Yesterday I watched Will Richardson‘s latest Ted Talk called the Surprising Truth About Learning in Schools. In his talk he suggested that our grading system needs to change and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written a number of times about how I struggle with the idea of the complexity of learning being reduced to a number, but what I think needs to happen is a culture shift not only about grades, but about learning.

Some observations I have about grading:

  • can harm student well-being:
    • promotes unhealthy competition between classmates which diminishes the collaborative spirit
    • students feel poorly about their abilities to learn if they receive a grade below what they feel they deserve
    • can inhibit their motivation and desire to learn
    • causes stress and anxiety for students which in turn activates the fight or flight system in their brains
  • inhibits learning
    • grades take the focus off what it means to learn
    • encourages compliance to meet the expectations set by the teacher rather than encouraging the student to be a self-directed learner
    • takes the joy out of learning

In comparison, some observations I have about iterative cycles or feedback loops without grades:

  • enhances student well-being:
    • promotes collaboration through a common goal of solving a problem, creating a product, or stimulating curiosity
    • students are challenged and encouraged to go off on tangents and look for problems to solve
    • students feel like they are making a difference when they feel that others will appreciate and provide feedback about their work rather than criticize it for what they didn’t do
    • students feel encouraged and supported to make multiple attempts rather than experiencing defeat after one draft-revision cycle
    • students don’t experience the fight or flight flood of emotions – they experience struggle, but this motivates them to deepen their learning
  • fosters learning
    • students take ownership of their learning and determine their own journey
    • students want to share their learning with a broader audience other than just the teacher
    • students feel like they have purpose
    • have fun exploring and discovering
    • school becomes relevant and meaningful (Will shares his observations from watching his own children go through the school system – something that I am starting to get nervous for as Lexie heads to grade one next year)

The currency aspect of grades is very apparent in today’s classroom and especially obvious to me on parents’ night. Will mentions that we are familiar with the grading system and it is meaningful for parents when it comes to understanding how their child is doing in the classroom. However, it is time to change that thinking. The currency needs to become a conversation about growth and goals rather than numbers. One way to start this conversation is by removing the median grades off the report cards so that we can do away with the competitive component of school. It is so important that we start teaching the parents that learning is about so much more and that each child is on their own journey.

In my conversations with my 3UU students this week, we have been using the language of skills and areas for growth as well as appreciating the skills that have developed over the past semester. We don’t talk in the language of numbers as they don’t give the full picture. The students know so much more about my observations and have an opportunity to reflect on where they want to go with their learning, and that is our new currency.


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