a batch mode. Rather, we can verify mastery continually to create tight, closed feedback loops. Misunderstandings do not have to persist for weeks until the exam has been administered and the instructor has had time to grade every student's test. Rather than a fixed time to learn with variable results student by student, the amount of time to learn can vary, but the resulting learning can be much more consistent. In other words, assessment and individualized assistance can be interactively and interdependentently woven into the content-delivery stage, rather than tacked on as a test at the end of the process.

When I share with others that I do not grade, often the response is one of bewilderment. While it is true that some congratulate me in a kind of envious tip of the hat, most teachers and parents alike scramble to rationalize how the hell a classroom could even function without grades. Some like the idea - others don't - but no one can begin to conceive of an alternative.

That scares me.

If your vision of a classroom is for the teacher to stand at the front of the classroom, dispensing their knowledge of a ceaseless curriculum while students sit with their knees promplty bent at 90 degrees, hands crisply clasped resting on their individual desks, with rigidly vertical vertebras, then your vision of education, like Curtis Johnson explained above, has been hijacked by the factory model.

Small class sizes are necessary but not wholly sufficient in achieving truly progressive education. We must rethink more than just class sizes -- that is why I look to the curriculum guide that, over the years, has become a rule book.

Need proof?

It's May.

There's less than 2 months left in the year. Go talk to almost any teacher and ask them how they are doing, and they will almost certainly gripe about how much they have left to teach.

The bottom line is that there is too much content-driven curriculum.

There is too much.

Can you see now how learning has been hijacked? Teachers are scrambling like mad to keep the assembly line of curriculum operating, and there is NO time to stop the line, because there are quotas to be made. Accountability pillars need to be met. This is where teachers tend to simply cover everything and uncover very little.

No wonder teachers need grades. The factory model of teaching large batches of students requires the teacher to spend most of their time dispensing of curriculum. There's no time to help the kids learn, the teacher is too busy teaching.

Here is a slide from Rober Marzano's What Works in School:

This is exactly why I say that narrowly conceived, overly prescriptive, bloated curriculums are at the heart of much of what is wrong with education.

I know too many good teachers who feel they have to do bad things to kids out of necessity in the name of curriculum.

Here's another way to look at it. Dan Pink writes about how management is unnatural:

We forget sometimes that "management" does not emanate from nature. It's not like a tree or a river. It's like a television or a bicycle. It's something that humans invented.

Just as I have written about how standardization is like management in that they are both man-made fabrications, I too believe that grades are merely a human invention. Like classified newspaper ads, dial up internet, CDs, landline phones, film cameras and fax machines, all inventions have their time and place, but they also have a shelf-life - at some point, they become obsolete.

Grades are only necessary if we continue to subscribe to the factory model. That subscription has come due, and it's time to move to a more organic, personalized model.


  1. Joe, incredible post. Thank you for being a champion for pretty much everything I believe the education system desperately needs.

    The system does try to work like a factory, and not only that, but a bad factory. If you haven't already heard it, I think you'll immensely enjoy this episode of This American Life (http://is.gd/cfot4). It's about the US auto industry, and GM in particular. I know that doesn't sound relevant, but as it turns out, GM factories failed due to many of the same reasons our schools are failing students: like lack of flexibility, lack of trust, blaming individuals for systematic problems, and the promotion of competition over collaboration. More importantly, I think the lessons learned from this story apply just as well to education.

    Thanks for, once again, inspiring me!

  2. Very interesting post Joe. It gets me thinking. I wish I could sit in on your class for a day.

  3. @Chris, as always, thank you for the comment. I enjoyed writing this post. I will be sure to check out that episode. I am not familiar with that program, so I am looking forward to it.

    I love making connections between business and other "real world" stuff to education. While I am leery of business metaphors for education, I find that business often fails for the same reason school fails. Very interesting to think about.


  4. @Jessica, thanks for joining up. Drop by any time. I teach in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. :) We could Skype some time, if you are interested in chatting.


  5. Hi Joe...

    Just back from a Network of Performance Based Schools (www.npbs.ca) conference in Vancouver, with inspiring presenters like Brook Moore, who has also done away with marking in her West Van secondary classes (http://www.cea-ace.ca/pub.cfm?subsection=edu)...

    I want to commend you on your efforts and courage to 'colour outside the lines'! You are definitely moving in the right direction!! Research tells us that regular, thoughtful and detailed (though not necessarily written or even teacher-provided) feedback that moves the learner forward is far more effective than grading.

    As a primary teacher, I am lucky not to be burdened by grades, but I too feel the pressure of 'covering the curriculum' this time of year and must constantly remind myself that the project-based, inquiry driven learning that has taken place in my classroom over the year is more valuable than superficially 'covering the curriculum' in our rush to 'get it all done'.

    Thanks for your wisdom and for leading by example!

  6. This factory perspective of education is definitely a problem. I teach English to business people in corporations, and I haven't had to grade for years. It's mostly seen as a waste of time, although it is useful sometimes to placement test (ie find out learners' level so that they can join groups of roughly the same ability). What is important is learning, not grading. If there is specific curriculum content to cover then the learners / other stakeholders agree on the content beforehand, and then simply go through a list at the end of the course and confirm that it was all covered. Sometimes task based assessment is necessary (ie can a person do a specific workplace related task, such as negotiate a contract or give a presentation), but this tends to be specific to individual learners.

    Of course this model depends on the learners wanting to be there to learn, and taking responsibility for their own learning. Having said that, some learners do like to have a "test" at the end of a course because it helps them stay focussed and motivated. Or it might be that a grade will help them apply for a job. But it is their choice.

  7. Excellent post Joe, although we may not agree on the Finnish education system (did you know they have the third highest murder rate behind the USA?) :) we definitely agree on this! I am in the process of trying to change our perspective on one off summative assessments at present and I have to say it is a hard task. When I ask what the purpose of it is the last reason mentioned is always the students; which should be the first reason for any assessment! But then again this is only one of many areas that I am challenging our staff with. You may want to look at the New Zealand curriculum, ours is definitely not bloated, in fact it has been trimmed down considerably.


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