The Gradeless Garden

Why natural, neutral, and nothing is not enough

Photo credit Aya Okawa
I think I recently realized that for me, since going gradeless doesn’t address inequity, it leaves much to be desired. Good teaching involves meaningful feedback and the trust that students need to be heard and understood. I know we all know this, but we’re not addressing it in this context. And that feels empty to me. Grading less seems to me to be empty not because of the “less” but because of the elephant that persists in remaining nameless.
—Marian Dingle, personal communication

Around this time last year, I was writing a series of articles about the “cans of worms” standards-based learning and grading opened up in my classroom.

I first became interested in this approach when I realized how traditional grading practices inadvertently punished the students at my alternative high school for things outside their control — poverty, mood disorders, unstable home lives.

Since it focuses solely on student learning, a large part of the standards-based approach entails eliminating anything that isn’t that: assessments with no opportunity to retake or redo, deducting points for late work, assigning zeroes for incomplete work, plagiarism, or cheating. Much of what SBL/SBG teachers do amounts to weeding out these harmful practices, creating space for ones that are more accurate, equitable, and humane.

In those blog posts, I likened this process of elimination to conquering the vast tangle of vegetation that once dominated the southwest corner of my yard. My point was not the difficulty in accomplishing the task, but rather the fact that, once the tangle is gone, new problems arise. And while I’ve found ways of addressing some of the logistical issues, other questions — namely what that space is ultimately for — loom even larger.

That garden plot, tangled as it was, represented an ecosystem. Destroy that system, and another one emerges. The whole culture of grading in schools represents a similarly dysfunctional but interconnected system. Like that overgrown patch last year, it’s a system populated by hardy weeds and invasive plants, beneficiaries of a regime bent on efficiency and measurement. Grades, numbers, letters, symbols, rankings — as well as the abuse of these tools — have flourished in part due to their convenience in herding large numbers of students through our system. Uproot them and you have a short interval of time to give some other things a chance to grow.

Do nothing and you’ll soon have another tangled mess.

For me, this project has progressed from standards-based learning and grading to “going gradeless,” eliminating grades in favor of feedback, revision, and growth. An online portfolio platform has largely replaced the constricting cells of a traditional gradebook, so, in theory, I should be able to better accommodate dialogue and choice, build on students’ strengths and interests, and value the diverse funds of knowledge they possess.

But eliminating toxic grading practices, going gradeless, even providing effective feedback — none of this says much about what we plan on planting in the freshly cleared ground of our classrooms, our schools, our students, ourselves.

And if we think all of that isn’t contested ground, we’re kidding ourselves.

Jose Vilson’s thread in the wake of #Charlottesvillle

For those of us caught up in the euphoria of disrupting, ditching, throwing out, or otherwise parading under the affixes un- or -less, we need to more actively cultivate this awareness. Not only do many vulnerable students stand to suffer due to our sometimes cavalier approach, but our negation can become complicity if we don’t use that space to actively promote more just and equitable outcomes. I need to ask myself: Why don’t these movements attract more diversity? What makes me think that an overwhelmingly white contingent of educators will have an eye for equity when developing this plot?

I have some reasons for thinking going gradeless makes it easier to “name the elephant” referenced by my Twitter friend Marian Dingle, but there’s nothing inherent in the gradeless approach that necessitates it. And if you buy the garden analogy, you know what’s there in a weeded plot isn’t nothing or neutral, but just more of the same roots and seeds. If I want education to foster equitable, inclusive spaces and outcomes for my students, I will need to consciously and deliberately plant that, all the while fighting off the weeds that have continually prevailed in this so-called meritocracy. I need to realize that this vision has never happened, so I can’t assume those seeds are just there just waiting to be liberated.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, I am the one asserting what flourishes in this space. Hiding behind seemingly inconspicuous words like learning, passion, choice, voice, personalization amounts to a strategy of effacement, avoiding responsibility for the inequities I allow or perpetuate.

As Gert Biesta states,

…the point of education is never that children and young people learn…but rather that children and young people learn something, learn it for a reason, and learn it from someone. Here lies the fundamental difference between the language of learning, which is a process language that is in some sense ‘empty’ with regard to content and purpose, and the language of education where we always need to engage with questions of content, purpose and relationships.

Whether I acknowledge it or not, I am always answering these questions of content, purpose, and relationship, even if I hide my status in seemingly neutral titles: guide on side, peer at the rear, lead learner. As co-founder of Teachers Going Gradeless, I also have a responsibility for what voices and viewpoints are amplified and included in our group. Sherri Spelic’s reflections on inclusion in “organically forming communities” casts critical light on some of the same assumptions regarding the larger gardens of teacher groups:

Inclusion is a construction project. Inclusion must be engineered. It is unlikely to “happen” on its own. Rather, those who hold the power of invitation must also consciously create the conditions for sincere engagement, where underrepresented voices receive necessary air time, where those contributing the necessary “diversity” are part of the planning process. Otherwise we recreate the very systems of habit we are seeking to avoid: the unintentional silencing of our “included” colleagues.

I would like us to consciously create those conditions, but I often don’t know where to start. Sherri’s reflections push beyond grow and cultivate toward the more work-intensive create and engineer. A benignly passive approach belies power and privilege. As I’ve begun to actively follow more teachers of color, I have noticed how buffered and bubbled my grade-obsessed movement can be. I should have started by inviting people in, and hope that it’s not too late.

Going gradeless, ditching this, throwing out that — these can be important steps inasmuch as they can dismantle arbitrary structures that have disempowered teachers and stifled student learning generally. They also have the potential to place the onus more squarely on us as educators, especially we for whom the default appears natural and neutral. But without hard work, a more equitable and inclusive future appears unlikely.

That future won’t happen until we go beyond natural, neutral, and nothing, and ask ourselves the hard question: what next?

Arthur Chiaravalli teaches high school English in Michigan and is cofounder of Teachers Going Gradeless, a global group of teachers convinced that teaching and learning is better when we grade less.

Special thanks to my excellent Twitter friends Marian Dingle, Benjamin Doxtdator, and Peter Anderson for continually pushing my thinking and helping me with this piece. You all are the best!