DeTesting and DeGrading Schools June 2013
Reduced to Numbers: From Concealing to Revealing Learning
by Joe Bower
“A mark or a grade is an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an indefinite amount of material.” —Paul Dressel (1957) I am not the same teacher I used to be. When I started, I was focused on power and control. I assigned loads of homework, dished out huge penalties for late assignments, assigned punishments for rulebreaking behavior, and averaged marks to determine the students’ final grade. I did some of these things because I was trained to do so in university. However, most of these teaching strategies were being done mindlessly and, for the most part, I was simply teaching the way I was taught. It took only six years before I wanted to quit teaching. I had become increasingly unhappy with my teaching and my students’ learning. I was tired of laboring through hours and hours of marking, and I hated nagging kids to complete their homework. Instead of students asking “What is this question worth?” I wanted them to actually get excited about the content. I wanted change, and I came close to thinking that change required me to leave the profession. Instead of pulling the plug on what could have been a short teaching career, I started to question the traditional pedagogy that I had so mindlessly adopted. I began asking questions that would challenge the status quo. Many professional development conferences provide teachers with opportunity to ask questions such as “How do I mark better?” or “How do I get my students to do their homework?” At first glance these look like challenging and provocative questions, but they are still questions that promote more of the same. Far more powerful questions are “Why do I mark?” or “Why do I assign homework?” Investigating the motives for our actions, rather than merely examining our methods of implementation, is a better use of our time, particularly if the subject in question is a belief or habit that we’ve come to accept as a given truth. I have come to see that
[t]here is a time to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us. The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to us like plain common sense. At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea; it has us. (Kohn, 1999a, p.1) For too long, I was letting schooling get in the way of my teaching and too many of my teaching practices were based on pedagogy that was at best unhelpful and at worst harmful to my longterm goals. Through critical questioning and extensive research, I came to the conclusion that my pedagogy had to revolve around one priority: learning. If there were things that worked to sabotage learning, then it was my professional responsibility to remove them. Since 2006, I have worked to identify and remove things like grading that traditional school has done for so long. And when I share this with others, I receive mixed responses. Some listen intently, nodding their heads in agreement, as if deep down they have always sensed something wrong with what Seymour Papert (1988) described as School with a capital S, which is a place that he explains as having a bureaucracy that has its own interests and is not open to what is in the best interest of the children. Unfortunately, when most people close their eyes and think of their Schooling, many have experienced no other kind of School than the one with a capital S. Some listen in shock and awe at how school could even function without such things as grading. The people who have a hard time comprehending how children could learn without extrinsic manipulators concern me the most. They are so invested in traditional schooling that they have never questioned its foundation. Unfortunately, some have a distrustful view of the nature of children; they believe that without grading there would be nothing to stop children from running amok. The Day I Abolished Grading Old School is not a place; it is a state of mind that thinks very little of the mind. I remember the day in November 2006 that I chose to no longer subscribe to Old School. I remember searching the Web for alternatives to grading and finding an article titled “The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement” (Kohn, 1999b). It was the first Alfie Kohn article I had ever read, but it would be far from the last, and it proved to be the pedagogical pill that I had been looking for to cure my ailments for grading. I remember devouring the article and returning to my grade 8 classroom the next day with a sense of revitalized urgency that I could not wait to share with my students. That year my teaching assignment included two classes of about 30 grade 8 students whom I taught language arts and science. In an effort to integrate the two subjects, I had assigned my students to write an essay on the particle model of matter. As far as they knew, I should have been grading their papers, but I was about to blow their minds. I walked into class and announced that I
had decided not to grade their essays. I was beaming with excitement; they were not. Suddenly, the air beneath my wings had disappeared. My excitement was lost on them, and I was disheartened. But what happened next both appalled and enlightened me. I stood there at the front of the class and heard what sounded like all 30 of them yell in unison, “You mean we did this all for nothing?” Initially I felt like I had been kicked in the gut, but then I felt like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes that day. Their disgust was all the proof I needed to tell me I was on to something. They had completed their essays because they expected a grade, and they figured I had better keep my end of the bargain. They did not care about the particle model of matter. They did not care about their essays’ sentence structure or paragraphing. There was no love for learning. It was a game that I was perpetuating, and I was done perpetuating it. I remember laughing to myself, thinking, Is this all a facade? Why are we here? I had to slap myself before these existential questions went too far. I spent the next few months sharing, explaining, collaborating, detailing, showing, and working with my students on how I came to the conclusion that grading had to go. A few brainiacs did not agree. Some thought I was nuts. Most cared. All listened. I took a risk that day. My course outline had suddenly become null and void. My students had become formative assessment guinea pigs. So how did I survive? Well, at the time, I