Sunday, March 28, 2010

Detoxing students from grade-use

While it is true that I am required by the Province of Alberta and my school district to reduce my students learning to a letter grade on the report card, which I continue to comply with, I have abolished grades from my classroom because there really is no good reason to grade.

I do not require a list of grades in order to come up with a report card mark. I have no gradebook, because I don't need a gradebook. And yet I still provide a grade on the report card.

When I share this with people the first question I get is:

If you have no grades, how the hell do you come up with a final grade?
I answer that question here.

Today I want to focus on the detoxing period students go through as I wean them off of school's drug of choice - grades!

These six stages roughly summarize my experience with students and their withdrawal from grade use. Not every child will react this way, and some will relapse more than others, but I have taught with no grades for five years, and these steps reflect my experiences with detoxing students from grade use.

Stage 1 is intervention

Starting day 1, I explain to the student that the report card will be the only time they will receive a grade. In their place, I will provide written and spoken feedback in the form of information that will help them improve thier learning. Depending on their acheivement level, they respond uniquely.

High Achievers: These kids are usually a little wary of the whole idea. After all, I am removing their 'high'. No longer can they define themselves by this metaphorical pat-on-the head. However, most of them are used to complying with the teacher, which all too often helped them to become high achievers in the first place. But nonetheless, they are more than a little suspicous of me.

Average Achievers: These kids are mostly, if not all, appreciative for the removal of grades- perhaps only because it is something different from the monotony school has offered for so long. They thirst for something different, even if they don't really know of any alternatives.

Low Achievers: These kids are so desperate for someone to cease the beatings that they nearly fall over with something that looks half like exuberance and half like exhaustion.

Stage 2 is honeymoon sobriety

Everyone slowly but surely forgets about grades. People naturally want to learn, and kids are people, too. They are starving for an opportunity to learn for its own sake. This stage just kind of happens because grades are something we only talk about when someone continues to artificially induce them. If the teacher stops throwing them in kid's faces, the kids have no real desire to talk about them. However, for those who can't cope with quitting cold turkey and need to a grade, I do offer them the opportunity to come and speak with me in private. I then ask them what grade they think they should get. This leads to conversation where we agree on a grade of some kind. I can probably count on two hands the number of times I've had to do this in five years - for the most part, kids aren't interested in grades.

Stage 3 is the shakes and will breakout with no warning

Everything will be going fine. Stage 2 will appear to be prevalent when all of a sudden one of your students will start to panic as if they were deep sea diving and realized they forgot their oxygen tanks. They come to you with what Alfie Kohn coined as a kind of existential vertigo. They'll run up to you with this ghostly look on their face and beg you to give them a grade. Here is an example.

It would be expected that high achievers would experience the shakes, but you may be surprised to see how many low achievers will develop them as well. All students have been exposed to grade use for many years, some as early as kindergarten, so when you wean them off of grades, they all will experience a kind of withdrawal. Regardless of their achievement level, all students, in some way or another, have come to define themselves by their teacher's judgment. So when the teacher no longer passes judgment, some students panic.

Alfie Kohn explains why all students are candidates of grade withdrawal:

First, it is said that students expect to receive grades and even seem addicted to them. This is often true; personally, I’ve taught high school students who reacted to the absence of grades with what I can only describe as existential vertigo. (Who am I, if not a B+?)

Just as a high achiever may have come to identify himself as an A student, the low achiever has become accustomed to identifying themselves as an F student. The point here isn't that we would want more students to define themselves as A students; rather, we would want children to understand that there is a hell-of-a-lot more to school than simply collecting As - and we don't want anyone to define themselves based on any grade.

Art Costa may provide us with the will to persevere through these signs of withdrawal:

We must remember that our purpose for assessing children is so that one day they may be capable of assessing themselves.
Stage 4 is sustained sobriety

I teach my students language arts and science for 104 minutes per day, Monday to Friday, for ten months of the year. Despite a few instances of withdrawal, my students spend more of their time focusing on learning. I never hear students ask those nagging questions like, "is this for marks?" or "does this count?" Rather than having students look at my class syllabus to figure out if something is worth their time, they are attracted to learning for the sake of learning.

While it is true that I still have a curriculum and that I still have assignments that I like students to consider doing, I have to be flexible. Sustained sobriety from grade use means that things like autonomy, choice, initiative and creativity will pop up as symptoms of success. This is evident when my students ask me if they can do poster projects, blog posts, research and science experiments. They upload pictures and videos to our class ning. They blog about their learning, inside and outside of school. You must be flexible too, because you are no longer in control (and rightfully so) of their learning. We all want our students to show initiative and creativity, so don't be dissapointed when they want to learn something other than what your state or province (or even you) dictates. Don't be surprised if your over prescribed, content-bloated, externally dictated standardized curriculum gets in the way of your students learning.

During sustained sobriety, they see each other as allies to collaborate with, rather than as obstacles to be avoided or defeated in competition. They see me, the teacher, as as safe and caring ally rather than a judge-in-waiting that they must keep their distance from while showing only what I want to see. I accept them unconditionally and allow them to experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information.

