Thursday, March 25, 2010

To Grade or Not to Grade - An Open Letter to My Colleagues

If you were to take of poll of the hot button issues in education, grading practices would easily rank in the top five.  If not the top 5 it would definitely make the top ten.  We are currently debating grading practices at my school.  Among the issues on the table are the zero policy, how to handle retakes, and whether or not we will record a grade on our regular common assessments that are also used to identify students with remediation needs.  For the record, I would never give another grade of any type if it were completely up to me.  I advocate for an either "you learned it" or "you are in progress" system.

For the last twelve months, I have been soul-searching, researching, and people searching to help me find another way.  I have been looking for creative ways to satisfy both sides of the debate (even though there are probably more than two!).  Along the way I have read the works of Alfie Kohn, perhaps the most popular anti-grade activist on the planet today.  I have read the summary of Black and Wiliam's study Inside the Black Box. I have come across a host of other resources.  They all say the same thing - grading inhibits performance, motivation, and quite possibly learning itself.

I have to be honest in my thinking though.  Grades in themselves are not bad things.  They do provide a measurement of our learning.  You can't drive a car if you don't pass the test.  You can't perform surgery if you don't pass the test.  You can't even coach intercollegiate sports if you don't pass the test.  What has created this mess we have today if the way grades have been used.  Instead of providing a measurement of learning, grades have become competitive measures, reward (and punishment) systems, and proof that I have memorized a set of facts.  This shift is a result of the way behaviorism and "accountability" has permeated our culture.

As I write that last sentence, I am struck with an internal inconsistency that is forcing me to deal with an incomputable dilemma, ala HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I am a staunch cognitive behaviorist.  At least I used to be.  Perhaps I am slipping into some other primary mode of thinking.  Even so, I do believe that we learn certain patterns of behavior based on the negative or positive responses we receive for that behavior.  I still believe that such an approach to the classroom has merit, even when it comes to learning.

What if we set our expectations on the basis of whether you have learned or mastered a set of material instead of centering the the approach on the grade you receive?  I could provide several anecdotal accounts of where that is working.  Given a short amount of time, I can provide research to back it as well.  From a behaviorist perspective, you can then condition the student to value learning and maybe even become intrinsically motivated.

The bottom line in this debate is what is best for the kids?  We must take an honest look at that answer, considering everything we know to be true about how students learn, how their brains work, and what the data tells us about all of it.

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