Friday, February 12, 2010
As I finish up a week at my school where teachers have just given their mid-term examinations, I felt it would be an appropriate point to raise the issue of grading. Grading is one of those things that all teachers do. It consumes our planning periods, week nights, and weekends. Students constantly ask us what their grade is because depending on which of the first six letters of the alphabet they receive (excluding E of course) can dramatically alter their weekend plans. We as teachers can be graded and schools as a whole are also readily defined by one of those magical five letters. Clearly grading should not be taken lightly. However, I pose the following question: Should we even be grading at all?
I can hear the outcry now. Of course we should be grading! How then would our students know how they are doing? They need grades for graduation, college admission, and job applications! This is all very true. Our current educational system is entirely dependent on grades. Those with A grades graduate with honors and go to the best colleges and universities. Those with B and C grades graduate and have opportunities to attend local colleges and community colleges. Those with D grades barely graduate and most likely join the work force right away. Those with F's, well they don't graduate because a lot of those letters mean that the student just hasn't cut it in his or her classes. There is the system in a nutshell. Your future prospects all depend on which of those 5 letters are most abundant on your report card.
I want to take you all back to ancient Greece. Here, teachers did not have all the technologies and access to information that we have today. They taught their pupils outside and taught them about the world they lived in based on the teacher's experience. Believe it or not, even the great Aristotle was not a straight-A student. In fact, Aristotle never received a 100 or an A on ANY assignment. That's because his teacher, a gentleman named Plato, was not constantly assessing his students with either a number or a letter grade. Despite this lack of evaluation, Aristotle seemed to do okay for himself. He not only produced some work on his own but he also managed to impart some of his wisdom onto some of his own students, especially one named Alexander, who later on was moderately successful in the field of empire expansionism.
The thing to think about is that we learn so much more from our mistakes then our successes. Think about when you've learned the most in your life. Odds are it was when you did something wrong, instead of when you did something right. I can't remember the countless words I spelled right during my elementary school spelling bee days. What I do remember is how to spell "bailiff" and "dumbbell" as those two words were the ones that brought my magical runs to an end. The same holds true for other areas of school. You don't remember your answers to that quiz you got a 100% on. But that one test where you missed one question and got the 99%, ugh, that one response will stick with you for a while. Has anyone else realized how backward this is? The more our students make mistakes, the more they learn from those mistakes. Yet those making the mistakes are the ones who "fail" classes as opposed to those who don't.
I know I am not the only one who feels that grades are superfluous. A former colleague of mine and good friend is currently trying to adapt this philosophy to his high school classroom. He is being met with much resistance. Why? Because it is so ingrained in students' minds that grades are the only thing that matters. I have lost track of how many times students have asked me, "Are we getting a grade for this?" If for whatever reason I say, "No" then students respond with a "Well then, why are we doing it?" Long gone are the days of ancient Greece where students learned to learn. Everything today is geared toward the acquisition of one of those 5 little letters. A class without grading? Why, that's just foolish. How could anybody learn in that environment?
I personally believe that this kind of environment would create superior learning. Think about having the opportunity to try classes in both high school and college without having the pressure of a grade. How many students would try something new like a shop class? How many students who have never drawn a picture might want to take an art class? How many high-level math students would try their hand at a class like calculus just to see how high they can jump? Think about the opportunities for students to pursue knowledge that they would genuinely find interesting and exciting. This would revolutionize education as we know it today. Students would be learning. Teachers would not have to have a red pen in their back pocket and be giving up their free time to grade. Colleges and universities would have to actually get to know students, interview them, and talk to them instead of basing admission on a sheet of paper with a lot of funky letters on it. The possibilities are endless and I get giddy just thinking about them.
Of course then I realize it will never happen. The system is too cemented. The American system of education needs easy ways to differentiate students and letters are the easiest way. We as teachers need to know why one student is understanding 95% of the material while another is understanding 70% of the material. Clearly, one deserves and A while another deserves a C-. Cultural backgrounds, language difficulties, home life, attendance, none of this is important. One student is an A-student and the other is a C-student, case closed. They can't both get A's that wouldn't be fair. And if they didn't receive grades, well, we've already gone over the anarchy that system would cause. In the meantime, it is up to us as teachers to decide how we can best assess our students. As for me, my students get a grade every day. If they are physically present and not disrupting the class, I see no reason why they should get anything lower than a C. Their grade is based on the day's lesson and is something that if they have been working diligently then they will have success on. I realize this is a far cry from my ideal gradeless world. However, I do think it is a positive first step in the right direction. It's not a flawless system, but in my mind it is A-OK.