The Root of the Problem


No, that’s not the problem. I just had to say that before getting to the point. A little head clearing relaxation goes a long way.

We’re sitting in a coffee shop today having a Papergrader Summer Summit.

One of our first conversations this morning revolved around a conversation DocZ had with some colleagues about our experiements with changing how we deal with grades.

These colleagues we interested, but also expressing many of the doubts and concerns we hear regularly. To summarize, they were concerned that some of what we have been doing (I will post in more detail later) will essentially ‘make it to easy’ to get the grade. They are concerned that students will figure out how to ‘game’ the system to get grades.

Those are not unfounded concerns, but to me they miss the real problem, which is grades.  We have created a system in which grades are the commodity our students pursue. That commodity has real value to the students- grades can be exchanged for other things of value (mostly college admissions and scholarships, but those have real value). Given that we have made those things important (what do we tell our kids over and over- ‘get good grades’, ‘what about those grades’ ‘what grades did you get’), it is entirely rational that kids pursue that commodity, even to the exclusion of other things of value- say, learning.

MisterB and I (and many others) are worried about the devaluing of learning, and sick of the distorted student/teacher relationships that arise out of the commodification of what is essentially an empty symbol. At best, a grade is a vague reflection of a complex and disparate constellation of learning experiences a student had in a given time period. It is a ghost, or chimera, it stands for a thing, but it isn’t the thing itself. Nor can it ever be.

The essence of our work is to foster student learning. I hope all of us can agree on that. Student learning should be the priority. Nowhere in my job description is ‘sorting students for college admission’ listed. At all. I think ‘actually preparing students for life, be it college or other’ is a part of my job. Grades are not helping that. In fact, every bit of my experience tells me that the farther we get from grades, the more meaningful the learning becomes for the students. The more they engage. The more I enjoy working with them. The better the student/teacher relationship gets. The more learning happens.

If you gave me carte blanche today, I would just not give grades. I would change very little else about my classes because I believe that I have figured out some practices that really help students learn, I just wouldn’t assign letters or numbers to their work. I wouldn’t even change the rubrics, just take the letters and numbers off, as MisterB did earlier this year. They would still read, write and speak a lot (too much according to them, not enough according to me!), I would still be gather a lot of information on how they are progressing in various skills, and I would still give them feedback on the work they have done, and I would let them use that feedback to improve. Just no letters or numbers. For a variety of reasons, we aren’t quite there yet, but we are working to make grades as ‘invisible as possible’ (thanks Alfie Kohn-read his essay on grades here).

Because the problem isn’t kids gaming the system to get grades. The problem is a system in which anyone thinks grades are something worth getting.

For more on going gradless- see Joe Bower’s excellent posts.

This entry was posted in cultivating real learning, education, engagement, grading, making change, relationship, teaching, the system, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Root of the Problem

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    …and the use of the district computerized grading system has made the grade grubbing worse. The district has quantified the mushy, nebulous process of questioning and grading and pegged it two decimal points to the right. Absurd. At no point was there ever a conversation about the philosophy of grading in this manner. Our more humanistic ideals for assessing student understanding are apparently too difficult to squeeze into a computer… which was supposed to save us time. In addition to all the other silliness, that was the biggest lie of all… and no one has shown that the system in any way improves student learning.

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