In grade 8 science, we are learning about life. We are examining animal cells, plant cells, human body systems, diseases and anything else the students feel like learning about. They have a lot of autonomy and choice in selecting what they want to learn about.
Some students are learning about Leukemia while others learn about the organelles that make up the cell. Sarah approached me and asked* if she could do a poster project showing what she can learn about breast cancer. I said, "that's up to you."**
She began her research and poster during class, and come lunch she asked me if she could work on her project during her lunch hour. Again, I said, "that's up to you."
As she continued to glue new information on her poster, she turned to me and asked something very peculiar. "Mr. Bower, will I get an A on this?"
This was very odd because it was March, which means she hadn't recieved a grade from me on any project for six months.***
Another student overheard Sarah's question and replied, "Why are you asking Mr. Bower that? You know nothing is for grades!"
I too looked at her in confusion and said, "Why are you asking me if your project will get an A? You know I won't grade it."
I asked, "Why are you doing this poster?"
She look perplexed and said, "I want to get an A."
I asked her to stop working on her poster so I could ask my next question, "Sarah, why are you really doing this poster?"
She stopped and looked at me. She started to tear up a little, and said, "my aunty has breast cancer."
I was moved by her honesty and sincerity. It was very clear to me that she cared deeply for her aunty. I said, "Sarah, I couldn't think of a better reason for you to do this poster project. You do this poster and share it with your aunty."
Two days later, Sarah and her mom came in for student-led portfolios. I started to share this story with Sarah's mom when she started to cry. Then Sarah cried. I didn't cry, but I was close. Her mom shared with me that Sarah was reading more at home and showed more interest in learning than in past years.
Honestly, I can not think of a better reason for Sarah to learn about breast cancer. And yet, if I graded students, this whole experience might have ended when she said she was doing this poster to get an A. Another teacher might have smiled and thought to themselves good for you, Sarah. You are such a good little student.
Can you see how ultimately distracting grades can be? They run interference on our motivation and learning all the time. We owe it to our students and our own learning to abolish grading as much as we possibly can so all students can find more authentic reasons for learning.
If you give grades, and your students are uninterested or disengaged, might it be because they are searching for a more intrinsically motivating reason to give-a-shit? It's easy to blame the kids, but it takes more than a little guts to look at our own practices and make changes to how we have done things for so long.
I could choose to use grades in order to artificially induce my student's learning, but to be honest, I'd rather help them find a real reason for learning.
Grades seem so utterly uninspiring compared to Sarah's reasoning. I abolished grading 5 years ago, and I won't ever go back. When will you?
For more on abolishing grades check out this page.
*Yeah, that's right, my students ask me if they can do projects - no, they aren't freaks - rather, their intrinsic motivation is a by-product of the autonomy and extrinsic-free learning environment that I provide them with.
**You'll notice I didn't give her permission. You see, I don't want to say 'yes' or 'no'. I want my students to make decisions without having to look to me for permission to learn. It's a slow and painful process to wean them off of the "teacher's teet" but it's a worthy endeavour as I begin to see them make decisions about their learning because they feel ownership over their own learning. It's damn cool!
***The only time my students ever receive a grade from me is on their report card. In March, they receive their second of three report cards. It is possible that this latest 'hit' knocked Sarah off the 'bandwagon' and might explain her 'relapse'. Remember, friends don't let friends do grades.