Last year, Jean Erickson, our Language Arts teacher extraordinaire, gave her 12th grade students the freedom to decide what to study for the last two weeks before Christmas break. They chose “spoken word poetry” and the fun began. Students listened to spoken word poetry, analyzed it, figured out what made it powerful, and decided why they liked some poems and not others.
At the end of the unit, Jean asked her students to break into groups and come up with a spoken word poem of their own. She told them that they would have complete freedom to do whatever they wanted, and that the poems would not be graded.
This class is a strong one – a group of talented, bright students – but they often feel overwhelmed and complain about their workload. On any given assignment, about a third of the class will hand their work in late… sometimes very late. We were curious to see what kind of work they would do, knowing that the assignment “didn’t count,” especially at this time of year: they were busy with their end-of-the-year schoolwork and university applications. In widely held teaching mythology, the general belief is that if kids don’t get grades, they won’t bother doing the work.
On the day of the presentations, I was invited to come in and watch. The first group got up to present, and their poignantly moving poem portrayed the sadness they felt when breaking up with partners and not only losing a love, but losing their best friend, as well. When they finished speaking, there was a long, thoughtful silence that spoke stronger than any words could.
We listened to poems that dealt with the capturing of pictures to share on social media instead of fully living the moment, the Cold War, and the scariness of deciding on their future as they graduate high school.
I’ve rarely seen anything so powerful.
The best part about it was that it happened with absolutely no external incentive. I was amazed, and I had to ask the students what they thought of the project and why they had put so much effort into doing this astonishing work despite the lack of grades. This is what they had to say:
- We had the freedom to write about whatever we wanted. I asked how that was different from a normal writing workshop assignment, in which they have the freedom to choose their topic, and they said: Because there wasn’t going to be a grade attached, we felt free to write about anything we wanted. For instance, one group wrote about breaking up with a boy, which a teacher might think is a superficial topic. If we thought a teacher was grading us, we’d try to write about something the teacher would think was more meaningful, so that she’d give us a better grade.
- There wasn’t a rubric, so we didn’t feel limited. This one surprised me – a rubric is supposed to provide guidelines, not limit students. When there’s a rubric, you have to focus on meeting the requirements – using figurative language, including imagery, and all of that. Without the rubric we were free to do whatever we wanted and we could go deeper in our thinking.
- We were free to take risks. When you’re afraid of the grade, you try to do exactly what you think the teacher wants you to do and you don’t take risks. Grades make us nervous and then we can’t be creative.
- We took on a challenge because we weren’t scared of the grade we’d get. Normally when we’re getting a grade, we do whatever is easiest for us so that we can be guaranteed a good mark.
- When asked why they all did the work on time, they explained: When you feel pressured by a grade, sometimes you get so nervous you can’t do the work. But for the spoken word poetry project, there was no pressure, so we just got into it and had fun.
Jean and I listened in awe to their comments. The students basically reiterated what all of the research on grading says. Within five minutes, students had mentioned all the key points: grades kill intrinsic motivation, they stop students from thinking deeply, and instead of enjoying the learning, students focus only on the marks they’ll get.
The grade-free experiment was an over-the-top success. Now comes the hard part: how do we take this information and use it to make real changes to the way we assess everyday?
For more information on the negative effects of grading, take a look at the following: