Many people question how a no-grades classroom can work, how can a teacher run such a class and still complete report cards? What is important to remember is that there are many ways to run a no-grades classroom, this piece explain how I do it and how it has benefited my students.
First I do assign the students grades, they just don’t see them. just like every other teacher I have a mark book filled with numbers that attempt to represent my students learning. While I may not personally believe the number helps my students learn (in fact I find it a hindrance), I do ensure that I am doing what is expected of me as a teacher. In my class students are given marks/numerical grades whenever they ask for them. It just so happens no student has asked me for a grade since early October.
My classroom is built upon an inquiry based learning model with student/teacher created success criteria and teacher feedback (I continue to try to attempt more peer and self feedback). It is our belief that all students need to focus on how to improve their skills and develop pride in their work. This pride must come from inside, and not be based on a number assigned by a teacher or peer. Students tell me they love the freedom they enjoy to explore topics and areas of interest yet they also feel the burden of having to take more ownership over their own learning. They agree however that the occasional stress they feel with driving their own learning is far less than they felt when receiving numerical grades. The students explained to me that after seeing a numerical grade they were unlikely to read any comments.
As a class we focus on providing feedback on specific skills we deem to be important. We use the feedback rubric (posted below) as it provides success criteria for the assigned task, an easy to read/follow format and specific feedback on student/teacher created indicators. If a student receives feedback in concerns box it means they have not yet achieved the expectation (which would correspond to a level 1 or 2). If the expectation is highlighted or checked they met the expectations (level 3). If they receive feedback in the mastery box they have exceeded the expectation which would generally be a level 4. Using this method the students have a general idea how they are doing based on the location of the written feedback and the nature of it. And yet there is no grade, level or numerical assessment.
I have seen many of my students flourish using this tool and by eliminating numerical grades. Stress has decreased, focus on improving specific skills has increased which has resulted in improved work and greater confidence. I can’t imagine going back to the assigning of grades. That being said, I do record them and make them available to any student who wishes them.
If you would like to know more please feel free to ask.
I wish the idea was originally mine, it seems so simple and intuitive. How are traditional number and letter grades related to student learning? Yes…yes we have all heard the weak arguments about grades representing a students level of achievement related to curriculum expectations. However, this does not answer my question….how are grades related to a students learning? The actual answer is they are not! The sooner we all get on board with this reality the better our instruction practices and our students will be.
Recently I have been reading Tweets and writings from Mark Barnes and Joe Bower. These two men clearly explain the importance of learning being about the exchange of information (feedback) with students and not about providing subjective numbers on a report card or offering rewards and punishments. Barnes’s article entitled “HOW 4 SIMPLE WORDS CAN SOLVE EDUCATION’S BIGGEST PROBLEM” does a masterful job of explaining how subjective grading does little to help students learn. It is simply a relic from the past. Real learning requires the student to be engaged in reflective conversations with their teacher. I add that we need to hear and discuss with our students their ideas, points of view and perspectives on their own work so that we as educators have enough information to truly provide accurate, empowering feedback. Otherwise it is a note on a page (or rubric) which the students can not fully appreciate of understand.
Mark Barnes advocates what he calls the SE2R model:
Summarize — Provide a one- or two-sentence statement of what was accomplished.
Explain — Give a detailed, objective explanation of what learning is demonstrated and/or what is missing, based on the activity’s guidelines.
Redirect — When learning outcomes are not demonstrated, redirect students to prior learning or to seek help from the teacher or a peer.
Resubmit — Ask students to resubmit activities, projects or assessments, after they’ve returned to prior lessons and models and made changes to the work. This way the teacher can re-assess for mastery learning.
Our report cards do not need numbers, they should be records of the reflections discussed by the teacher and student during the term. It should indicate the strengths, areas of need and next steps to achieve the identified goals. Our statistically driven society (which has been hammered into our students by peers and parents) has resulted in an increase in student anxiety and compulsion about grades. Far too often I am spending time with students and parents trying to persuade them that the numerical grade is far less important than the actual learning. Why are we so fascinated by a subjective number on a page and less interested by the qualitative description of the actual development of the child? I am still astounded by this fact.
When I look through the Ontario Curriculum I find the enormity of it to be disheartening. I believe that mastery learning based on feedback from the teacher during reflective conversations with students should be the goal of all educators. We need to start focusing more on how well our children are learning and less on how much!