(This post was originally published in July of 2018 on the website of the design consultancy, Form and Faculty.)
Since April of 2017 I have been reading about and, now, practicing gradeless-ness in my high school 9th and 10th grade English classes. Sure, I know that such a practice is not new, at least not in independent schools, but what I did not know was how widespread the practice had become in public-school classrooms around the nation. The Facebook group, “Teachers Throwing Out Grades“, and more recently, the group “Teachers Going Gradeless” have been incredibly active in promoting this movement, and its history is as old as our system of public schooling itself. While seemingly counterintuitive, given most Americans’ experiences in public school, going gradeless is a key aspect of the move to deeper learning.
Learning≠Making the Grade
The research on grades is fairly clear: little to no evidence exists to support grading as having a significant impact on student learning (Listen to Scott Looney’s podcast on this–referenced in a previous post). In fact, most of the research on grades fails to return any positive advantage in terms of learning. The real impact of our obsession with grades and grade point averages is that parents and students have become more focused on the grade than they are on learning. The persistent pursuit of the A+, of meeting the requirements the system demands, not only diminish the human desire of learning for learning’s sake, it perverts the very enterprise of public education.
Of course, designers and most students of the arts are familiar with such a situation, for we are practiced in creating our own criteria for success, undergoing countless critiques, and we are driven to learn through iteration.
That schools and universities across the nation have put serious research and funds behind shifting the goal of education from grade point averages to actual assessment of learning is heartening and indicative of a larger shift in education in general: a shift from superficial achievement to deeper learning.
Curiosity, Relationships, and the Depths of Learning
Deeper learning labels teaching methodologies seeking student mastery of content knowledge by, among other things, engaging them in collaborative work that demands creative and critical thinking, increasing student voice and communication…all through real world learning, through projects whose relevance is not merely found in a letter grade, but in making a real-world impact.
The confluence of these current educational initiatives with design thinking is clear: If all learning is based in relationships either between the learner and others, or between the learner and the things they want to learn, then all learning begins in curiosity…in finding a problem…an itch to scratch. The building of a relationship (be it a learning relationship or otherwise) begins in empathy. The learning that derives out of empathy is then driven by a deep curiosity. All these states are not unique to school and its insistence on lesson plans, disciplines, class periods, etc. They are innately part of what it means to be a human being. And, perhaps most importantly, they cannot be reduced to the quotidian, to mere numbers on a data set of evaluation.
Form and Faculty is founded on the knowledge that design and the mindsets of design thinking are innately human, and that it is the learner’s human right to express his or her desires as the impetus for learning in the first place. Our own work and the work we do for others always begins from a human-centered orientation. For in the end our work would matter little if we did not believe our users mattered. And our work would count for little if we did not take into account the humanity of our clients.