What Counts and What Matters in Learning?  (Contrary to over a century of practice, it is not really the grades.)

(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.

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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.

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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.

Evaluation and The Betrayal of Learning

A necessary precursor to this post is the beautiful, romantic, and wholly human post that Carol Black wrote several years ago on the Evaluative Gaze of schooling and the effect it has on the human spirit to spend 7.5 hours a day under such surveillance.   What is the effect of knowing that we exist in a system that is constantly measuring us and whether we meet the “standard student” profile?  Such an evaluative gaze reinforces the “school as hospital” metaphor:  Students are “sick”, they need to be treated in order to “meet the grade” or to get to proficient/average (see Todd Rose on this–though I’m pretty sure most of us have seen it.  (And if we have, I next wonder…why are so few of us doing anything about it?)).  

If You Never Try, You’ll Never Learn

Let me give you an anecdote.  I spent a week at Bard College’s Institute for Writing and Thinking in 2010,  in a cohort of college and HS teachers in a class called “Inquiry into the Essay.”  The first assignment we had was to read through 6 pages of definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary on the word “Essay.”  The impact of that exercise was lost on no one, because after reading them, we were asked to freewrite for 10 minutes on the patterns we noticed, on what surprised us.  Universally it was that only one of the definitions actually sounded anything remotely like what we have taught student an Essay is.  

I do this same exercise with my students before we engage in our first writing exercise.  I did it on Thursday with my students.  In my 10th period class when I asked students to share their observations, the first response was, “I feel betrayed.”  From there, the litany of complaints piled on.  And all of it. All of it! was tied to the fact that writing was always done for an evaluation.  Rarely was it done for any other purpose than “Writing to Demonstrate Learning.”  In my own classes, I tell students that we will strike an imbalance in our writing, as most of the writing we will do will be “writing to learn, to explore, to discover.” I will not “evaluate” anything, There peers and I wiill, however, assess constantly.  Assessment–feedback, discussion, hashing-out–is the only end of our work.  And isn’t this what we want from an audience, from mentors, from teachers?  A chance to enter into the intellectual discourse and to see ourselves not as equals, but as explorers on the same journey to self-discovery, just with different levels of experience? A chance to feel part of a learning community with “better” as the only goal/standard?

My own path has been such in many parts of my identity.  I am not a designer, but I think in designerly ways.  I am not a scientist, but I can think in scientific ways.  I am not an entrepreneur, but I can adopt an entrepreneur’s mindset.  So it is for students in my class.  While not all of them may see themselves as writers, they can learn to think in writerly ways, to approach the world with the same sense of inquiry and wonder as writers and to attempt, through language, to figure out what they are thinking and what they might learn from those questions and wonderings that could be useful, insightful to others, even if it is just themselves.

Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

And what has it done to my classroom to remove the “evaluative gaze” Carol Black has so beautifully detailed here? (She used to write for the TV show, The Wonder Years.). First is a massive shift in the culture.  My students are no longer up till 12AM sweating out their final drafts (which for many was a 1 1/2 draft).  They are not getting their papers back, looking at a grade, and losing the paper amidst the physical din of a notebook or disorganized google drive.  They are engaging with each other in discussions of craft and inquiry and learning that are real and genuine and appreciative.  They come to see themselves as a community of readers, writers, speakers and listeners, engaged in a curious, wonderful, and often intriguing if not always engaging search for meaning.  

Is it always this way?  Not always. No classroom is a Utopia, and Carol Black, a staunch home/unschooler, would say that the very institution of school itself, even absent grades, has a gaze we cannot escape.  However, the culture of our classroom creates a community that is far removed from the classrooms I remember and hear about…classrooms where rote learning and predetermined lessons about what should be retained and what is most important create learning expectations for students that are alien to their own lives; classrooms that remove the joy and wonder of discovery from their lived experience so that an efficiency can be applied to learning that makes the task easier for the teacher, for the system.

This shift away from grades entails no loss of rigor, for those prescriptive traditionalists amongst you.  In fact, we still hold ourselves to standards, still understand the end of most writing is to communicate with clarity, beauty, and understanding.  We don’t need grades to enforce compliance, to measure the humans in our classroom like so many meat puppets.  

And this is all premised on the simple act of grading…a task for which most teachers never had a class, never studied in any depth, never, for most of us (myself included for 20 years) actually really questioned.  It’s just the way we’ve always done things.

