Friday, May 13, 2011

If we don't grade how will we know if children are learning?

Dan Pink organized a very cool project called What's your sentence? The idea is to distill your life - what it's about, why you're here - into a single sentence.

So what's my sentence? For now, this is what I've come up with:
He made grading and other arbitrary ranking systems so impossible to justify that parents, students and teachers had to focus on real learning.
When I speak or write about abolishing grading, one of the first questions I get in response goes something like this:
If we don't grade, how will we know if children are learning?
To this I say, where there's interest achievement will follow.

If we want to know if school is addressing it's primary mandate to nurture a child's desire to go on learning, then we need to start asking kids if they like school. While it is important to observe kids during class, it may be even more telling to find out if they willingly engage in learning when the expectations (and often manipulations) to do so are no longer present.

Do kids go on chattering about what they were doing in class when they are out of class? Do they go home and talk their parent's ear off about the cool experiments they did today? Do they beg to go to the local library or book store so they can purchase their next book that they want to read for pleasure? Do you find them Googling cool questions about stuff you didn't think they even knew about?

Asking how we will know if children are learning is a great question, but assuming that learning and grading are synonymous is the first clue that we've been in school for too long. Real learning is found in children not data, and unfortunately, there is no appropriate shortcut to collecting or sharing this information. At best gradesandtests are simply unhelpful in ascertaining whether children are learning and at worst they are harmful towards life-long learning.

What does this look like in real life? The forward in Kelly Gallagher's book Readicide puts it this way:
Readicide by Kelly Gallagher is one of the few books that appear every year in education. Although the primary focus of the book is on adolescents' reading, or the lack of it, the message is one that will ring true for teachers of grades K-12.
Gallagher defines readicide early on as the "systematic killing of the love of reading, often exacerbated by the inane, mind-numbing practices found in schools." He then documents just how widely readicide is practiced and discusses its outcomes. Citing recent reports from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, he illustrates how powerful readicide has been in creating aliterates - people who can read but largely do not. 
The data available indicate that we are producing more and more aliterates every year. In many cases, we do so with good intentions. State and national initiatives linked to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 have created schools in which lessons are focused primarily on improving reading test scores. As a result, instruction has been narrowed and made even more mind-numbing than in earlier eras (and those eras did not provide much to celebrate). The end result is that NCLB have demonstrated no improvement in actual reading achievement and instead show a disturbing potential for fostering readicide.
The point to be taken here is that we should care not only that children can read but do read; more generally, we should be concerned with encouraging children to want to learn at least as much as we encourage them to learn.

John Dewey states his case in his book Experience and Education:
What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?
If you were to ask teachers to identify an ultimate goal for their students, most teachers might quickly recite something about helping kids become life-long learners. If we can agree that this sounds like a laudable goal, then we need to take John Dewey's question very seriously.

That is why I find it prudent to ask at least one question before I ever consider any plan of action or decision that will affect children in the classroom; be it a principal's new rule, a teacher's new lesson or a government's standardized test or policy, we should at least ask:
How will this affect children's interest in learning, their desire to keep reading and thinking and exploring?
A child's love for learning is not a fire we have to light, rather it is a flame we must be careful not to extinguish. Just as curiosity is the cure for boredom, the cure for curiosity is worksheets and testsandgrades. Only after years of schooling does a kids natural thirst for learning dissipate and die... but if we are mindful and reflective, we can ensure that children attend the schools they deserve.


  1. Joe, thank you so much for continuing to write on the issue of grading vs learning!

    I'm inspired every time I read your posts. What you write about resonates so much with our project What did you do in school today? where we want to see how intellectually engaged students are in their "learning". How motivated are they in class? How relevant is the work they're asked to do?

    When someone asks a student 'what did you do in school today?' we don't want them to say 'nothing', we want them to be so excited it's hard to get them to stop talking!

    Thanks for continuing to write so eloquently and persuasively about LEARNING.

    Cailey Crawford
    Director, Strategic Partnerships
    Canadian Education Association

  2. This is really one great post. I hope you will continue writing royal essays like this one. And hopefully many students and teachers will read your post.

  3. It takes at least a year to deschool a kid who's been in traditional schooling to get them to embrace learning again. The longer the child is in the system, the longer deschooling takes. Then, he can begin to recapture curiosity and passion again.


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