cannot even tell you that I was all that well read on the subject of real learning, formative assessment, or abolishing grading. I was inexperienced and more than a little indulgent. I survived because people trusted and supported me. My administration, students, and their parents trusted me. I was afforded enough room to work that I could become the educator I thought I might someday become. As an educator, it was the day I reinvented how I taught and why my students learned. No Good Reason to Grade Once I was able to move past simply asking “How do I grade better?” I realized that I needed to focus more on “Why do I grade at all?” There is a lot of common sense around why we grade students, but if you look closely, the conventional wisdom does not make all that much sense and is unfortunately all too common. ● We grade to motivate. Conventional wisdom tells us we grade students to artificially induce their extrinsic motivation to strive for the reward of a high grade, or to avoid the punishment of a low grade. Either way, it is the carrot or the stick that is the driving force. The problem here is that “we need to stop asking ‘How motivated are my students?’ and start asking ‘How are my students motivated?’” (Brandt, 1995. para. 40). Motivation is not a single entity that you either have a lot or little of (Deci, 1996). There are two kinds: intrinsic and extrinsic. If you are intrinsically motivated then you are doing something for its own sake; if you are extrinsically motivated, you are driven to do something, or not do
something, based on a reward or punishment that may be waiting for you. But that is not even the interesting part—the real catch here is that these two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related (Kohn, 1999a). When you grow students' extrinsic motivation by bribing them with high grades or threatening them with low grades, you run the risk of growing their extrinsic motivation while their intrinsic love for what you want them to learn shrivels. Grades can only ever gain shortterm compliance from students when what we really desire is their authentic engagement. If we give grades and our students are uninterested or disengaged, might it be because they are searching for a more intrinsically motivating reason to learn? I suppose we could use grades to artificially induce children to learn, but I would hope we could help them find a real reason to do so. Needless to say, playing on children’s extrinsic motivation to learn is, at best, a questionable practice. ● We grade to rank and sort. Grades allow us to place students nicely on an artificial hierarchy so that we can keep detailed records of who is at the top and who is at the bottom. When we track students like this, we encourage them to see learning as a competitive endeavor where their peers are nothing more than obstacles to be conquered to guarantee one’s own success, and, by definition, when students compete against one another, they cooperate less. The problem here is that competition is for the strong, and public education is for everyone. We need to spend far less time caring about who is beating whom and care far more about helping all children learn. Sadly, focusing our limited time, effort, and resources on ranking and sorting children is often easier than ensuring that they all learn. Some countries such as Finland normally avoid gradebased assessments for elementary students because they want to avoid having their children ranked and sorted (Sahlberg, 2011). ● We grade to provide feedback. By definition, a grade is any attempt to reduce learning to a symbol. It is important to note that 75%, B, and “proficient” have distinctions without a difference. A grade by any other name is still a grade. Grades provide students and parents with an idea where they stand in comparison to their peers, without giving them the information they need to figure out what they have done well or how they can improve. According to Butler (1988), grades are a primitive form of feedback that grows students’ egos and head size without ever encouraging them to grow intellectually. Even if teachers somehow developed the “perfect” grading system that reliably ranked and sorted children with impeccable validity, placing the proper label on each child as if they were a slab of meat ready to go to market, it is likely we could give the system everything it could ever want while providing the children nothing they really need. There is also an argument to be made that learning cannot be measured but it can be observed and described (Lucido, 2012). Because “measurable outcomes may be the least significant results of learning” (Linda McNeil as cited in Kohn, 1999e, p. 75), there is no need for us to labor over
reducing student learning to a grade—it is simply not why I became a teacher nor is it a good use of my limited time and effort. In other words, the bane of reducing learning to a number is that it inevitably overvalues what can be quantified and undervalues what cannot. As for parents, the best feedback they can receive about their children’s learning is to observe their children learning—no reductionist data are required. It might be argued that the best kinds of information about children’s learning might never fit on the refrigerator. We grade to prepare children for future grading. We have a dangerous preoccupation with preparation. College does not begin in kindergarten; kindergarten begins in kindergarten (Bonawitz et al., 2011). When school confuses harder with better and becomes a race to do everything earlier and faster, school becomes developmentally inappropriate (Kohn, 1999c). Holding K–12 hostage to postsecondary’s archaic grading practices is but one more way to stifle innovation. What Replaces Grades I see the case against grades as having two parts. One is to make the case for why we should not be grading at all, and the other is to make a case for what we should be doing in place of grading. Because the primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning, I have come to live by what Alfie Kohn has identified as Bruner’s Law, which is to say that we should try and create an environment where students can “experience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as information” (as cited in Kohn, 1999e, p. 191). In a sentence, Bruner outlines for us both what we should and should not be doing when we assess. We often seriously overestimate the effectiveness of judgment and evaluation as a precondition of learning, and because grades can only ever be experienced as a reward or punishment, they have to go (Kohn, 1999e). Bruner also challenges us to tailor our assessments in a way that the learner will inevitably experience as information. We want to avoid invoking an emotional response and ensure that the feedback causes the student to think and engage in reflective learning (Jones & Wilam, 2008). The Latin root for assessment is assidere, which means “to sit beside.” This is precisely why there is no substitute for what a teacher observes when working with students while they are still learning. When I sit beside my students, I often guide my feedback in a threestep process where (a) I share what I see and hear, (b) make suggestions, and (c) ask reflective questions. ● What I see. This step is all about observing students while they are still learning. This is not about what I like or do not like, so it is critically important that I refrain from judging. (I see you have periods at the ends of your sentences; I see you included information that compared and contrasted viscosity and density.) ● Suggestions. I tend to frame my suggestions by prefacing them with either “Consider next time to . . .” or “Continue next time to . . .” (Consider next time to include punctuation at
the end of all your sentences; Continue to make your thinking clear about how viscosity and density are not the same thing.) ● Questions. I try to ask insightful questions that invoke thoughtfulness from students. I stay away from questions that have one right answer and questions that could be answered with one word. The purpose here is to encourage students to reflect on their learning. (If you were to write a couple more sentences, how could you use punctuation marks other than periods? How could you compare and contrast viscosity and density to another concept?) It is tempting to adopt a morethemerrier attitude toward providing students with both a comment and a grade, but the research shows that the presence of a grade (with or without a comment) is responsible for lower levels of motivation, a loss of interest for learning, and a preference for easier tasks (Black et al., 2004; Butler, 1988; Pulfrey, Buch, & Butera, 2011). Unfortunately, the positive benefits of the formative comment are overshadowed by the negative effects of the grade. In other words, the power of formative comments requires the absence of grades. Wooden Meets Bruner I often find it helpful to share realworld examples where this kind of teaching and coaching exist. The following is my favorite. John Wooden is considered by The Sporting News to be the greatest coach in American sports. To say that Wooden was a good coach is like saying Einstein was good at science. He coached basketball at UCLA for 12 years where he won 10 NCAA titles (including 7 in a row). In those 12 years he won 664 games out of 826 opportunities (that is a .804 winning percentage), and during that time the UCLA Bruins ran the table with an 88game winning streak that took place over almost three years (four perfect 300 seasons). If you were to go back in time and visit one of John Wooden’s practices, you might expect to see him as the sage on the stage, providing his students with all of the knowledge they would need in his chalkandtalk lectures. You might assume you would see him praising the hard workers and punishing the lollygaggers. However, if you were to make these assumptions, you would be wrong. When Ron Gallimore and Roland Tharp, two education psychologists, attended John Wooden’s practices for the first time (while conducting a study of Wooden), they were shocked to see almost none of the above. When they observed Wooden, they were at first quite perplexed because it appeared like he hardly coached at all. “We thought we knew what coaching was,” Gallimore said (as cited in Coyle, 2009, p. 168). But on closer inspection, they found that he used his time to observe a lot and make short and quick comments to his athletes while they were actually performing. Wooden did not give
speeches. He did not dole out punishments, nor did he hand out rewards and praise. In fact, when Gallimore and Roland actually recorded and categorized 2,326 of Coach Wooden’s acts of teaching, they found that only 6.6% were acts of disapproval while 6.9% were acts of praise (Coyle, 2009). That means the majority of his interactions with his athletes were judgmentfree statements of information. If there was ever a coach who sports fans could agree should be given license to pass judgment, it would likely be John Wooden. But when given the chance, even Wooden preferred to reserve judgment. I am not sure if Wooden and Bruner ever sat down for a drink to discuss pedagogy, but it would appear that Wooden was drinking what Bruner was pouring. Detoxing Students from Grade Use I have come to see grades as school’s drug of choice, and we are all addicted. Since 2006, I have tailored my assessment practices toward focusing less on grading and more on learning. Here are the six steps that summarize my experience with students and their withdrawal from grade use. Stage 1: Intervention At the beginning of the school year, I provide students with a course description with a section titled Assessment that reads: I am the kind of teacher who strongly believes in creating an environment where students can experience success and failure not as reward and punishment, but as information. I substitute traditional grades with informative feedback that is provided to the students while they are still learning. Report cards will be the only time students will receive a grade in my class. Report card marks will be determined based on (1) the student’s projects and learning portfolio (2) my own professional judgment based on what I see and hear while observing and working with the student while they are still learning (3) selfassessments that ask the student to reflect upon their own learning and proposed grade. Assessment throughout the rest of the year will be either verbal or written feedback from me to help the student learn and improve. (Bower, 2011) Depending on their achievement level, students respond uniquely. The high achievers are usually a little wary of the whole idea. After all, I am removing their high. No longer can they define themselves by this metaphorical pat on the head. However, most of them are used to complying with the teacher, which all too often helped them to become high achievers in the first place. But nonetheless, they are more than a little suspicious of me.
