Why Go Gradeless In Maths?

Productive struggle occurs when a learner is given a task slightly beyond their abilities. Suffice to say, I am productively struggling right now. I jumped into the learning pit a few months ago and have been struggling to climb out ever since. I have been hoping that, like the wonderful Joy Kirr did for self-reporting in our English class, someone would swoop in and save the day. But there has been no silver bullet to quickly and easily solve this problem.

I’ve been searching far and wide for something that possibly just does not exist…. Yet! At the end of this semester, I would like students in our composite year 6/7 class to self-report a grade based on evidence of learning they have collected in a Maths portfolio. Surely others have tried to minimise the demotivating influence of grades and design a student self-reporting scaffold for Maths in Australia? But my many polite inquiries have produced nought. I have discovered a ton of information that has challenged my practice and helped shape my thinking, but no one to collaborate with or learn from in an Australian Curriculum context. So it’s time to go it alone and do my best.

“I’m Sorry, You’re Doing What?”

There is no research evidence that suggests a gradeless classroom will produce better outcomes for students. There is, however, plenty of evidence to support the underlying pillars of a gradeless classroom. There has been much written about the benefits of productive feedback, developing intrinsic motivation, increased student voice, ownership of learning, self-assessment and self-grading, Project Based Learning (PBL), growth mindset, slow thinking etc. You need only look at the work (video links) of John Hattie, Guy Claxton, Martin Westwell, Carol Dweck, Alfie Kohn and others to find extensive support for these ideas. Not surprisingly, there is also little to no evidence that current grading practices produce better outcomes for students either.

This year I deliberately set out to get lost. I’ve forced myself to rethink everything I thought I knew about teaching in a bid to improve outcomes for all students. I want to make our school and classroom somewhere that kids are desperate to get into, not get away from. According to Hattie, the best predictor of health, wealth and happiness in adult life is not student achievement in school, it is the number of years of schooling. Keeping the love of learning, the spark, the sense of wonder alive in students as they near the end of their primary school journey, is hugely important to me.

I was asked recently at a professional development moderation day how I ended up ditching grades for growth?

My gateway into the world of gradeless learning was via Twitter. I unintentionally started upon my gradeless journey when I stumbled across Towards a Future of Growth Not Grades by Arthur Chiaravalli. I was actually searching for resources for student self-grading and self-reporting based on John Hattie’s visible learning effect sizes. Arthur’s writing is pretty compelling. If like me, you are searching for the seemingly unattainable healthy work/life balance, a good place to start might be Explode These Feedback Myths and Get Your Life Back. Arthur led to the always generous Aaron Blackwelder. Which led to Monte Syrie’s Edutopia post: An Uncomfortable Truth About Grading Practices. I found Gary Chu who promptly taught our class how to collaborate. Joy Kirr. Patty McGee. Mark Sonnemann. The list goes on and is growing daily.

I remember reading early on that people should be wary of Twitter PLN’s because the relationships tend to be superficial and often become echo chambers. Either those people are doing it wrong, or I have been extraordinarily fortunate because the quality of sharing, discussion, and support I have found online has been amazing. Monte Syrie, a gradeless Washington State teacher, took time out of his summer break to record an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with our class. Students connected with his controversial give ’em all an “A” Project 180 story and he generously engaged with our students (here and here). Mary Wade from Utah shares her practice prolifically on her blog and wrote about choosing Courage Over Fear on the back of a student blog post. I’m really excited to be collaborating on a potential project with Mark Sonnemann, Principal of Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Canada. We hope to connect our school communities via a global citizenship project that we hope will lead to powerful learning that celebrates connectedness. I can look around our classroom and actually see the influence these educators have had on our learners. That’s pretty cool.

Teachers who build strong relationships, have high expectations for students, provide opportunities for productive feedback, create positive classroom culture, and aim to empower students have much to gain from minimising grades. In a gradeless classroom, students are motivated by a desire to learn, not compliance, rewards or a desire to avoid punishments. Relationships with students flourish as grades are replaced with feedback, self and peer assessment, and reflection. But grades communicate learning, don’t they? I’ve seen struggling and disengaged students work incredibly hard, show massive growth, engage with content, but at the end of the semester, still earn a “D” achievement. What does that communicate? I believe that feedback drives growth, grades extinguish it.

While John Hattie doesn’t advocate for gradeless learning, in the attached videos he does discuss teachers as Agents For Change and Setting Learning Intentions and Success Criteria which resonated with me:

If you have low expectations, you will be incredibly successful.
– John Hattie

Valuing Slow Thinking and Feedback Over Grades In Maths

I found going gradeless in English, the Arts, Humanities etc to be far more straightforward than Maths. These subjects, in my mind at least, seem to lend themselves to a feedback focus over grading. They are complex and subjective learning areas with cross-curricular links that can make grading a headache at the best of times. But aren’t Maths answers always either right or wrong? Surely Maths is so objective that it lends itself to grading far more easily than other subjects?

The reason I’ve found the process of developing a self-reporting scaffold so difficult is because it forces me to lay bare the mixture of factors that I value in order to reach a particular grade. If I can’t easily and clearly define how I arrive at a Maths grade, how in the world can I expect students to? I wonder how other teachers in my situation would go if asked to explicitly lay out their expectations and success criteria for grading. Wouldn’t that make for interesting conversation at a school wide level. At our recent PD moderation day, we spent significant time (and money!) trying to define the difference between an A-E achievement against annotated work samples. It seems we are more interested in trying to measure learning than seeking to develop and share what actually drives it. Searching for consistency where perhaps consistency doesn’t actually exist.

I keep coming back to one question: What do I want students to achieve in Maths?

I want to eliminate the learn and burn mentality and replace it with slow, deep thinking and increased understanding. I want all students in our class to become more confident, skilled, creative, resilient and flexible in their thinking. I want to meet students where they are with their learning and be able to provide productive feedback that drives individual learning forward beyond percentages and scores. I want to develop and maintain a culture where mistakes are valued and used as opportunities to learn. I want students to see the value in collaboration and take opportunities to “share the wealth” of knowledge that exists within our class. I want students to enjoy Maths and see themselves as Mathematicians!

So I’ve decided that our self-reporting scaffold will simply revolve around asking students how will you show me you can do this?

In order to escape the clutches of the learning pit, to overcome the productive struggle, the learner must ask questions of the concept before they can construct a solution. My solution to going gradeless in Maths has been several months in the making, but here are the questions I hope to be able to address.

Can students really be trusted with self-reporting a Maths grade?
How do we provide enough opportunities for students to collect evidence of achievement?
What constitutes reasonable evidence of learning? Formative? Summative? Oral? Video?
How do we help students discern A-E letter grades against the Australian Curriculum in order to make an on balance judgement?
How can we report on skills developed from the General Capabilities?
What role, if any, does depth of knowledge play in this? Growth? Learning skills?
What happens if students over or under grade themselves?
Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.
Henry David Thoreau

So while I might still be lost right now, I am also far closer to finding the answers I seek. Maybe you should get lost too…

Originally published at blogmoore2017.edublogs.org on September 5, 2017.