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School Leader Chat, Part 1: Grades

I chatted with Martin Moran about shifting mindsets around grades and what this means for teacher PD. Martin is a Lead Designer at the Bennett Day School in Chicago, IL and will be opening their new high school as the Director of the Upper School. Previously, he taught high school for over 10 years.

This is Part 1 of our conversation where we talk about grades. In Part 2, we will talk about how to train teachers in effective feedback.

How did you develop your philosophy around grades?

My goal is to undermine the whole concept of grades. I saw the impact that grades had on kids. It was damaging to all kids, both the ones who were successful with grades and the ones who were not successful with grades. The kids who were successful were obsessed with and derived their self-worth from the numbers, and the kids who were not successful thought they weren’t smart, not because they weren’t intelligent, but because their intelligence wasn’t reflected this grade-based system.

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Grades aren’t just damaging, they’re inadequate for assessing learning. They’re not descriptive. A grade doesn’t tell me anything about the kid’s learning, about what they know and understand.

I tried testing a virtually gradeless experience  in my own classroom. I told kids, “You’ll walk out of this class with an A no matter what. The only way you won’t get an A is if you don’t do anything.” It completely changed the dynamic of my class. No more grade grubbing, no more “How many points is this worth?” There was a different tenor and tone of the room, and I thought, what if we could do something systemically with this?

What do you say to the person who asks, “How will you make kids do the work if you don’t have grades?”

If students aren’t doing the work, you address it in the same way as if you had grades. Make a plan, hold them accountable, talk to their parents - it’s all the same stuff.

About 80% of most classes in high school are graded on whether or not a kid turns in homework on time. We essentially grade kids on compliance. There’s nothing wrong with asking students to be diligent and timely in their work, but 80% of their grade? So I gave it roughly the weight I think it deserved. I feel that turning in work is about diligence, so I made it 10% of the grade. In my case - in the worst case scenario you do nothing - it’ll pull down your grade but won’t kill your grade.

What I noticed is that when kids weren’t doing the work, it wasn’t because of the grade. There were underlying reasons - time management, organization, issues at home - that I could address. The grade itself was not why kids weren’t doing the work. And using behaviorism to force them to become compliant wasn’t going to make them better learners.

Why do you think grades are emphasized in a classroom environment?

I think we’re taught as teachers that grades are so important. In high school, there’s this spectre, the vague thread of college. We tell kids “You gotta be ready for college!” but it’s really just an easy shortcut for us as teachers to not have to assume responsibility around the fact that we give these grades.

Teacher trainings are often so much about logistics and administrative responsibilities versus how to teach well. They never really teach why to use assessment and what it’s  for. It’s the mentality of “It’s the way we’ve always done it.” We rarely critically assess these practices  in teacher prep, and teachers feel powerless to change this. Too often teacher prep is simply training people to be cogs in a system that hurts kids.

I also think there is this mentality of gatekeeping. Many teachers see themselves as gatekeepers, and a lot of my work has been thinking about how to address this question. Our goal shouldn’t be to determine who the winners and losers are in our classroom--our job is to take every kid and help them become better citizens. The analogy I draw is that in sports, we have coaches who coach and referees who assess participants to insure they’re playing by the rules. But in the classroom, we expect the coach to also be the referee. This would never happen in a game, so why does this happen in the classroom? If my goal as a teacher is to help this kid learn and become better, any assessment I do should be with that in mind.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we discuss how to shift mindsets towards feedback and formative assessment through professional development. In the meantime, how do you feel about grades in your classroom? Have you ever experimented with grading less or removing grades? Or, have you considered assessment in terms of feedback instead of grades?

Keep us in the F(eedback)loop!

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