Even Higher Ed gets the uselessness of grades

002hampshirefjgaylor-copyThe most oft-repeated response to progressive grading practices is that we need to “prepare students for college” where, it would seem, they will be battling one-on-one in academic arenas of combat.  Or something.

In reality, even colleges and universities are starting to become more aware of the consequences of using a single letter (or number) represent student mastery.  They see that developing responsible and productive citizens requires a culture of feedback and self-improvement.  They recognize that this comes from providing students with more just a grade, but instead a more detailed “evaluation”.  Case in point: Hampshire College.

In a recent opinion piece in The Hechinger Report, Hampshire President Jonathan Lash explains how his college got rid of meaningless grades.  He lays out the case for this change, and explains some of the pushback from the school community.  His most powerful statement, though, comes when he discusses the benefits of the “narrative evaluation” system that Hampshire College professor use,

“In narrative-evaluation systems, students never have to worry about accumulating a GPA. Instead, they focus on the quality of their work, with guidance from teachers who are often learning with them. Evaluations create closer relationships between teacher and student and enhance the teacher’s role as mentor.”

That’s a relationship that any educator—at any level—would love to have with his students.  And grades prevent that.

How do you think that college grading will change in the next decade or two?

photo credit: Hampshire College

Book Review: Creating Cultures of Thinking

618mnmxxexlI am proud to say that I heeded the advice of my friend and colleague, Philip Cummings, to read Ron Richhart’s book “Making Thinking Visible” a few years ago.  The best teacher books—in my humble opinion—are the ones that present practical strategies that straddle the line between things that make sense and things that you are already doing.  Ritchhart’s book hit that sweet spot for me, and I found the ideas in it compelling.  I’ve made many of them a part of my regular instruction in class.

Last month, I finally had time to read Ritchhart’s newest book, “Creating Cultures of Thinking: The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools“.  It is similar in many ways to Making Thinking Visible, but it’s the differences that really explain my mixed feelings about the new book.

First, while the first book was extremely practical and easy to implement in a classroom, Creating Cultures of Thinking seems aimed at a much larger scale.  I struggled at times to see how I could use the ideas in the book to make a difference in my own classroom.  The chapter about time management seemed to be simultaneously about abstract beliefs and institutional decision-making.  His final chapter is entirely focused on the large-scale efforts that can bring about the cultural changes for which he advocates.  These left me wishing for more power in my learning space.

On the other hand, his discussion of the hidden role of modeling in education and the four types of modeling really hit home.  Ritchhart writes,

“[The four types of modeling practices] can be identified as:

  • Dispositional apprenticeship: being a role model of learning and thinking
  • Cognitive apprenticeship: making our thinking visible
  • Gradual release of responsibility: modeling for independence
  • Interactive modeling: learning from examples, practice, and reflection

Because modeling is almost a hidden dimension of teaching, understanding each of these practices more fully can be useful as we seek to create a culture of thinking”

I find this categorization of modeling to be very useful in helping me focus on the skills that I have and the ones that I need to develop in myself as a teacher.   Overall, I was glad to have read the book and grateful for the thinking that it stimulated.  But, I will continue to recommend Making Thinking Visible as one of my five favorite recent education books, and leave this one for the policy makers and school leaders.

Have your read this book?  What’s your take?  Leave a comment.

“I blame the education system that can graduate someone into adulthood who cannot tell the difference between what is and is not true about this world”

Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining why flat earthers are still a thing.  Seems a little harsh, but it does inspire me to provide better professional development to science teachers, and help to explain that some ideas are very well supported by data… even if you don’t understand it.

What Did My Students Think of this Year?

For the second year running, I gave my students an end-year survey about my class (in the style of Larry Ferlazzo) with the promise that their responses would be anonymous and publicly shared here.  You can see the survey here, and read last year’s post here.

types of feedback
The 4 Types of Feedback
Overall, I loved to read what my students wrote about our class.  We spent some time during the year talking about the four kinds of feedback, and came to the understanding that negative specific feedback is the type that helps us improve the most.  Their responses showed that they see the value of this sort of feedback.