The average achievers are mostly, if not all, appreciative for the removal of grades—perhaps only because it is something different from the monotony school has offered for so long. They thirst for something different, even if they do not really know of any alternatives. The low achievers are so desperate for someone to cease the beatings that they nearly fall over with something that looks half like exuberance and half like exhaustion. Stage 2: Honeymoon Sobriety Everyone slowly but surely forgets about grades. People naturally want to learn, and kids are people, too. They are starving for an opportunity to learn for its own sake. However, for those who cannot cope with quitting cold turkey and need a grade, I do offer them the opportunity to come and speak with me in private. I then ask them what grade they think they should get. This leads to a conversation where we agree on a grade of some kind. If students care about grades, it is likely because the adults in their life are encouraging them to do so. When the adults talk less about grades, the students tend to follow their lead. Stage 3: Withdrawal Symptoms Everything will be going fine, and all of a sudden a few students will start to panic as if they were deep sea diving and realized they forgot their oxygen tank. They will run up to you with this ghostly look on their face and beg you to give them a grade. It would be expected that high achievers would experience withdrawal, but you may be surprised to see how many low achievers will develop them as well. All students have been exposed to grade use for years, some as early as kindergarten, so when you wean them off of grades, they will all experience a kind of withdrawal. Regardless of their achievement level, all students, in some way or another, have come to define themselves by their teacher’s judgment. So when the teacher no longer invokes their judgment, some students panic. Kohn (1999d) writes, “First, it is said that students expect to receive grades and even seem addicted to them. This is often true; personally, I’ve taught high school students who reacted to the absence of grades with what I can only describe as existential vertigo. (Who am I, if not a B+?)” (para. 30). Just as a high achiever may have come to identify as an A student, the low achiever has become accustomed to identifying as an F. The point here is not that we would want more students to define themselves as A students; rather, we would want children to understand that there is more to school and learning than simply collecting As or avoiding Fs—and we do not want anyone to define themselves based on any grade. “We must constantly remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of evaluation is to enable students to evaluate themselves. Educators may have been practicing this skill to the exclusion of learners; we need to shift part of that responsibility to students. Fostering students’ ability to direct and redirect themselves must be a major goal—or what is education for?” (Costa, 1989, p. 2).