(*For more on this topic, the recent Washington Post article on the work being done by Scott Looney and the Mastery Transcript Consortium is a clarion call. Also, check out the brilliant work being done at One Stone and how they shape the Learning Experience around their Growth Transcript and Disruption BLOB. Also, visit Teachers Going Gradeless. )

A Gnostic Gospel: Gradelessness in the Time of Covid

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From Amy J. Ko

(Like many teachers, I’m suffering from so many feelings right now.  July is winding down.  I’ve been taking classes on distance learning, working on new units, and rethinking how to build a culture of caring, community, and creativity on-line, as it seems that’s the way things will be heading for a while.  I’m also, as my friend @MonteSyrie notes of himself (and so many educators) mourning a loss of place and self…of who I was in the classroom.

But there are also ample opportunities to do things better, to become more and constantly evolve.  After all, as I often note, we are all human beings in the becoming.  We are all chasing a better version of ourselves…or we should be.

And that’s where this blog post comes from.  How can we be better in the classroom for ourselves and for our students?  Perhaps an admission that love is at the core of our work is a good place to start.  Not that most of us don’t already know that…but, as with so much about love, we may not always show it.)

Three years ago I began moving my classes to a grade-less system.  It is still a work in progress, but it is one I will not abandon.  Still, I sometimes forget that not everyone is in that same headspace.  When I recently came across a blog that recalled a small school’s pivot to standards-based grading during the spring of 2020, I started to think back on all the reasons why I’d switched to a gradeless system.  And I discovered, in the musings recounted below, one more reason–love.

I have to think that there are many teachers who now, in this time of uncertainty and crisis, are wondering how they’re going to grade fairly.  How they’re going to overcome issues of -plagiarism, fair testing, etc.  I also have to think that many teachers and schools will push back with more punitive systems to force student compliance.    Why?

 Rather than trying to create punitive mechanisms that punish students for seeking ways around the system (which, come on…teenagers?  Rebellion…?  No kidding?), what if we were to make a switch to standards-based grading?  It is not that hard a shift, but the culture behind it utterly alters students’ perceptions of what school is and how much more meaningful and purposeful the learning that happens here can be. 

That Culture shift is huge. As Peter Drucker noted a long time ago: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”  And really, our schools, at this crisis point…?  If all we’re looking for is a strategy or methods to bridge the gap between now and a return to “normal,” if we’re not thinking about culture shifts, we’re missing a huge opportunity, and we misunderstand the potential of this moment to shift our culture for the better of our students.  We can add as many apps as we want to our “ClassLink” landing page, we can create as many virtual opportunities for kids to meet with us as time permits, but if at our foundation we’re still about ranking and sorting of humans?  The system is built on sand. 

 Given the uncertainties in so many areas of our lives, to what extent does the compliance-and-extrinsic-reward model that grades represent really serve anyone?  Is anyone not getting the fact that compliance and working for extrinsic rewards doesn’t foster meaningful learning for many students? That it certainly hasn’t done much for critical thinking in our country (though I’d not lay all the blame for that at the feet of education)?  One vivid example of the problem with grades is that they perpetuate the inequities in the system and enslave the mind to working for others’ approval.   

Traditional Grading for a VUCA World…Really?

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 And in that, grades don’t serve the country well.  If we look to the numerous future-of-work documents populating the web, there’s little there to support a continuation of a grading system that harms more than it helps, that reports little but how well one meets deadlines and turns in what’s expected.  In a VUCA World, the skills required to thrive in the future are not skills of compliance and climbing the corporate ladder by performing the right tricks at the right time for the right people.  They are far more about experimentation, iterative improvement, innovation, and working for a common good.  Grades and the competition inherent in that system drive all those things underground, and in doing so, bury many a great learner.  

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I’m not saying we’re not already shifting in this direction.  But if school this year is going to be a huge change for all of us, why would we try to stuff the old experience–the good, the bad, and the ugly–into some new box that we’re trying to make just like the old box?  That old box was broken from the get-go; we have a huge opportunity to pivot and change for the better.  If the school in the article I’ve cited can make the change during the spring remote learning emergency, surely we, as a department or as a team can pilot something that could truly increase students’ voices, and promote deeper and broader ownership of their learning.

A sermon of courage, fear, and love

This has been my liturgy for several years now.  I preach it not to raise specters of fire, brimstone, and damnation to those who believe in grades, but to bring those who question the orthodoxy and dogma into the fold.  Perhaps I’m the wrong person for this pulpit/that purpose.  I’ve no real congregation at my school…no one comes to this church; my outreach is paltry and, perhaps, intimidating.  After all, my teachers are offering up a gnostic gospel.  We could be burned at the stake.  But as Parker Palmer noted, it takes Courage to Teach.

