Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Why Grades?

There is not much use for grades in my educational philosophy:  in short, the goal of education, public or private, is for students to learn how to learn on their own. This is, like all learning, a many-step process. And "on-your-own" does not preclude "with advice and guidance" - today's learners need to seek the advice of good mentors (online, in school, in community) as part of the independent learning experience.  Teaching means presenting appropriate problems, not information. Nothing new here, at least from my POV.  Good standards are challenges; they can, and should, be reworded by the teacher as problem statements. 
As a believer in problem-solving, I have begun to assess student work each time a small step has been taken. Whether we are reading a novel, parsing a sentence, writing a dialogue, working individually or in groups, I ask:
  • What have you done?
  • Why?
  • What might you do differently?
  • What do you need to do now?
Those are my most important assessments of learning.

I have an essential last question. I ask, "Would you have tried as hard if this [project, activity, essay] was not graded?"  

Those students who are beginning to learn how to learn for themselves invariably say Yes.  Some are even confused by the question.  Those students who don't yet learn for themselves will often be truthful and say No.  But sometimes earnest and hard-working students say, "I would have done even more work if you were not grading this.  I had to rush to meet the deadlines and standards."  Learning is "meeting" within a time frame.  This is what grades gift us.

I can check to see how many times any student looks at PowerSchool, our online gradebook.  But I don't.  I would rather look a student in the eye and challenge his or her interest in learning.  I observe that these conversations matter.  In fact, I attribute my success with our last units of study (see previous post) to inquiry into the meaning of grades.  

Compared to graded work, what we did in the last two weeks of school - individuals and groups digging into hard texts and poems - is fun.  I keep it HARD by using the class community to enforce standards.  Learning students have little - at best awkward - tolerance for the unprepared and disengaged. 

Under my system, what should be graded?
  • Engagement in the problem-solving process that is learning.  We are only just beginning to learn how to do this.
  • Products of the problem-solving process of learning, with the caveat that the products must be differentiated. Perhaps this is the core of true differentiation. 
And that is all.

Standardized testing is meaningless as a measure of the learning that interests me.  I find it ironic that we are spending a great deal of time and dollars to "address low literacy" (raise test scores) when doing so in the classroom creates the disengagement with learning that causes the scores of the most at risk to stagnate.  If we used a problem-solving approach, rather than a research-based pedagogical approach to low scores, we would develop classroom practices that make learning hard and fun.  Scores would not be an issue because learning how to read difficult text would happen.  

That is not the direction we are going, I fear, so I have joined the army, in much the same way I would have become a soldier non-combatant.  I will be attending our unpaid summer Literacy Institute in order to make sure my voice is heard on the two issues that most concern me as the district moves forward:  the focus on scores rather than on kids learning, and the embarrassing neglect of the role of online opportunities for learning (problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking...) available in every classroom and most homes.  

The efforts of our little army of teachers, literacy coaches and administrators will be graded, by the way. 

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