Friday, September 2, 2011

Grading Dependence

As an advocate for abolishing grading, and a teacher who has been working hard to abolish grading for years, I am familiar with both the obstacles and fears to ridding ourselves of grading. Although I constantly challenge these fears and obstacles, I never disparage them. They are as real as they are numerous.

Here is another very real obstacle that I encounter when I abolish grading.

In his book Aftershock, Robert Reich writes:
Gains and losses are not symmetrical, because whatever we possess sets a minimum standard for how we judge our material well-being thereafter. When we lose something of value, we retain the memory of having once had it, and regret the loss. If we lose a convenience or a benefit that we relied on, even worse: We must also forego our dependence on it. Someone who's enjoyed the benefit of an air conditioner and then has to do without because he can't afford to fix it after it breaks, for example, is likely to feel much worse off than someone who could never afford air conditioning in the first place.
Whether grading is good for students or not is irrelevant when it comes to the unavoidable truth that many students, parents and educators have come to depend on the conveniences of grading.

Grading makes assessment easy:
  • Students don't need to reflect on their own learning because the teacher will do it for them. 
  • Teachers don't need to worry about authentically engaging all learners because grading will garnish compliance from most, and provide evidence to exclude and punish the rest. 
  • Parents don't need to talk with their children about their learning or even attend parent-teacher interviews anymore because they can just check their children's grades online or wait for the next report card.
  • Administrators, policymakers and politicians don't need to engage in the messy details of what actually goes on in the classrooms because they have spreadsheet friendly data. 
If we convince ourselves that grading is an inevitable part of school, we can live more easily with ourselves. By demanding educators assess with grades in a way that is said to be inevitable, we make the practice of grading inevitable and so we make the proposition true.

All this has been going on for about a hundred years, so is it any surprise that when someone comes around and challenges whether we should be grading at all they are seen as a troublemakers and outcasts.  Even if the case can be made that grading is not a requirement for a sound education, many would see this as inconceivable.

When my students are first exposed to the idea of learning without grading, there are a number of different responses to this (which I've written about here), and one of them is what Alfie Kohn coined as a kind of existential vertigo where they essentially ask "who am I, if not a 75%". They seem to lose a sense for where they stand with their learning. For some, the removal of grading is like turning off gravity -- they've become use to this invisible hand that keeps them in an arbitrary place, so when the hand is removed, they feel lost. For others, it's like losing their air conditioner -- without it things just feel... uncomfortable.

We've seen this before.

When Han Solo was released from the carbon freezing, he experienced temporary loss of sight and the shakes. When Neo was unplugged from the Matrix, he experienced what can only be described as shock. When we wean learners off of grading, they experience a form of withdrawal as they move from experiencing assessment as something done to them to something done by them.

It's important to keep in mind withdrawal and the shakes are not problems to be avoided - rather they are problems to be welcomed and solved because they are signs of recovery and improvement.

Because grades can only ever be experienced as a reward or punishment in an attempt to manipulate short-term compliance, they have to go. Aspiring for mere compliance seems awfully lame when we could and should be aiming for authentic engagement.  It's time we forego our dependence on grading in favour of far more authentic feedback.

Sometimes our comfort keeps us from progress and in the case of grading, it's time we troubled ourselves.


  1. Thanks for the description of aftershock as it applies to students withdrawing from grades. Your tweet this morning (UK time) inspired to write this:

  2. You keep showing how deep (deeper and deeper) the rabbit hole goes. Thanks for being way out front on this fundamental issue.

  3. Thanks David for the comment and for sharing your post.

    Charlie, you describe the problem aptly -- it is indeed a very very deep rabbit hole -- I like that analogy, I shall have to use that in a future post.

    As always, thank you for reading and commenting.

  4. In a New Zealand context, your four bulleted points sum up much of our concerns about national standards. Up until now, we've avoided the grading road that you are fighting to leave and its indeed galling to have a government determined to define educational 'achievement' by ratings against standards.


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