In essence, I am saying that sustained sobriety from grade-use brings on an accute case of real learning. And it is awesome!

Stage 5 is falling off the bandwagon on the way to high school

At the end of grade 8, my students prepare themselves for high school. During this stage, it is inevitable for them to start thinking about how things will be different. Most of the time, they are thinking of their social lives, but many of them will ponder how their education will change.

Some will revisit stage 3, the shakes, as they begin to panic. Some may even turn on you, their sobreity sponsor, because maybe you prepared them for the rigors of high school. Some students and parents may wonder if you've actually set them up for failure. After all, you've given little to no grades, while the high school lives on them. For this, I have to share the wealth of stories I have heard from my alumni students when they come back to visit. My conversations go something like this:

How's high school?

I have tons of homework. We have so much to get through in so little time.

What is the biggest difference between last year and this year?

Tons of homework, and grades are important. I have to study a lot.

What are you studying?

This term mostly biology.

What are you studying biology for?

To do well on the test.

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of teachers at the high school who are better teachers than I am, but the system is driven to distraction - it's rotten. We've taken our eye off the ball (learning) and our children are suffering for it. So much so that even when the kids see good learning happening in my class, they become suspicious and express doubt in whether they are being 'prepared' for something else.

To temper this latest round of panic and shakes, I take a chapter from Alfie Kohn's The Homework Myth which he titled "Better Get Used to it". He explains it better than I can: [parenthesis are mine]

Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework [or grades] on children just because other people will do the same to them when they're older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the enviornment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they're small in order to get them ready.

There is a reason junior high schools were renamed as middle schools - and it was not just a change in symantics. The purpose here was to acknowledge that middle school children are not simply high school students in-waiting. They are their own selves with their own unique needs.

Kohn explains the distinction between vertical and horizontal curriculum in The Homework Myth:

Lilian Katz, a specialist in early childhood education, refers to this as vertical relevance, and she contrasts it with the horizontal kind in which sutdents' learning is meaningful to them at the time because it connects to some other aspect of their lives.

Horizontal criteria for deciding what to teach are the exception in our schools. Vertical justifications, on the other hand, are employed at just about every grade level. Countless middle school teachers, for example, spend their days disgorging facts and skills not because this is the best way to promote learning, much less enthusiasm for learning, but solely because they've been told that their students will be expected to know this stuff when they get to high school. Even good teachers end up routinely engaging in bad instruction lest their kids be unprepared when more bad instruction comes their way. 

John Dewey summarize this all very well:

Education is a process of living, not just a preparation for future living.

Obsessing over preparation for vertical curriculum, justified by "better get used to it" directly contradicts Dewey's wisdom.

Stage 6 mindful reflection

Students will go to high school and experience the rigor of high-stakes tests, grades and homework. They will play the game and jump through the hoops on their way to writing a state or provincial high-stakes exit exam. And if they come back to visit, they will provide you with some very interesting stories that contradict much of what they did in my grade 8 classroom. It is my experience that this step does happen, but for the most part, you may never know it, because not every student will come back and visit you. But from the anecdotal samples that I have collected from alumni students, an overwhelming majority of them experience the feeling that their learning would have been much better off if we abolished grade use.

Remember, friends don't let friends do grades!
 For more on abolishing grades, check out this page.


  1. You tell your story very well. Reading this, I realized that I was following much the same path. "Falling off the wagon" is well put. Report cards were distributed on Friday and I think we have a kinder gentler report card than most I have used over the years but it was a report card and next week's conferences will feel like a 15 minute conversation about passing and failing. I had one or two students ask me about their grades. That was inevitable, but what was encouraging to me was the odd shock I felt at the question. Nobody in my class had been thinking about grades up to this point. That felt good. A colleague was complaining about late Heritage Fair projects. He could not find time to work them into his marks. I had not even considered using these first time efforts in any sort of evaluation. I have some records of assessment, wish I had more, but my daybook is clean of the careful rows and columns of compiled marks I used to keep. The first step was shifting to benchmarks. After that the pressure was off the classroom.

    When I started teaching elementary I felt guilty that I was not pasting stickers and stars on the kid's work. It felt like I was not doing my job. The kids missed it I thought. It's just another way to grade. Any delight they would show in a sticker now would be the novelty of a my adding bling to their work.

    High school (or grade six in my case) might be a sad reality check for the students. Even so, they will have experienced a year where the learning was free of constant grade pressure. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for the comment Alan. That's a good point about the report cards. They can help initiate a fall off the bandwagon, too.

  3. This is great! Just what we need when we first abolish grades. We're fighting years and generations of people who are used to grades! I'm working with the people who setup our district's online grading system. I have asked what options they have for teachers who would like to go gradeless and markless. We'll see what responses I get on Monday.


    Al Gonzalez

  4. Thank you! This was really inspiring, and I'm happy to have discovered your blog. I hope to blog about this in Norwegian very soon, we need the debate here as well.

