Grades and Learning
By Joe Bower
A few years ago, I was teaching grade 8 a unit on life in science. We were examining animal cells, plant cells, human body systems, diseases and anything else the students felt like learning about. In my class, I provide my students with a lot of autonomy and choice in selecting what they want to learn.
Some students were learning about Leukemia while others learned about the organelles that make up the cell. Sarah approached me and asked if she could do a poster project showing what she could learn about breast cancer. I said, "that's up to you."
She began her research and poster during class, and come lunch she asked me if she could work on her project during her lunch hour. Again, I said, "that's up to you."
As she continued to glue new information on her poster, she turned to me and asked something very peculiar. "Mr. Bower, will I get an A on this?"
This was very odd because I abolished grading from my classroom practices years ago. In fact, the only time my students ever received a grade was on their district-mandated report card. Sarah had known this since day one and it was now March, which means she hadn't received a grade from me on any project for six months.
Another student overheard Sarah's question and replied, "Why are you asking Mr. Bower that? You know nothing is for grades!"
I too looked at Sarah in confusion and said, "Why are you asking me if your project will get an A? You know I won't grade it." I asked, "Why are you doing this poster?"
She look perplexed and said, "I want to get an A."
I asked her to stop working on her poster so I could ask my next question, "Sarah, why are you really doing this poster?"
She stopped and looked at me. She started to tear up a little, and said, "my aunty has breast cancer."
I was moved by her honesty and sincerity. It was very clear to me that she cared deeply for her aunty. I said, "Sarah, I couldn't think of a better reason for you to do this poster project. You do this poster and share it with your aunty."
Two days later, Sarah and her mom came in for student-led portfolios. I started to share this story with Sarah's mom when she started to cry. Then Sarah cried. I didn't cry, but I was close. Her mom shared with me that Sarah was reading more at home and showed more interest in learning than in past years.
Honestly, I can not think of a better reason for Sarah to learn about breast cancer. And yet, if I graded students, this whole experience might have ended when she said she was doing this poster to get an A. Another teacher might have smiled and thought to themselves good for you, Sarah. You are such a good little student.
Can you see how ultimately distracting grades can be? They run interference on our motivation and learning all the time. We owe it to our students and our own learning to minimize the in-your-face characteristics of grading as much as we possibly can so all students can find more authentic reasons for learning. This isn't easy. After all, the odds are not good that your son or daughter have a teacher that refuses to grade; however, as the parent at home, you can do a lot to minimize the inherent damages a grades-oriented classroom can have.
Here are but a few suggestions for how to minimize the harmful effects of grading:
- As much as possible, refrain from asking or talking about the grades your son or daughter are assigned. Instead of asking "What did you get?" consider asking "What did you learn?" At the very least, conversations about their grades should happen after you talk about their learning.
- Come report card time, don't make a big deal of the grades; don't boast about their high grades and don't be disappointed in their low grades. Engage in a conversation that will encourage your child to reflect on their learning -- not their grades.
- Grades can only ever be experienced by students as a reward or punishment, so if you reward or punish your child based on their grades, you are in essence rewarding them for getting a reward or punishing them for being punished. This is the kind of vicious cycle that victimizes kids.
- Consider reading Alfie Kohn's article The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement and a page on my website dedicated entirely to how we can and should minimize and ultimately abolish grading.
In the end, we could choose to use grades in order to artificially induce our children to learn, but to be honest, I'd rather help them find a real reason for learning.
Joe Bower teaches in Canada and blogs at www.joebower.org where he challenges "traditional" schooling while exploring more progressive forms of education. You can follow him on Twitter or e-mail him directly with questions or comments at email@example.com.
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