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It doesn’t take weeks of work to switch.  What it does take is courage, a willingness to be vulnerable, and a love for others we serve that supplants the power we lose by abandoning the “rod” of grades.  And if love isn’t reason enough to change, I think we’re in the wrong business.  

I Am The Stories I Tell Myself: Teaching, Learning Narratives, and Our Responsibilities as Collaborative Authors

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From Jason Silva, Shots of Awe

We, that is this thing we call our “self”, are a narrative construct.  We are the stories we tell ourselves. This should come as no surprise to teachers and other educators.  We know that positive self-talk is correlated with higher levels of success and happiness in all students.  But these narratives are not crafted in a vacuum. We are, after all, social creatures, and thus our narratives include the lived stories we craft based upon how we perceive others perceive us.  As the philosopher Charles Cooley posits, our “self” is a narrative crafted within the social realms, that is, between us and others (or, as Jason Silva puts it: “I am not who I think I am; I am not who you think I am; I am who I think you think I am”), and so our words, our deeds, and the actions we inflict upon others are immeasurable in their repercussions. 

In other words, Stories Matter!  A lot! We are, to borrow the words of Jonathan Gotschall, “Storytelling Animals.”  Thus the narrative turn in our understanding of who we are should play a larger role in how we help the next generation learn than the faux empiricism of evaluations couched in letter grades.

When we turn this theoretical lens onto our classrooms, we should immediately recognize that grades and the narrative we (adults) have shaped around them are a major influence on the selves whose stories we help craft.  And their influence is, by and large, negative. By all accounts, student (and parent) grade-watching is rampant, stress and anxiety are increasing in our children, and the stories our students tell themselves about themselves hang too precariously upon a letter.

We need to shift the focus away from largely arbitrary (and therefore mostly meaningless) letters and numbers to narrative assessments.  At least there, going back to Cooley’s work, we are not inflicting the system’s narrative upon the child/young adult. Instead, we are opening a dialogue, negotiating, and collaborating in the authorship of this human being’s learning narrative by helping them understand what we mean by “growth” in a cognitive sense.

 “The world is a story we tell ourselves about the world.”  — Vikram Chandra

No doubt, many students and adults become successful because they fit within the narrow confines of the system’s narratives.  And there are those who succeed in spite of the narrative…who are not prisoners of the thoughts and perceptions of others, of the worth implied via evaluative grades.

But how many persevere, silently or quietly, despite the system, all the while internalizing ideas of who they are based upon systemic labels (“I’m not an honors student.  I’m not good enough for …. I’m never going to be….”)? We talk about how students need to overcome their “fixed mindset” and use “Grit” to develop a “growth mindset” (“I’m not an A student…YET”).

That’s dandy, but we know that’s easier said than done.  We also know it denies social, economic, and countless other inequities.  If these students are constantly on the receiving end of grades which are often manufactured or, worse, inconsistently applied, if they perceive that they have no control over the system’s narrative…? If that is the case, it is a sick and sadistic system that doesn’t ask itself, “What harms are we committing in the name of “Adequate Yearly Progress” or “proficiency” or other “normalized” notions of human potential.

It is part of our shared story that we are all human beings in the becoming. (That’s the only perspective through which those videos of “The Power of Yet” make any sense.) If that is so, then grades, which imply for so many students an endstate, need to be seriously rethought, or in the very least their implementation needs to be reconsidered given the understanding of their power to prematurely end students’ learning narratives.

One of my academic heroes was the Nobel Prize Winning physicist, Richard Feynman.  As he sat by his young, first wife on her deathbed, he discussed how those he was working with on the Manhattan Project may be viewing his constant trips away to her hospital.  She asked him point blank, “What do you care what other people think?” (Those words were to become the title of one of his amazing, anecdote-filled memoirs).

I would love to think that all of us had enough fortitude to live by such a credo.  But we can’t. I don’t think anyone, even a mind like Feynman, can live that way 24/7.  However, when we continue to evaluate and judge students as we do, we send the message that we’re all supposed to be people pleasers, and that our self-worth is predicated upon how much others find our presence in class pleasing, our work satisfactory–“Are you an “A” student or a “C” student?”  

As educators, we must ask ourselves, is our work to help students coauthor their own ”Learning Narratives,” an ongoing subplot of the stories of themselves, or is it to be complicit in (and if so to what extent) the continued creation of compliant rule-followers who seek the approval of others to validate their existence.

One should not read that choice as a pure binary.  Obviously, boundaries and knowledge of what constitutes quality work and pro-social behavior are necessary, but they are not sufficient for the full realization of human potential.  Only narratives and shared stories help us understand one another that deeply.  And that, more than anything, is at the foundation, at the heart, of education.