  5. I also have a detox program. Not brave enough or secure enough in my job to publish it though ;)

    Using your stages above, almost all of my students have finished stage four detox by the end of the fourth month month of school. I wasn't successful with it until I thought about it as a detox program. When I started it cold turkey years ago they inevitably relapsed!

  6. I appreciate many of the points that you made, but here is another reality for you to consider. I taught science and math at the terminal class of a school without grades (13/14 year olds). Each topic had a list of goals and scored assignments as well as assignments that they could choice to do to learn the topic. Some students found tremendous relief in the clear goals and simple grades. On the other hand, some students had gone through many years of schools without being able to gauge how well they knew a topic and having them practice and score themselves made a huge difference. They had to do something more than read or get coached through a set of practice problems. They started to practice until they "knew" things. Understanding is such a complex thing and maybe teens are a bit on the crazy side so the "grades" simplified things for us.

  7. I've been following your blog for several months and really enjoy it but I'm stuck with a big lingering problem:
    I teach high school. I've ceased grading assignments. I adopted a system whereby students get 100% credit for anything they finish to my satisfaction (not their satisfaction I admit). I got this idea from Alfie Kohn. But I still 'grade' in the sense that I keep track of how much each student accomplished of the things I require. The state says I must address certain standards and I feel I must obey this injunction since we have mutually contracted for me to be an employee of the district.
    But suppose I go one step further and abolish grades altogether? At some point I am required to put down a letter grade for each student (four times per year minimum). So how do I arrive at this letter grade without being sneaky? I can't just spring a grade on them in November/January/March & June. If I've given them oral feedback on what I think they are learning that doesn't really tell them what grade they can expect. And how do I avoid the unclean feeling that such a system is subject to my whims? I confess I occasionally don't like a student and I *know* that subtley affects my grading. How can I say to Sally that I think she learned less than Tommy without *some* objective criteria?
    Jerry Heverly, San Leandro, California

  8. English, if you want to know how I replace grading, check out this:

  9. Incredible post! I think this will be useful for anyone who needs to pitch the idea to someone higher up. I love that last line too: "friends don't let friends do grades!" I've tried talking about abolishing grades with some other educators I've thought might be open, but even when they agree, no one else seems to be willing to take any action.

  10. I love it! I wish I was brave enough to go the full distance. I sit somewhere in the middle where I still grade, but I try to get students to value their own assessment of themselves and not wait for a teacher to validate them.

    Thanks for the motivation

  11. Henrietta MillerMay 24, 2010 at 4:15 AM

    My school have started using formative rather than summative assessment this year and I love it. None of my students seem to care what marks they get anymore. We talk a lot about learning and growing together and on the whole most of them are striving to learn and improve rather than get a mark. This is a great post. Thanks

  12. I love this post; the intervention analogy works very well. As a high school teacher, I would love to abolish grades as well. I think students would take the formative tasks more seriously because they would realize that ALL the work is taken into account when determining their grades. I see no reason why this can't be done at the high school level--other than the fact that my admin ask for a progress report once a month. Their intentions are benign. They want to make sure that students don't fall through the cracks and that parents stay in the loop. Unfortunately, a number on a page gives many people a false sense of where students stand in terms of achievement of expectations. There's also a false sense among many of my colleagues that the more numbers they have recorded, the more effective they appear as teachers. I think it would be much more effective to provide anecdotal reports of student achievement along with a level 1,2,3, or 4. But I'd need an awful lot of support from admin before I could do this in my grade 12 university level English class. Thanks for the food for thought.

  13. As always what a great way to get a conversation started! I have often wondered what happens to the students who go from your class to the "old way". Thanks for sharing. It kind of reminds me of the movie the Matrix "If you take the Red Pill life will never be the same, if you take the Blue Pill you will go on like nothing happened".

  14. "There is a reason junior high schools were renamed as middle schools - and it was not just a change in symantics. The purpose here was to acknowledge that middle school children are not simply high school students in-waiting. They are their own selves with their own unique needs"

    tha'ts something I can't help but hate about my school district, it's never learning about learning as a person in middle school, or as one in elementry school, it's "preparing for middle school" or "preparing for highschool" and now it's "preparing for college". When does this "preparing" end and the actual learning of where I'm at start?

  15. Great post and blog. It resembles my own experiences with trying to remove/limit grades and talking about grades in the classroom. Knowing or doing something because it's on "the test" isn't a worthwhile reason to know it.

    Your arguments are really thoughtful and reasonable. I hope more teachers/students/parents are beginning to understand all of this.


  16. I just found this as I've been searching for solutions for my homeschooled daughter. I just brought her home last year and I decided not to grade. She is still in major shock from this. She was so dependent on her grades to tell her how good she was that not having that has been very hard for her. I feel like the school system has done some major harm in that respect. She literally does not know what it is she likes or what she is interested in because all she cared about was what grade she got. I'm giving her a little time to find herself again and hopefully she'll be able to learn for learning's sake.