Teach without grades and still yield quality instruction

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As I See It
By ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO

Can we eliminate grades, quizzes, tests, and finals and get the same quality results of education for the students? I was intrigued while reading an article lately whereby a group of educators, teaching with the aid of technology, is sending the message that teaching without grades, teaching without tests, and teaching without home works can still yield quality instructions, and leads to quality education.

This was contained in the article of David Nagel, Editorial Director, and Education for 1105 Media’s Public Sector Media Group and Editor-in-Chief of THE Journal and a 22-year publishing veteran, entitled Panel: Ditch Grades Now, Focus on Student Learning! The article was published in the Journal on March 15, 2016.

The message of the growing number of educators who are not only advocating but actually making substantial changes in their classroom practices, as the article mentions, have been eliminating grades and scores entirely in their instructions. I’m sure, students would love this!

At first, I thought this was a joke, but as I continue reading the article, it’s actually happening in American schools, there must be some merits on it, and is working for many of those who are trying it.

Nagel wrote that Educator and Hack Learning creator Mark Barnes is a leading voice in the movement to eliminate grades and test scores from students’ lives. For him, the transition from grading hasn’t been easy… but it has been necessary.

At the SXSWedu conference last week in Austin, Texas, the panel described how Barnes came to question his own teaching practices that eventually led him to adopt gradeless teaching. A traditional teacher for the first 15 years in his career in education, Barnes started shifting to gradeless instructions for his students after a soul-searching meditation he engaged during the summer.

“My answer in the past when people would say, ‘Why do you have so many students with poor grades?’ His usual answer was: ‘Well, the kids just don’t do the work.’ Or: ‘The kids are lazy.’ Or: ‘Their parents don’t bring them to school on time, and they fall behind. Their parents don’t make them do their homework. And all of these things lead to them not turning in their work, and they’re zeroed.’ So it was blame, blame, blame. It’s their fault or their parents’ fault; it’s not my fault.”

After several years of that situation and many of his students have been receiving failing grades, he tried to reflect back and tried to analyze the situation. “Finally, I took a long, hard look in the mirror and said, ‘This can’t always be their fault. It can’t always be their parents’ fault…. It’s got to be my fault.’”

He even thought of the idea of… either he had to change or had to “get out” of the teaching profession “because it couldn’t continue to go that way”.

So what he did was to spend the summer reflecting on his teaching, researching alternative practices, learning about methods other teachers were using to help their students succeed. And… what did he decide? Simply, to do away with all traditional teaching methods, including homework, summative tests and all forms of grading — except, of course, the final grade that all teachers are compelled to provide.

Part of his reflection was if he will go gradeless, what will take the place of the traditional method he will abandon? “Instead of grading students on their work, Barnes had ‘a conversation’ with them. He used an online gradebook, but instead of applying grades or points or percentages, he recorded feedback and discussions with students. Instead of judging his students’ abilities at an arbitrary point in time by assigning a score, he guided them through a checklist that was designed to help them progress to where they needed to be. Instead of homework, he assigned projects that did not have a deadline or point value. In the grade-less classroom, there’s no ‘extra credit’ because students aren’t working for points. There are no summative assessments. There are no zeroes. There’s only information that’s used to help drive the student forward”.

After going through this exercise of having a conversation with his students, he thought that that’s what this is really about today. He said, “Shifting the conversation away from the traditional grade to a conversation, to transparency, to digital learning….”

The article said Barnes was particularly adamant about assigning zeroes for work that was not turned in by a student. As he noted, “We just don’t know” if the students have mastered the subject matter or not because “we haven’t seen the work. We don’t truly know what kids know [when they fail to turn in homework]. Quite frankly, that makes us failures. That’s a really tough pill to swallow. Once you do it, it really leads to incredible things.”)

It now appears that there will be more work for the teacher. Gleaning from his experience, the process is not an easy one. Eliminating grades and homework doesn’t mean less work for teachers. It generally means more, since the teacher has to create meaningful dialog with the students.

“A lot of what educators use, the traditional stuff, becomes a kind of crutch. It gets pretty easy,” he said during his well-attended session at SXSWedu. “If you have a folder full of worksheets you can give students each year, that’s easy. If you have a bubble test that you can run through a machine, that’s easy. You just put the number on your online program, and it translates to a grade. That’s easy. But it’s not really good for kids,” Barnes added.

Switching to a gradeless system, Barnes said, requires a “systems change”: You can’t simply keep handing out the same old worksheets and simply decide you’re not going to grade them.

“You have to engage kids in learning,” he said. And that means project-based learning and using “checklists” to ensure that students get to where they need to be. Instead of judging, as Barnes explained it, it involves telling kids, “Here’s what I see,” then asking questions: “What would have happened if you had done this differently?” So it’s not about right or wrong on a set of problems. It’s about leading the student to understanding without judgement along the way.

As the gradeless system come to fore, the more work issue isn’t the only issue. In the first year of his new gradeless teaching practice, there were roadblocks along the way coming from students, parents, and even from teachers. Barnes said, “… there were pushback from students, parents and administrators, but they all came around”.

He further explained that, “What everybody started seeing was an incredible environment that was a little bit messy, a little bit chaotic, but was a place that was rich with independent learning”.

That independence is what it’s all about: giving students the voice in their own education, he said. Barnes is generating support from the use of technology, including digital portfolios, to enable grade-less instruction possible. He added the use of student portfolios containing student works which also helped keep parents in the loop on their children’s education.

“The best way to engage parents in the conversation,” he explained, “is to use a digital portfolio that makes it easy for them to be part of the conversation — it needs to be one-click, because we’re all so busy and overwhelmed with e-mail and social media ‘pings.’ Something like, FreshGrade, which provides web and mobile platforms. And, it makes it easy because updates to each child’s portfolio are automatically sent to parents, and they can reply directly within the tool. Plus, it’s important for teachers to actively engage parents by asking questions and inviting feedback.”

He added that there’s so much in the digital space now that helps make it easier to capture learning and create those conversations with students and parents. There are many teacher support, ways a teacher need for differentiated instruction. These are all provided by the internet, the World Wide Web!

Barnes said, “There are so many tools that can be used to enhance this in your classroom. What you see is that when you start having that communication with a student, and you start having … a conversation about learning, instead of, ‘Did you do this?’ — compliance — … you change the discussion [from grades to] learning. Compliance becomes a non-issue when you take out grades and have a conversation.”

For the final grade, which is compulsory, he would sit down with students and discuss what their final grade should be with them. That’s what he will enter in their transcripts.

He explained that, “We have something far better than scores when report card time rolls around. We have artifacts and feedback that provide a clear picture of learning. When a teacher reviews the body of work from a student and asks, ‘Where does this fit on a traditional grade scale?’ the student understands and provides accurate responses in almost every instance — at least as accurate as a traditional grade can provide.”

Since starting on this journey, Barnes has written several books on the subject of teaching without grades, and his ideas are catching on. He’s the founder of the Facebook Group Teachers Throwing Put Grades (TTOG) which has so far attracted more than 5,500 members. Within online community, teachers share their individual stories, their declarations of independence from grading, their hopes, their fears, their best practices and their tips and techniques. And Barnes isn’t the only major voice in the movement. Barnes said the Facebook group has grown to its current size in just one year, and interest in the movement has reached the global scale, spanning a range of subjects, from English/language arts to math.

“We need the help of all key stakeholders,” Barnes said. “Anyone at the college level, especially administrators, who show interest in shifting the conversation away from grades would be huge for the movement.”

Teaching sans tests, grades, anyone?

(For feedbacks, comments… please email the author @ estiokoelpidio@gmail.com).

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