"Why did you give me this grade?" a confused and annoyed student asked.
Puzzled and annoyed myself, I responded, "I didn't give you anything, that is the grade you earned."
"But I tried so hard!"
"I'm glad you worked hard, but I haven't graded your effort. How come you didn't come for help?"
"Can we go through the essay together and see where you can improve it?"
"I can still revise it for a better grade?"
"Stop focusing on the grade. Let's focus on the writing. Let's make a strategy for how you can improve what you did here and make a plan for what comes next to improve your writing."
"So I can get a better grade?"
I'm sure I'm not the only one who has had this very circular conversation. It is especially frustrating after spending half a year trying to explain to students that grades aren't the focus of our class, learning is.
But I stay patient and refocus and try to refocus him too.
For too long, grades have been the center of the educational universe. They are the stepping stone to power and advancement. They predict futures and define people.
But they are false and therefore all that comes from them are a smokescreen for the illusion of knowing. When realistically, all they do is produce stress and indicate compliance or promote inflation and reward for playing the game of school well.
Teachers, students, and higher education systems need to start valuing learning and progress over points if we want our students to be truly career and college ready.
Here's how grades are harmful to learning:
They promote unnecessary competition between students that has nothing to do with learning. Learning should be a cooperative experience, not a competitive one.
They inaccurately communicate what a student knows and can do because of points given or taken away for compliance like: lateness, neatness, creativity, following directions, homework, etc.
Assignment completion is not an indicator of learning, especially if it isn't a great assignment. This includes homework. Homework should be practice and differentiated appropriately, not graded. Students can show what they know through a number of ways that don't always have to be the one and only one a teacher offers. Behavior is not an indicator of mastery and therefore bad behavior can't and shouldn't impact grades. Although they definitely need to be addressed, punishing a child with a grade because of it defeats the purpose of what grades are really supposed to do, communicate about learning. Behavior and mastery need to be kept separate.
They take the focus off the learning. Let's face it as soon as you put a grade on an assignment or a test, a student stops paying attention. What if we changed that paradigm, only gave feedback and provided multiple opportunities for kids to learn?
They put unnecessary stress on students to perform which ends up being counterproductive.
Giving grades just to give them rather than providing timely, specific feedback is delinquent. Yes, grades are easier for teachers and provide a substantial amount of power that can be demoralizing to students.
Averages don't adequately communicate specifics of learning. They put emphasis on a few things and a B can mean many things ... what if the word "yes" also meant no sometimes? I think we can agree that would be confusing to everyone. We need a more precise way of communicating that can empower students and teach them more about themselves as learners.
So are you ready for the no grades challenge?
Watch this video:
Then make a video of your own and post it here. Let's work together to change education by creating environments that encourage students to develop strengths and continue to work on specific challenges.
Are you ready?
*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher Blog Work in Progress in January of 2015. It has been modified.