By Mark Heintz
Last week, I celebrated my attempts to minimize the value placed on grades in order to focus on learning. In my previous post, I triumphed over my progress and stated, “So far, I have never felt better about finalized grades. Some student anxiety has been alleviated and I don’t feel that I have as many students point-grubbing. I feel that students are learning. The grade is an afterthought. They know they can argue to make a change. They know they have a voice in the process other than just the assessments I use. It has become a partnership. Something it should always be.”
I wish it was always this easy.
Minimizing grades is a process, and what I hope to do in writing these blog posts is to be as transparent as possible in hopes others see what I do and are willing to try it as well. I hope to not just present a perfect picture of the process of going to gradeless. I have encountered many bumps in the road because it’s hard to move away from relying on coercive grading methods, which, if we were to be honest with ourselves, grades are. It is even harder for students not to feel under the thumb of those practices. I firmly believe in order for me to make larger shifts in going gradeless it will require more people making the effort. Joy Kirr has curated a lot of educators attempts and practices in going gradeless, and I hope to continue to contribute to that resource hub.
The day I posted that blog, I asked my students some additional questions. As a class, writing is a focus, and I wanted more descriptive feedback. In another Google form, I asked them how they felt they’re doing and what they needed more help/time on in each of the following areas: making claims, using evidence, explaining that evidence, making connections between arguments, using prior knowledge to set the stage, and again what grade would they give themselves.
I am still incredibly happy with how this is going. The feedback from the students was overall positive. Their feedback was constructive and helpful for them and me. However, I did receive a comment that is troubling me. One of my students gave themselves an F and was very critical of themselves. I was confused by this reflection because the student has a clear voice, and they actively can do all of the things required of them. They are a strong reader, and they naturally make connections between topics and disciplines. If I were using traditional assessment metrics, this student would have an A.
When I conferenced with her, she said she needed the validation from me. She wanted me to give her the grade. She has been so accustomed to a teacher being the authority that without my grading her, she simply can’t do it. I expressed my hope that she should know what she needs/wants, that “grading” yourself would lead to me helping where she need it. I told her to go back and reevaluate what she put and why. I got an email later that day asking me to give her a grade. I again expressed my wishes, but I caved and said I would give her an A. This was her response:
“You’re the teacher. Ultimately, I have no say in what you do. Even with the illusion of us having a voice in anything, we don’t. I’m sorry for challenging your beliefs about how you run your classroom, but it’s justified by your control over the grade book”
This comment is hitting me in the reflection stomach. Comments like these demonstrate just how much power a teacher has in determining grades. Even as I am pushing the boundaries of what is possible in a school, I ultimately hold all of the power. As much as we’d like to think otherwise, using grades leads to a lack of motivation. The kids are stripped of the agency that I want them to have–partially because I do have the authority, but also because these students are experiencing traditional grading practices throughout the rest of their day and have experienced this practice for most of their schooling. I have spent this entire year minimizing grades, and I still get comments that reinforce traditional grading views. Next year, this student will most likely go to classes that reinforce their beliefs.
The ultimate problem of having all of the authority is that students will learn less. Grading causes a loss of intrinsic motivation. Giving a grade lends to a mentality that there is an end to learning; The grade is more meaningful than the process and the outcome. We use grades to get kids to be compliant, but we also see that they don’t take risks and often do required work to memorize what we are asking for the test and then forget it. However, that is not what I want school to be. I want them to have agency over their learning, and to do that, they need to have conditions that allow them to take risks, see that learning doesn’t have an end, and not feel threatened nor shamed to learn what we are asking them to learn.
I will continue to make shifts and share my journey in hopes that others do the same.
A special thanks to Kim Miklusak for feedback and edits on this post. She continues to be the best English teacher I never had.