A few weeks ago in the secondary Language Arts department we were struggling with our students’ lack of interest in reading. After discussing an article by Alfie Kohn, we decided to revamp the way we were assigning independent and shared reading. The results were quick and positive….. you can read about our learning here.
Basically, our classes became more democratic and we tried to honour student choices. However, the moment we implemented new teaching strategies, the next question began to come up….how do we assess our students’ reading? It immediately became clear that there was a disconnect between our new democratic teaching stance and our traditional grading system.
At the same time, I tweeted Alfie Kohn, thanking him for his article and letting him know how he had inspired us. He tweeted back “Next step: phase out grades?” and told me to have a look at his article “The Case Against Grades”. My first thought (and response) was that we couldn’t….the government that oversees us would never allow it. Kohn wrote back “1- Don’t grade individual assignmts; 2 – Let kids choose final grades”. Well that made more sense than my defensive “we can’t do anything about it” stance and seemed, not only doable but the right choice, given all the teacher comments about assessment. So, for our next Friday professional development meeting we read “The Case Against Grades” and then discussed several of the negatives of our current grading system.
- When teachers grade assignments, they not only do most of the work….they do most of the learning. Students don’t learn to critique their own work and therefore can’t decide how to improve it.
- Students don’t see grades as something they earn, they see it as something we “give” them. They lose ownership of their education.
- Kids stop caring about what they’re learning and they only care about the grade they’ll earn. We can see this clearly when our students move from our ungraded elementary to our graded secondary school. Almost instantly, the grades suck the joy out of discovery and replace it with anxiety about the numbers.
- Students stop taking risks and fear failure. This causes them to become less creative and to actually learn less. True learning can only take place when we take risks, fail, and try again.
- Teachers are forced to give grades which can seem arbitrary. We constantly ask ourselves “is this grade fair?” and the answer is rarely clear.
- Grades make it hard to differentiate. Good teaching means taking each student from the level they’re at to the next level, but when we’re judging students against a “standard”, we lose the freedom to do this.
Next we thought about different ways that we could implement some of Kohn’s ideas. Teachers discussed grading less (not all assignments need to be graded), having students decide on the criteria they should try to meet in an assignment, asking students to self-assess their reading assignments and writing drafts, and having students decide on their final grade and put together portfolios to support the grade they think they deserve. Teachers were inspired and everyone was ready to jump in and try something. Stay tuned for our results!!! (spoiler alert: they’re positive!)