Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Replacing grading

Joe Bower has an interesting Prezi about how he replaced grading with feedback. I like it because it used the progression of Prezi well and he is clearly thinking deeply about how he structures his class and why.

Joe's blog is about his quest to make his Red Deer, Alberta classroom more engaging for his students. He is also hard at work challenging educational practice, sometime in a constructive way and, sometimes in an aggressive one. However, since Joe is thinking about why his classroom is the way it is, he often holds my interest, and I think he is worth adding to blogs you follow.

On Sunday, Joe diverted from his usual topics to post on a video that irritated him. Having recently posted on a video that irritated me, I thought I should humour him. Despite Joe's focus on removing judgement in his feedback, his blog title of Taylor Mali is a Joke seemed just a tad evaluative to me.In watching the video, I re-focused on what it is in the grading conversation that bothers me so much. It is the control.

Teachers measuring students and declaring them bad or good is really a problem if we want learning to occur. Plus, who wants to learn when someone is watching to catch you making a mistake so they can put a big red X on in and report it to everyone? Mali is all about the control. He talks about enforced silence, students feeling like failures when given an A-.

That's it right there - teaching as tyranny. It actually isn't the marks at all. I didn't mind having to give or receive them, but the part where marks were a weapon in the struggle for dominance is an issue for me.

Having said that, I would not describe myself as a flexible, open, and spontaneous teacher. I'm a structured person and my classroom reflects it. And students didn't just get to hand things in whenever or have no consequences for anything. It's just that really bad choices always have their own consequences in the end, so I know you will face the consequences. My role is to help you learn - measuring your learning is a very small part of what I do.

By the end of last year, I was using an evaluation method that was essentially portfolio based. Students used various assignments as evidence of learning to move up on a mastery rubric. I didn't grade particular work, but I did say what learning I could see in it and I asked my students to do that for each other and themselves. Although we negotiated the marks, it was rarely a struggle and never for control. You have the evidence to show you have acquired the learning or you don't, and most students see that easily.

Every year I ask my students for feedback - I use specific questions designed to assess competence, autonomy, relevance and belonging. I also ask what they would get rid of and why, and what is critical to keep. Other teachers always ask me how I keep control without the marks, and the answer always consistently up in that feedback. Kids always say my class was tough, but they almost always say it is relevant to them. My favorite parts is this: the things they learn about through the assessment are always about how they learn well, not about the hoops they need to jump though for me. That means the control (and the grade) both sit with them. We replace grading with responsibility.


  1. Taylor Mali's video (which I really enjoyed, btw) was authoritarian by today's standard. But back up a minute... or a decade or two. Suddenly we have exactly the kind of teacher that 90% of parents would have loved their child to be with. We are talking big change here and fast. Let's not confuse the messenger with the message. He is teaching, in all likely-hood, the way he was taught and the way a lot of parents still believe children should be. The conversation we are having has to involve these people and convince them that there is a better more effective way--because they are in your schools and universities. You won't cause a bully to give up his power that way, but you will hopefully get a colleague to try a new approach to more effective student learning.

  2. I think you are right than many parents are still looking for authoritarian when they should be lookign for earned authority, and a conversation with parents is critical. I think we need to have more of them.

    You are also right that convising teachers to move is about supporting collegues to try a different way.