Here are my five biggest take-aways from the survey results:

  1. My students loved the class.  When I asked them to grade me as a teacher, 98% gave me an A or a B.  When asked to explain their marks, they responded with answers like “because overall he was a fun teacher and cool teacher and serious when he had to be” or “because I can tell he really made an effort.”
    What grade would you give Mr. C?
  2. Student say that they value good grades over being with their friends.  When asked whether they would rather earn a B and be in a class with their friends over get an A and not be in the same class as their friends, almost 90% chose the higher grade.  I don’t know if I actually believe that they would make this choice, but it is telling that they want me to think that they would.Friends_over_grades
  3. These students view grades as feedback about their learning.  This is the best sign that my students have learned the “big picture” lessons that I consider so important.   As often as I talk about feedback and the purpose of grades with them, it’s probably impossible for them to feel any other way.  But I still feel gratified that my work with them made a difference.
    What is the purpose of grades?
  4. My students are split about how they would like to receive feedback about learning.  When asked how they would prefer to receive grades on their report card, about one-fifth want the current system that compiles mastery and behavior into one grade, while another fifth would prefer a face-to-face meeting to discuss their strengths and weaknesses.  Another one-fifth of them would prefer the system that I prefer, separating work habits and content mastery.  Most surprising to me (and actionable to some extent), is that almost 40% of respondents would like a paragraph that explains their strengths and weaknesses.  That is something that I can (and will) do in the near future.
    What form should your “grade” take?
  5. Surprisingly, my students would rather do well on the End-of-Grade standardized test than have more hands-on activities in class.  Despite the fact that they seem to see the value of meaningful and relevant instruction, my students have been conditioned to think that standardized tests are super important.  They want to succeed on them more than they want to learn the skills necessary to be responsible citizens.  And that is very frustrating.
    More EOG review or more hands-on activities?
    What do these data make you think?  What would you change?  Let me know in the comments.

Getting Phones Out Of Schools


Three Forces That Will Get Phones Out of School

I can’t say that there is any part of me that agrees with this article (or the original that it references).  To keep modern smartphones out of the classroom is to ignore the role that mobile computing will play in the future lives of our children.  If we don’t teach them how to use these devices properly, how can we expect them to use them constructively and responsibly for the rest of their lives?

photo credit: Do not use cell phone. via photopin (license)

“Morgan Stanley told its staff on Thursday that it was overhauling how employees are assessed in several ways, including by discarding the number scale in favor of lists of up to five adjectives.”

From a New York Time article about Morgan Stanley’s new policy.  So much for the “real world” being obsessed with grades, right?

Rethinking Grades: A Primer

It’s become clear to me lately that the grading reform discussions that took place almost ten years ago, and led to many positive changes across the country, need to be revisited.  In my own school district, policies were drafted and implemented that proclaimed “The purpose of a grading system is to appropriately and consistently measure and communicate an individual student’s level of mastery of defined learning objectives.” and “Grading practices are not to be punitive in nature.”

Yet, so many educators cling to the idea that grades need to prepare students for the real world and motivate them to do better, despite the fact that the absence of grades in the “real world” would seem to indicate that student need other motivators.  I have forced myself to step away from some of these discussions lately in order to take a deep breath and collect some resources to share.  To that end, here are some starting points for discussions in your school or with your professional learning team about what grades are and what they need to be.

People to Follow

  • Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte and justintarte.com): Justin does a LOT of writing about grading.  His website and twitter feed are full of useful resources and quotable nuggets.
  • Grant Wiggins (grantwiggins.wordpress.com): It’s difficult to express how much Grant’s death earlier this year affected me.  His writing has guided a lot of my thinking over the years. Just before he left us, he published a series on his blog with answers to common grading questions.

Short Reads