Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Museum of Education

When museum curators of the future assemble an exhibit on American schooling in the twentieth century, they'll have many artifacts to choose from - chunky textbooks, dusty blackboards, one-piece injection-moldied desks with waraparound writing surfaces. But one item deserves special consideration. I recommend that in the center of the exhibition, enclosed in a sparkling glass case, the curators display a well sharpened No.2 pencil.
When Dan Pink wrote this in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, I enjoyed the thought of what parts of school will become (if they haven't already) become obsolete and archaic.

My addition to this Museum would be:


Here are some reasons why grades should be abolished. Each is a different article by Alfie Kohn:

In 1976, Paul Dressel wrote a brilliant summary of what a grade actually means:
A mark or grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material.
In my classroom, students only ever recieve a grade on the report card. For the rest of the year, my students only ever receive formative feedback that is either written or spoken.

When I share this with people, I inevitably get asked the question "If you don't give grades, how do you come up with a report card grade?"

For this I have three answers.

  • My students collect the evidence of their learning in their paper an electronic portfolios. The paper one is nothing fancy - just a file folder and the electronic one takes the form of a discussion forum that I created using www.freeforums.org, or a class Ning at www.ning.com or class wiki at www.wikispaces.com.

  • I am a professional. I spend 2 hours a day (or more) with each of my students for 10 months of the year. I get to know them quite well, so my professional judgement and intuitive thinking count for a lot - and have proven to be quite accurate (there is a wealth of evidence to support that teachers assessment of their students may be the most accurate form of assessment we can depend on)

  • I ask the students to self-assess. It is amazing how close they come to picking the same grade that I would pick. Interestingly enough, when there is disagreement between me and them, they are usually too hard on themselves - and the odd time a kid over-inflates their grade, I either to decide to let it go or have I have a conversation with the student and make the adjustment.

For more on the abolishment of grades take a look at some of Alfie Kohn's books:

For more on abolishing grading, check out this page.

To learn more about teachers who have or are abolishing grading, see the Grading Moratorium.


  1. cool...
    we're starting an innovation lab next year - i'm having the kids read linchpin first thing...

    i'm adding this post and the one on asymptotes to our research wiki.
    thank you....

  2. Loved this post - agree 100%. Then got to the end and ...I love that Alfie Kohn book too!

    Exam culture also has a lot to answer for. Our English faculty is collectively against grading, and would prefer to measure against outcomes. But high stakes exams at year 10 and year 12 (as well as national literacy and numeracy exams in years 3, 5, 7 & 9!) mean that there is pressure on us to prepare students for these. Grading is used to prepare students for the results they can expect in high stakes tests.

    Parents are also a big problem here (that's right, I sure did say that...parents, sometimes you really SUCK). Many parents demand grades. They want to know how their child compares with others. They like the curriculum to stay narrow and dispassionate it seems, just for the benefit of being able to say 'how little Johnny is doing' in his class.

    It's also a distrust of teachers. Even though as you say "professional judgement and intuitive thinking count for a lot - and have proven to be quite accurate", having to produce a grade is seen as something that keeps teachers in line and accountable (for their failings, mostly).

  3. You have become one of my go-to references when people want to argue the importance of classroom competition. You and Alfie are the best at combating the "self-evident" that really isn't so.


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