Stage 4: Sustained Sobriety I taught my students language arts and science for 104 minutes per day, Monday through Friday, for 10 months of the year. Despite a few instances of withdrawal, my students spent more of their time focusing on learning. I never heard students ask those nagging questions like, “Is this for marks?” “Does this count?” or “Why did I only get a halfmark?” Rather than having students look at my class syllabus while doing a cost/benefit analysis to figure out if something was worth their time, they were attracted to learning for its own sake. While it is true that I still have a curriculum and that I still have assignments that I like students to consider, I have to be flexible. Sustained sobriety from grade use means that things such as autonomy, choice, initiative, and creativity will pop up as symptoms of success. This is evident when my students ask me if they can do poster projects, blog posts, research, and science experiments. On their own initiative, they upload pictures and videos to our class forum and blog about their learning, inside and outside of school. I must be flexible, too, because I am no longer in control (and rightfully so) of their learning. We all want our students to show initiative and creativity, so do not be disappointed when they want to learn something other than what our state or province (or even you) dictates. Do not be surprised if our overprescribed, contentbloated, externally dictated standardized curriculum gets in the way of students’ learning. During sustained sobriety, students see each other as allies to collaborate with, rather than as obstacles to be avoided or defeated in competition (Simon, 1970). They see me, the teacher, as a safe and caring ally rather than a judgeinwaiting that they must keep their distance from while showing only what I want to see. I accept them unconditionally and allow them to experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information. In essence, I am saying that sustained sobriety from grade use can bring on an acute case of real learning, and it is awesome! Stage 5: Relapse At the end of grade 8, my students prepare themselves for high school. During this stage, it is inevitable for them to start thinking about how things will be different. Most of the time, they are thinking of their social lives, but many of them will ponder how their education will change. Some will revisit Stage 3, withdrawal, as they begin to panic about high school. Some may even turn on us, their sobriety sponsors, because in their mind, they fear we have not prepared them for the rigors of high school. Some students and parents may wonder if we have actually set them up for failure. After all, we have given little to no grades, while the high school might live on them. For this, I have to share the wealth of stories I have heard from my alumni students when they come back to visit. My conversations go something like this:
“How’s high school?” “I have tons of homework. We have so much to get through in so little time.” “What is the biggest difference between last year and this year?” “Tons of homework, and grades are important. I have to study a lot.” “What are you studying?” “This term is mostly biology.” “What are you studying biology for?” “To do well on the test.” Do not get me wrong, there are a lot of high school teachers who are better teachers than I am, but the system is driven to distraction—it is rotten. We have taken our eye off the ball (learning) and our children are suffering for it. So much so that even when the kids see good learning happening in class, they become suspicious (Fried, 2005) and express doubt in whether they are being “prepared” for something else. The ultimate antidote to withdrawal late in the school year is to encourage students to reflect on their learning. I can remember sitting down with students who were worried that they were not ready for high school, and after looking through their portfolios and projects, I would ask them, “Do you think you have been learning a lot this year?” After looking at all of their evidence, they always answer yes, which leaves me with only one more question. “Can you think of a better way of preparing for high school?” Stage 6: Mindful Reflection Students will go to high school and experience the rigor of highstakes tests, grades, and homework. They will play the game and jump through the hoops on their way to writing a state or provincial highstakes exit exam. And if they come back to visit, they provide me with some interesting stories that contradict much of what they did in my grade 8 classroom. It is my experience that this step does happen, but for the most part, I may never know it, because not every student will come back and visit me. But from the anecdotal samples that I have collected from alumni students, an overwhelming majority of them experience the feeling that their learning would have been much better off if we abolished grading.
Grading without Grading I have worked to abolish grading from my classroom as much as I possibly can. When I cannot it is because I am mandated to have a grade on the report card. It is likely that most educators face a bureaucracy that imposes some form of grading requirements. The good news is that abolishing grading or quitting teaching are not the only choices. Because the first step toward landing on the moon was taken on earth, abolishing grading entirely can only happen after a move has been made to grade less, and I am willing to bet that most teachers grade more than they are mandated. The first step to grading less is to pick an assignment or project and do not grade it. Instead, provide students with only the formative feedback they need to learn. If you have found the courage to go a whole semester or course without any grades, you will be faced with a potentially paralyzing problem: How do you come up with a report card grade when you have no grade book? When I first faced this problem, I found myself writing to Alfie Kohn, where I outlined that I was happy to report that I had replaced everyday grading with real comments and constructive feedback, but that I was struggling with how I could convert or symbolize all the feedback as a grade, not because I wanted to but because I had to. Kohn’s reply was tremendously helpful: My primary answer to your question is “Bring the kids in on it.” This should be a decision you make with them, not for them. That goes for the general class policy (and the rationale for it) as well the specific grade given to each student. Some teachers meet with each student individually and decide together what the final grade will be. Others, who are more willing to give up control and empower students, simply let the student decide. They invariably report that students end up picking the same grade that the teacher would have given, and sometimes they even suggest a lower one. But the advantages of letting the kids decide are incalculable, and the process also has the salutary effect of neutralizing the destructive effects of having to give grades in the first place. (cited in Bower, 2010) Years later, I still abide by this profound advice. Bring the kids in on it remains at the heart of my answer to anyone who asks, “How do you grade without grading?” First, even if a grade is mandated for the report card, it makes very little sense that the only way to come up with a final grade would be to take a list of other averages and average them together to get a final average (Wormeli, 2006). The following are the three sources of information I use to establish a grade in collaboration with students:
