Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Whose Agenda do you follow?

When I speak to educators about assessment, we inevitably discuss grading. I experience a number of different responses, but I am pleased to say that most educators I speak to recognize the short-comings of grades. They understand that reducing real learning to a symbol like a number or grade rarely if ever provides an accurate, authentic depiction of that real learning.

And yet, I am very saddened to say that these same teachers share with me that they feel like they have to grade. Typically, they point to their administrators, or school district, or government as the external force that is placing pressure on them to grade.

Seth Godin speaks quite strongly about this kind of situation in his book Linchpin:

If your agenda is set by someone else and it doesn't lead you where you want to go, why is it your agenda?
I am disheartened by the idea that the teaching profession feels like we must accept this necessary evil. There is something very immoral and unethical about believing any evil to be necessary.

If grading is not your agenda, and you feel like it is not leading you where you or your students want to go, why are you doing it?

The obvious answer is that teachers want to remain employed.

Fair enough.

I agree that you can make more of a difference by remaining inside the system, rather than from the outside looking in; however, what are you doing to make a difference? What are you doing to be subversive towards grading?

Are you sure you need to grade as much as you do? Even if you have to give a grade on a report card, where does it say you have to have a collection of grades to come up with a grade? And if it does say this some where, are you grading as little as necessary?

Do you have to give a final exam? Where does it say you have to count it on the report card? If it's a provincial or state-wide standardized test, where does it say you have to count it on the report card, or that you have to grade it at all?

Do you have to average averages to come up with an average?

How often do you talk about grades? Is it only on report card day? Why is it more than that?

If no one is saying you have to do these things you feel uncomfortable doing, then why are you doing them?

And if someone is saying you have to do these things, then what are you doing to make change? Before you answer, ask yourself two things - if not you, then who? and if not now, then when?


  1. Joe,

    Love this post because of the questions you pose. I really think the main idea of this discussion comes down to one concept that teachers are not generally good at: creativity. Teachers need to experiment with creative ways to be subversive. One can not simply think of a way to subvert curriculum or ideas and think it will happen right away. It is a matter of taking risks and tinkering towards a means of being effective. Many teachers will not stray from their means of "grading" after the first day of school simply to prevent confusion in the students. Maybe some need to reconsider this. I am not saying that this is the answer, but it adds another layer to the questions you pose above.

    Nice job.


  2. I think fighting the system means being part sage (quietly subversive) and part lunatic (openly passionate, even if it means making enemies).

    I assess all student work. I even use rubrics for projects. However . . . none of them have a score. I choose, instead, to treat each work as a conversation with the student. Part self-assessment and part teacher-assessment. Sometimes I write a question they must answer about their work and they are required to ask me questions as well.

    In the end, the school district demands that 60% of their grade comes from a standardized test. The other forty percent? It's a hundred percent automatically.

    I learned a long time ago that moving away from grades would increase motivation.

  3. I really think it's difficult to NOT make enemies when fighting for what you believe in. This is another factor teachers have to keep in mind (even if just subconsciously): radical change WILL BE seen by other teachers as a judgment on their style. And really, it is. Like you said, Joe, most teachers recognize the shortcomings of grades...yet, they still do nothing about it. They've convinced themselves that grades are necessary (and even a chief tool for motivating students). They'll be very wary of anyone who tries to go without grades, loudly predicting failure. Then they'll be even more furious when you don't fail, refusing to believe in your results. I suggest that if someone wants to try this, talk about it in the teachers' lunchroom for a while first, and get some other teachers to try it with you. Then at least you have a support group if other teachers decide to shun you.

    I think another factor is as it is, teachers rarely have to justify what they do in their classroom. If you stick to the "tried and true" methods of teaching, no one can blame you for failure, since that's what they do too. When something radical is introduced, even if it works, it WILL BE challenged - not only by other teachers, but also likely by the principal and parents. The thought of having to justify a radical practice is scary. Even if you know you're abolishing grades for good reason, being able to spout off all those reasons eloquently and convincingly is not easy.

    I think what could really help though, is a relatively short video and FAQ, demonstrating how grading is harmful and how we can motivate students without it. Then teachers can just refer to that resource for explanation, saying, "I'd love to talk with you, but I'm just swamped tonight - hey, I'll send you this link with a video and FAQ. It explains why I do what I do. Check it out and if you have any further questions about why I don't grade, please let me know! I'd love to share ideas with you."

  4. I agree with Aaron - great post and we teachers often struggle with creativity. A big part of that is fear - fear of parents, admin, district, policies, etc. - all elements that are key elements in maintaining employment.

    There is also fear in getting it "wrong" in the high stakes testing world we live in. Somehow we have come to believe that if I "experiment" with grading, or give no grades at all, that our students will perform poorly on the end of year standardized testing. Irrational fear - yes, but there nonetheless. It comes from a lack of understanding in believing that the only way to gauge student learning is via assigning a score.

    Creative types who can think outside the box, implement it and make it work need to make sure they are sharing with the rest of us. Subversion and agenda harmony can take place.

    Thanks for stirring us.

  5. The creativity comment is an interesting one. I think teachers are scizophrenically creative. Sometimes we can come up with some awesome lessons with very creative project choices, but as soon as someone orders us to give a standardized test or follow a rigid curriculum, we fall in line like sheep.

    We are also all so damn busy, that we rarely if ever can come together to discuss the things we are doing. So if someone does disagree with something, we don't end up doing much about it because we are little islands of classrooms that just happen to share a common roof.

  6. I spend very little time discussing marks with my students. Instead we focus on learning and growth. We spend a great deal of time determining next steps. Descriptive feedback from teachers and peers and self-assessment have been identified as high-yield strategies that promote learning. Students also reflect regularly in their Learning Logs. They decide for themselves what is difficult and then develop strategies for dealing with those difficulties. In my province we are expected to develop success criteria with students; we then work towards meeting the criteria.
    We do have standardized tests in grades 3 and 6. Fortunately, administration has recognized through the school review process that solely focusing on test scores is counterproductive. I hope that school districts still caught up in judging progress by test scores will follow this lead. My province ranks 2nd in the world in reading and is amongst the top 10 in math so we must be doing something right!
    It is the teacher's decision to focus on marks. We do have choice and the power to speak up and act in the best interests of our students.

  7. I personally like grades. They show me progress in percentages on some of the basics that my kids somehow missed out on (I teach mostly students who are classified as significantly cognitively disabled and emotionally disturbed). I use the percentages to let them know the little skills that we need to work on. I talk about my kids skills all the time with them. I talk about them in the context of their grade as well as the context of real life. I also talk to them about a grade not always being who you are, and how sometimes I know what we do is hard but if they go the extra mile, their grade will be fine. I can tell when my kids are learning, and I do as much as I can to take advantage of multiple ways of assessing so I can try to give them an accurate picture of their abilities. Do I have things that I grade without much actual science in the percentage, oh yeah. Could I always back it up in a way that would please a parent or my admin, I am not sure. Not evaluating students with grades is like having a job without a performance review. There are good methods and there are poor methods of doing it, just like there are good method to review someone's job performance and some bad ways. I completely agree that learning is very abstract and hard to quantify with a grade, and sometimes I do things and think, "man how am I going to grade this she worked really hard on it but everything in it is wrong, but I know she learned some other more important skills."