Since I started blogging almost two years ago, I have received numerous e-mails from teachers asking me what I do in place of grading. Some teachers e-mail me asking me for my opinion on the alternatives they have derived. Recently, badges have surfaced as a potential alternative. (You can read about badges here, here, here, and here)
Before we can properly assess whether something is a worthy alternative of grading, we must first be crystal clear why grading is so harmful.
Here's a short list:
- Learners of any age can only ever experience grades as a reward and punishment. The kind of motivation matters more than the amount, and because we know that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are inversely related, we have absolutely no business prying on children's extrinsic motivation to learn. To do so would sabotage our ultimate goal of life-long learning in vain attempts to gain short term compliance.
- Learners experience grades as an external focus of control which ultimately works against our goal that children find autonomy, mastery and purpose in their learning. (See Richard Ryan and Edward Deci's Self Determination Theory)
- Grading distracts learners from learning by encouraging them to focus on the grades. There is an enormous difference between focusing on stretching one's intellectual boundaries and proving to others how smart you are. Most of our attention should be spent on *what* we are learning and only rarely would we ever pause to reflect on *how* well we are doing so.
- Grades provide no feedback for learners to understand what they've actually done well and what they can do to improve. In fact, the research has been showing us that the best forms of assessment have no judgment or evaluation at all. Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.
- There is a big difference between valuing what we measure and measuring what we value. The proponents of testsandgrades have an oft-repeated mantra: "If it matters, measure it." I agree to a certain extent but only if you add, "Measure what matters, because what is getting measured soon becomes what matters most." Some take this further and say that "measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning." Ultimately, reducing something as magnificently messy as learning to stickers, stars, smiley faces, grades and graphics conceal far more than they ever reveal.
- Grading has encouraged teachers and students to see learning (and assessment) as a linear progression from one label or category to the next. This places very heavy stigmas on children convincing them that assessment is something that is done to them by someone else. This kind of labeling, ranking and sorting creates all kinds of problems, including a competitive climate where children feel like their success is contingent on other's failure. Under this climate, learners come to see their peers as obstacles to their own success. All this is made that much worse when some levels of excellence are artificially scarce.
- Campbell's Law warns us that any indicator or measurement (grades or badges) that has high stakes associated with it will be gamed and bastardized in a way that skews and misrepresents what ever that indicator was meant to observe, making any decisions based on this information compromised.
- Paul Dressel once coined the phrase: "A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgement by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material." Alfie Kohn puts it this way: "What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment."
I see a move from grades to badges as like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. In other words, it is a massive exercise in missing the point. Badges, as far as I can tell, don't address even one of the issues above.
|What's missing from this picture?|
I am also concerned that like hyper-personalization, badges are a trojan horse that carries an army of economists and shadow industries who have been stalking public education for a very long time. It's as if grades are seen as bad because they are dispensed by a subjective and biased teacher but badges are good because they are dispensed by an objective computer. Want proof? Check out this picture to the right... I see a student on a computer learning specific content... hmm, what's missing?
Because grading is defined as any attempt to reduce learning to a symbol, it's important to note that 75%, B-, and "proficient" have distinctions without a difference. A grade by any other name is still a grade.
Any attempt to reduce learning to a symbol is ultimately wasting our limited time, effort and resources that should be spent on allowing a child's learning to speak for itself. Real learning is found in the children's exhibitions of learning not reductionist data.
Like grades, badges will always conceal more than they reveal.