● My students collect the evidence of their learning in their paper and electronic portfolios. The paper one is nothing fancy—just a file folder—while the electronic one might take the form of a blog, discussion forum, wiki, and/or website. It is important to note that the evidence selected for the portfolio is not just the stuff students did well; mistakes and failures are also included, not as a means to punish students, but to show growth and model that mistakes and failures are our allies in our collective pursuit of learning. ● I am a professional. I spend hours every day with my students for up to 10 months of the year. I get to know them quite well, so my professional judgment and intuitive thinking count for a lot. There is no substitute for what a teacher can see with his or her own eyes and hear with his or her own ears when observing and interacting with students while they are learning. ● I ask the students to selfassess. It is amazing how close they come to picking the same grade that I would pick. Interestingly enough, when there is disagreement, they are usually too hard on themselves, and the odd time a kid overinflates their grade, I either decide to let it go or I have a conversation with the student and make the adjustment. What Holds Us Back? I constantly challenge the obstacles and fears of abolishing grading, but I never disparage them—they are as real as they are abundant. Many of us have come to depend on the conveniences of grading; after all, grading can make assessment suspiciously easy. Some of the less desirable affects of grading can be the following: ● Students do not need to reflect on their own learning because the teacher will do it for them. ● Teachers do not need to worry about authentically engaging all learners because grading will garnish compliance from most and provide evidence to exclude and punish the rest. ● Parents do not need to talk with their children about their learning, because they can just ask, “Wadjaget?” It is too convenient to just check the grades online or wait for the next report card. ● Administrators, policymakers, and politicians do not need to engage in the messy details of what actually goes on in classrooms because they have spreadsheetfriendly data. For too many, grades have become “the only way anyone—students, teachers, or people outside the classroom—could tell how well students were doing. People stopped talking about students’ abilities and interests and started talking about their scores.” (Smith, 1998, p. 56)
If we convince ourselves that grading is an inevitable part of school, we might be able to live more easily with ourselves, but this translates into nothing more than willful blindness. When teachers assess with grades in a way that is said to be inevitable, we make the practice of grading inevitable and so we make the proposition true. Simon (1970) writes, “Grades must go. Their only genuine function is to serve certain administrative conveniences” (p. 397). When institutions become so large and impersonal, they become less about fulfilling their longterm goals and more about sustaining their very existence at any cost. Upon hearing “Well, that’s reality—that’s the system” it takes courage to stand up and say “Systems have been changed” (Simon, 1970, p. 401). For example, it was not long ago that bullying was seen as boys being boys, as if bullying was a rite of passage (Coloroso, 2003). Today, our society has taken quite a different stance on bullying. So what happened? How did we progress from such apathy to action? I will not profess to know all the answers, but I bet it had something to do with the fact that we started to openly and actively ask provocative questions about bullying. Rather than framing the reality of bullying as something we must resign ourselves to, we started to see it as a problem to be solved. It is time we did the same for grading, and I suggest we move from asking if abolishing grading is merely realistic or practical to asking if abolishing grading is the right thing to do for children—and then do it. Losing and Finding Our Way For the past 100 years, there have been entire school systems that have been built on reducing student learning to numbers, and now there are education reform movements that are built on reducing the complex work of teachers to a grade (Felch, Song, & Smith, 2010; Hargreaves & Shirley, 2009). Grades were originally tools used by teachers, but today teachers are tools used by grades. This should not come as any surprise, especially if you are familiar with Marshal McLuhan, who once said, “We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us” (McLuhan, 1964, p. xxi). However, if there is any hope for what will likely be seen as education’s datadriven dark ages, I hope it is this: It was not until the system tried to grade teachers that teachers could finally see why they should not be grading students. The problem is not that too few students achieve As—rather, the real problem is that “too many students have accepted that getting A’s is the point of school” (Kohn 1999d, para. 8) and thus have fallen out of love with learning. When we try and reduce something that is as magnificently messy as real learning, we always conceal far more than we ever reveal. Ultimately, grading gets assessment wrong because assessment is not a spreadsheet—it is a conversation. I am a very active teacher who assesses students every day, but I threw out my grade book years ago. If we are to find our way and make learning, not grading, the primary focus of school, then we need to abandon our mania for reducing learning and people to numbers.
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