But How Will I Learn Without Grades?

As we discussed our new schedule and the integrated, Personal Learning component that will lie at the heart of it during a recent student assembly, an eager hand shot up.

“Will Personal Learning be graded?”

It was clear from the wide-eyed expression on Adam’s face that, while he was intrigued by the idea of personal learning, he was also somewhat bewildered as to how we would go about assessing such a curious thing.

I playfully pointed out that I thought we should eliminate all grades in school. Adam’s look of horror spread across the faces before me like an affliction. My more thoughtful assertion that learning that is truly personal can only truly be measured by the individual learner did little to ease the chronic outbreak of blurred lines and shaken certainties throughout the auditorium. The hushed silence reminded me of the day, a few years ago, when we explained that homework would no longer be graded, averaging would no longer happen, and penalties would be removed from our assessment system. On that day, too, students stared in disbelief, not liberated – as one might have expected – but at a loss to know how this school thing could possibly work now.

I caught up with Adam the next day in the hallway. He’s a bright boy with an engaging personality and a ready wit. I pointed out that I could tell he was worried that grades would not be assigned for Personal Learning.

“But how will I learn without grades?” he asked, earnestly.

His genuine question is the kind of comment that can frustrate teachers. It’s the “will this count?” … “will this be on the test?” …”is this formative or summative?” territory that can sometimes be so disheartening to hear. But this is not something innate to students. Adam was not being disrespectful; his concern was real. Schools have conditioned this mindset. It’s learned behaviour. Play the game of school, we unwittingly tell them. Your reward for compliance is grades. It’s what Grant Wiggins described as, “the most counterproductive aspect of schooling” and something we have worked hard to address.

I apologised to Adam for what schooling had done to his way of thinking about learning, and asked if he had ever seen a lab rat, running on a wheel, unable to step off and see things for what they really are.

“I need my grades. They motivate me to learn. I don’t think I could learn without them.”

I asked him if we shouldn’t think about taking away grades altogether since we are a middle school with few external pressures, so that students might learn to experience the joy of learning without the spinning wheel of grade judgments. He could not even begin to grasp this idea, the notion of learning without the ironic safety net of judgment and comparison.

This is our legacy. We should do something to fix this learning tragedy.

Adam and I chatted briefly about Open Digital Badges as an idea that might bridge the gap between traditional grading, standards-based assessment, and going cold turkey on learning for the sake of learning itself. I mentioned the idea of personal interest and achievement through skill development, mastery, and accomplishment. I am not sure if this kind of digital validation is what is needed either, but, at least to me, it sounds better than the haphazard grading game. Of course, for the moment, students need grades to get into most colleges and universities, but surely we would do them a profound service if we helped them develop an innate love of learning before that particular reality needs to be confronted?

For the first time in our exchange, Adam looked like he was giving serious thought to an idea outside of the black box of assessment.  

He clicked his padlock shut and smiled.

“I like the sound of digital badges. I think you should look into that.”

We will, Adam. We owe you something better.