A sequel to gradeless teaching: no tests, no grades, no homework

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As I See It
By ELPIDIO R. ESTIOKO

A sequel to gradeless teaching: no tests, no grades, no homework.

This week’s column will feature reactions from my last week’s column, entitled Teaching without grades and still yield quality instructions, from some 55 respondents from my friends in Facebook (FB) and others whom I talked to personally.

Basically, teachers who have been in the classrooms for many years disagree with the gradeless proposal while those who are new in the profession seem to agree with some qualifications and reservations. And, for parents and other stakeholders, they have good insights towards the system being introduced by long-time teacher Mark Barnes, the proponent of gradeless teaching.

Lydia Baldonado, a long-time classroom teacher from Urdaneta, Pangasinan who retired from teaching and now residing in California, USA, disagreed with gradeless teaching. “I disagree… how would you know if one has assimilated the knowledge if not diagnosed and no test to check if he/she digested it,” she argued. Baldonado might be right as she thinks the basis of validation of knowledge is through test results and grades earned by students.

From the standpoint of a school administrator, retired District Superintendent for the School District of Lingayen, Pangasinan Aida Estioko-Juan, in a telephone conversation, consider gradeless teaching as too complicated and hard to implement. Aside from training the teachers, it needs additional funding to equip the classrooms with modern technology and extra time devoted to conversing with students one-on-one. She might also be true considering that the teacher needs software programs in the computer he or she can use in building the student’s portfolio electronically for immediate reference. Students’ acceptance or response to the program is likewise a problem to consider.

A member of the Urdaneta Community High School (UCHS Batch ’65), Bien Cordingley thinks it might be a good program to ease student stress in the classroom. “I think that not giving homework and exams will help them from getting any stress in their studies, but students also need to be assessed on how much they gleaned from their lessons and grades be given to show their accomplishment,” she explained. This is where the teacher needs to spend more time assessing the student as to what extent he or she has assimilated the lessons so far.

Juji Estioko-Delos Trinos, an educator in her own right who immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, thinks we need to consider student behavior in the classroom. She said, “Unless the thirst for knowledge and inspiration to learn are there, nothing will be accomplished”. She is, of course, referring to the student’s responsibility in the classroom. She is short of saying that if the drive is not there for the student, any system of instruction will not work.

My friend from Barrow, Alaska, who was a journalist in the Philippines turned author in the US, may have been reserving his comments. Romy Morales, the author of the just published book on immigration titled A Time to Breathe, may go for the program. Knowing him as a progressive journalist who thinks outside the box, he will surely embrace the new concept but will be introducing modifications to improve it.

All the testimonies of the respondents point to the fact that if we shift to gradeless teaching, it will require more time for the teacher and more attention to be given to differentiated instructions. 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 the 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.

While the idea seem to be simple, it is more complicated than we thought. In fact, the more work issue on the side of the teacher isn’t the only issue. In the first year of Mark Barnes’ 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”. Those are issues the teacher needs to address to be successful. They need a concerted effort and a lot of follow through activities on the part of both teacher and students.

However, Barnes said it’s the student independence that is what it’s all about: giving students the voice in their own education. 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.

For the final grade, just like one of the respondents mentioned, which is compulsory, he would sit down with students and discuss what their final grade should be. And based on these conversations, which will serve as a final tool for assessment, that’s what the teacher will enter in student transcripts.

The new system is generating some interests from the ranks of educators, teachers, parents, and other individuals. While some disagree, others agree with qualifications.

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

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