Sunday, August 22, 2010

The day I abolished grading

I can remember the day I decided to abolish grading. It was November 2006. The night before I had read Alfie Kohn's article The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement and it had been the pedagogical pill I had been looking to cure my ailments for grading.

I showed up the next day to teach my grade 8 students with something in mind. That year I taught two classes of about 30 students each language arts and science. I had been integrating the classes a little, and so they had days before handed in an essay on the particle model of matter. As far as they knew, I should have been grading their papers, but I was about to blow their minds.

At the time, I was ready to be a statistic that reinforced the fact that at least half of all teachers quit inside their first 5 years on the job. After about a 6-8 month period of severe disenfranchisement from the teaching profession, I had finally found a breath of fresh air.

I walked into class and announced to my students that I had decided not to grade their essays. I was beaming with excitement.

They were not.

Suddenly, the air beneath my wings had disappeared. My excitement was lost on them... I was disheartened.

But what happened next both appalled and enlightened me. I stood there at the front of the class and heard what sounded like all 30 of them yell in unison:

You mean we did this all for nothing!?!?

Initially I felt like I had been kicked in the groin with a golf shoe.

But then I felt like the Grinch... you know... when his heart grew three sizes that day!

Their disgust was all the proof I needed to tell me I was on to something. They had done all this because they expected a grade... and they figured I had better keep my end of the bargain! They didn't care about the particle model of matter. They didn't give two hoots about their essays, sentence structure or paragraphing. There was no love for learning. It was a game that I was perpetuating - and I was done perpetuating it.

I remember laughing to myself thinking... holy shit! Is this all a facade? Why are we here? I had to slap myself before these existential questions went too far.

I spent the next few months sharing, explaining, detailing and showing my students how I came to all this. A few brainiacs didn't agree. Some thought I was nuts. Most cared. All listened.

I took a risk that day. My course outline had suddenly become null and void. My students had become my formative assessment guinea pigs. So how did I survive? Well, at that time, I can't even tell you that I was all that well read on the subject of real learning, formative assessment or abolishing grading. I was pretty inexperienced and more than a little indulgent.

I didn't survive because of me. I survived because people trusted me. My administration, students and their parents trusted me. I was afforded enough room to work that I could become the educator I kind of thought I might maybe someday become.

As an educator, it was the day I reinvented how I taught and my students learned.

It was good.

You should join us.


  1. Great post Joe. I agree with this 100%. Most kids only do the work for the grade, not for the love of learning. My question is, how are your kids assessed? Certainly there are requirements by your province re: student grades and such. How do you meet these requirements?

  2. For me the recognition that grades were counter-productive came far more gradually. Theory followed praxis perhaps. Listening to you and reading Alfie Kohn has been more of a validation or articulation of my professional judgement. I am an uncertain enough person to need that sort of validation too. You all strengthen my resolve to do what I thought was the right thing. Thanks always for sharing.

  3. @Jerry, I think the answers to your questions are here:

    @Alan, as confident as I may appear Alan, I too go through cycles of fear and uncertainty. I routinely have to tell my amygdala to shut the hell up. Reading a little Kohn everyday seems to tame the lizard brain!

  4. For me, it was a gradual shift. I think Alfie Kohn was part of it. Oddly enough, so was Thomas Jefferson. And the Bible. And Neil Postman. It was a strange mix of authors and thinkers forcing me to examine whether my beliefs matched my practices as a teacher.

  5. I understand. We effectively elimiated grading last year at my old school, (I say, effectively because we still must report a letter grade and percent a the end of the year as a Ministry requirement.) It took many parent meetings and much cajoling of students, who'd often say thanks for the comments, but what kind of paper is this, an A, a B. But they get it now. All the work was more than worth it. I think we get better thinking and learning without grading.

  6. Joe-

    Thanks for sharing your story. I teach 5th grade in Everett, WA and in the last year or so I have begun to see teaching and learning in a whole new light. I have read a good amount of Alfie Kohn's work and the message he is sending is very clear to me. The difficult part will be how to convey this to my students. They are so wrapped up into rewards and grades (not just my students, nearly all students) that it's as if they've been programmed like robots. Have you had class disscussions with your students about the ills of rewards and grades? What do teachers in your building think about your philosophy on education? For me it's been a quiet road to walk down but I have a few friends who share similar ideas. How can we get children away from the infamous line, "Well what do I get if I do it?" I have some ideas but I'd love to hear your thoughts. I don't give homework and I don't often give grades unless I have to but recently my students worked in groups on a project of their choice related to early American exploration. When they finished, they presented, we enjoyed refreshments and students gave eachother feedback (what went well, what needed improvement). I didn't grade their project nor has any student asked me if they were getting a grade. I felt as though this was a positive learning experience where everyone was a winner and didn't suffer from a "grade" ora negative experience (they had choice!). Lunch is over but I'd love to chat so more and share ideas.


  7. @Jake,

    I do have class discussions where we talk about rewards and punishment. I let them hash it out before I share some of my thoughts and research. Like anything I teach, I want the kids to make meaning for themselves, so I avoid direct instruction on this topic.

    To get the kids to think about motivation, I share stories with the kids and ask them for their thoughts. The good news is that intrinsic motivation is natural, and deep down kids can construct an understanding for how powerful doing something for its own sake truly is.

    Here are some posts that might interest you on this topic:

    As for my colleagues, that is a work in progress. Some get it. Some don't. Others are interested. Others would rather not discuss it. It depends.