On May 30, 2023, Batsheva Frankel, the host of the Overthrowing Education podcast, reached a milestone by uploading her 100th episode. I’m a little late, but I’d like to honor Batsheva and all those involved with the podcast with a short blog.
The episode highlights the efforts of Canadian teacher Stacie Oliver and some of her students: Pauline, Drizzle, Ella, Fahmi, and Katie, to go gradeless. It’s worth a listen for the points it raises about the effect of adult judgment on student learning, even if you feel you have little control in matters of grading.
Additionally, the wisdom and maturity of all five students should make you feel very good about tomorrow’s leaders. Give them a listen.
I’ve been attracted to ungrading and gradeless teaching (or more mildly, grading-less teaching) for quite some time. Teachers Going Gradeless is a nice resource if cutting down on the amount of rating, comparison, and adult judgment via grades intrigues you, too.
I think perhaps I’ve gotten to the point where you could describe my general education mindset as Bottom Up. I’m going to have to save that idea for a future blog – I need to think about it more – but Bottom Up is probably a good starting point.
For the last fifteen years I’ve worked on bottom up professional development (PD) meaning PD that teachers choose and direct themselves. It is effective, it is respectful, and it naturally differentiates. The same notion transfers to classroom instruction, but more on that in the future. For the last ten years I’ve been pulling agile into education. Agile is a mindset and set of suggested practices which flatten the hierarchy of power and control, putting real decision making power into the hands of those actually doing the work, encouraging both autonomy and collaboration. As my own mindset grew more agile, education materials we developed here in our research center grew less prescriptive, student curriculum and instruction focused more on process and skills, we began emphasizing pulling over pushing, and the teaching I do on the side for international teachers evolved as well. Now I find myself most often having a conversation with, instead of a presentation to, my students. My teaching is more joyful – sometimes incredibly so – and my results are better.
During those last ten years a group of us at Leysin American School initiated a shift in our grading practices. Energized by Vanisha Gorasian’s pilot of standardized-based assessment in grade 10 math and the simple rubric of our progressive middle school (4 – I can teach to others; 3 – I am confident and can move on; 2 – I need to work on this more; 1 – I haven’t really gotten started), we abandoned the American A-F grading system. We replaced it with a 7-1 scale aligned with the IB diploma programme, with a nod to Bloom’s hierarchy, reserving (supposedly) 7, 6, and 5 for work that went beyond rote memory: analysis and synthesis, that sort of thinking. I also created a gradeless alternative program in some grade 8-10 elective courses. There was feedback, yes, but no grades.
I’m not satisfied with the result of either effort. Teachers last year formed a self-directed group to work on the problems they find with our new 7-1 sort-of-sort-of-not standards based grading. Some of our standards are a bit iffy or missing completely. You can hear students talk about getting a 7 on a vocabulary quiz, which for me at least is a definition of rote learning. Something isn’t working. Nor has the shift in assessment systems radically changed instruction, for example, consistently allowing students to redo work until they’ve mastered the material, something that Vanisha and the middle school had built into their earlier systems, something that was for me a major goal.
The completely gradeless alternative program we developed worked for some students, not for all. I suppose one can say the same about the A-F system the school used for its first 55 years, as well as the 7-1 system it has moved to. One student council president told me that motivation doesn’t work without grades. I countered that we just don’t have enough practice developing other means of extrinsic (and intrinsic) motivation apart from using grades. We didn’t come to any particular resolution.
But it’s not until you have a course without any grading that you really feel a different type of learning, a different relationship between teacher and student. As my colleague, Bill Tihen, has said more than once: As soon as you have overt adult judgment about student work, students gear their work to that adult opinion. There is less autonomy, less innovation, and certainly less agency. Learning starts to include best guesses and strategies to please the teacher for the highest grade. Those who can game the system do best (in terms of grades, perhaps not in terms of learning). The rebellious students who ignore the chase for high grades may be cast in a negative light – they are after all bucking the adult system. But then later we might paradoxically recognize them for their independence, if they succeed in spite of us.
Back to the podcast. There is an interesting discussion about how the students were attaching a GIF to their work to represent how they felt about it. Their teacher, Stacie, decided to do the same by way of offering feedback. The students called that out as, even as simple as it was, a form of grading. Stacie agreed and quit using it. As you are able in your context, talk with the students about their work, side by side, looking out at the horizon together. Judge it less.
One of the students mentioned he never really liked English class until he was with Ms. Oliver. Why? Because with other English teachers he had to figure out how to write to please them. There you go. Work out what the adult wants and do that. For students being judged, this is a good strategy for getting, on average, better grades. But better grades aren’t actually the intended outcome of schooling. Better learning is.
A big thanks to Stacie Oliver’s students! And to Stacie for her innovation and Batsheva for the Overthrowing Education podcast.