Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ungraded Success, Part 1

Ask most teachers what they dislike about their jobs, and they will tell you in the top three is grading. Why do we hate it? There are so many reasons: It's time-consuming. The kids don't look at the feedback. Grades are meaningless.

I'd like to explore this last one a bit. Grades are not intrinsically valuable. If they were, why wouldn't we just use grades and GPA to decide whether schools meet AYP? Well duh, they aren't standardized. If they aren't standardized, why do we use them to calculate GPA and all the things GPA indicates: class rank, college admissions, scholarships? At my school we also use it to determine eligibility for sports and extracurricular activities, entry to National Honor Society and the honors diploma program. So let's not pretend grades aren't used to rank, sort, order, and label students.

What relationship do grades have to learning? Imagine that you had a map of your town, and you also had a transparency with icons of cute dogs printed on it. There are many kinds of dogs - well, five, anyway. They are sprinkled over the transparency randomly. Now overlay your map with your transparency. What do you have? An underlying meaningful thing (a community) with an overlay of meaningless cute dogs. That's how grades are, lying on top of the very significant, and important, work of education. People look at a school and all they see are cute dogs, when in reality the most important thing that happens in a school is the education. And this is what it comes down to: education is not grades.

When I talked to my seniors about this recently, some of them fully agreed with me: grades do not motivate them, but they confessed they'd been slaves to grades for most of their years in school. Others agreed but were unaffected by the carrot-and-stick of grades, hence their low GPAs. Some kids disagreed and said that grades do motivate them to work harder. When I suggested a no-grades classroom, some students were instantly worried - the same ones who find grades a motivator. Most of the students, by the way, did not find this a titillating discussion. In other words, they have no idea (and don't really care) what kind of rebel their teacher is.

Tomorrow I'll talk more about the ways we (students, educators, parents) have been indoctrinated by grades.

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