At what stage of the abolish grading game are you?
I no longer grade. At all. But I also no longer work in the public school system. I teach college courses, after-school courses to middle and high schoolers, and week-long camps. None of this is for-credit, but that doesn't mean we slack off. Being non-credit is great for a few reasons:
We get a certain freedom of curriculum, so we don't have to cover exactly what's on the syllabus, and students don't all have to do the same work, or even learn the same skills and material.
Students come into the classroom really wanting to learn. They're not playing the accreditation game. No fulfilling requirements. No filling out their semester. They're there to learn a truly useful skill or to explore something they're deeply interested in.
When I was working in the public school system, at the high school level, I actually thought grading was a necessary evil. It really never even occurred to me that I could not grade in that system. I had never heard of teachers like Joe, who make it work in the public school system, so I got out as quickly as I could. Now of course, I know abolishing grades in public schools is very possible, but I'm still happy where I am.
Why do you want to or why did you abolish grading?
For a long time, I didn't know exactly what it was about grading that bugged me. It just seemed to cheapen the experience of learning. Even as a student, grading just seemed wrong. The problem is I love learning, I'm really good at it, and I'm a relentlessly critical thinker. That's unfortunately not a great combination in a traditional school setting, whether you're a student or teacher.
The grading system is ultimately about simplifying your knowledge and skills down to a simple number and comparing you to the student next to you, and for that, it requires, or assumes really, that the instructor knows how you learn best, when you learn best, and even what you already know and still have to learn. I knew that was bullshit as a student, but when I tried to be more involved in my learning, few instructors were open to my suggestions for alternative assignments - they needed standardized assignments to make the grading system work. So I knew even then that grades were getting in the way of learning, and was beginning to realize that the system doesn't eventolerate a passion for learning.
Later, as a teacher, when I finally did start hearing about alternatives to grading and about teachers that didn't grade at all, I was extremely ready to ditch grades!
What do you do in place of grading?
I have students practice real skills and if they're having problems, they try to figure out what's going wrong, do some more research, brainstorm with another student, or as a last resort, even consult me. In my German courses, students know they've learned when they can communicate in a new way, or in a new context. In my tech courses - well, if you're learning to install a new operating system, you know you can do that when you've just done it! It's pretty simple.
So you may be thinking now, "Well, that sounds great, but how do others know what a student has learned? What can they show educational institutions and employers?" Great question! My answer is three words: published student work. If proving what they can do is a concern, simply build up portfolios of their work and publish it online. You can also publish videos of presentations or of a great explanation/demonstration of how to do something or how something works. After all, there's no better way to learn something than to teach it, and you can use those videos in future lessons. So students show what they can do and get references from people they use their skills to help, just like anywhere else apart fromeducation.
What fears did you have about abolishing grading?
Oh, I had lie-awake-at-night fears that students wouldn't do anything without grades and they'd think I was a horrible teacher. It helps a lot though, that students come in without the expectation that they should be graded, as the courses I teach are all non-credit. That really makes it a cakewalk.
What challenges did you encounter with abolishing grading?
Well, I first tried doing less grading in an accredited college course. I phased out everything except the exams I had to give out. That did not work well. I learned that if you grade even occasionally, students are still distracted from learning. I heard a lot of, "Is this going to be on the exam?" that semester. Maybe it would have worked better in public school at a grade where students have the same teacher all day, but a few hours per week of only-kind-of grading was not at all sufficient to get students re-focused on learning. Many still just wanted to do as little work as possible for a grade they deemed acceptable. Some didn't even show up except when we had an exam and then they'd inevitably fail. It was pretty rough.
Are you willing to speak with others who are interested in abolishing grading?