Teachers (Actually) Going Gradeless

Every continent except Antarctica!

Penguins are already gradeless

The last week was a bit of a whirlwind. As of this writing, my post, Teachers Going Gradeless, has received 44 thousand views. I never thought I’d see this in my inbox:

The post checked in at number 16, between “Inspirational Photo of the Day Apr 10 2017" and “Peter Drucker: How to (Actually) Manage Your Time,” I’m surprised and happy that Medium readers prefer going gradeless to (actually) managing their time.

A lot of this has been thanks to some friendly sharing on the part of some pretty awesome folks, like assessment and grading hero, Rick Wormeli

Jennifer Gonzales of Cult of Pedagogy

…the great grandfather of gradelessness (although he’s not that old), Alfie Kohn. His tweet outpaced the likes and retweets I’d received by that point in about an hour.

As a result of all the traffic, the story was picked up by the New York Observer, jostling on its front page with “How Joining RHONY Saved Tinsley Mortimer’s Life” and “The Top 20 Must-See Artists at Coachella.”

#TG2: In the same league with Tinsley Mortimer, Kehlani, and Swet Shop Boys

Lastly, MindShift shared it with their 364,000 Twitter followers and 700,000 Facebook followers, leading to yet another tidal wave of interest.

The Facebook group that Aaron Blackwelder and I started ballooned to over 1,000 members in less than ten days. We’ve been joined by people from every continent on the globe (except Antarctica…are you supposed to say that?). And all of these people are really smart. They’ve been going at it nonstop — posting articles and videos, answering one another’s questions, debating an occasional troll — for days now. It’s been fun to watch.

And it’s brought up some powerful emotions, from expressions of frustration and excitement

Twitter offered to translate this from Spanish

…to accusations that we are corrupting the moral fiber of our nation.

My only regret is that the article wasn’t written in French…(Merci, François!)

Apprentissage > Learning Process

Along the way, we’ve welcomed a lot of interesting people to the group:

  • Sooraj Bhatia, an aspiring physicist who wants to build a school for his village in India, using some innovative ideas for teaching elementary mathematics.
  • Shawn Berry Clark, a former high school dropout who is now a transformational coach in South Carolina’s Department of Education, tasked with turning around struggling schools.
  • Kym Taylor-Rhys, a homeschooler in Wales whose four children are now thriving in the workplace or university. She attributes their success to an environment of student-driven learning, self-assessment, and introspection—dispositions that are hard to quantify.
  • Richard Shock, a single dad learning whatever he can to improve his kids’ experience at school.
  • Laureen Barnard, a former mechanical design and project engineer who always felt drawn to the more “human” aspects of her job. She eventually took the plunge and became a teacher. She is the Director and Founder of the Beechworth Montessori Adolescent Program in Victoria, Australia.
  • Ricardo Ferreira, who heads an alternative school in Johannesburg, South Africa, based on a Montessori Principles. He also is host of the Confused Father Podcast.
  • Christopher Riesbeck, professor of computer science at Northwestern University who uses a critique-driven approach to teaching artificial intelligence programming.

Christopher’s syllabus for his course on AI Programming shows how gradelessness does not equate with laxity:

This course is about mastering coding, becoming not just someone who can make something work, but someone who writes clean maintainable code that others want emulate, no matter what language you work in.
I critique but do not grade individual submissions. The only judgment call I make is whether I think you need to re-do what you sent. Prepare to re-do most exercises, especially early on.

Contrary to some accusations, we’re not handing out any trophies here. Under the status quo, a 59.5% D- is enough to move on to the next level. Teachers going gradeless show a staunch refusal to “rubber stamp” students onto the next assessment, unit, or course without the needed skills and understandings. There’s a lot of redoing and revising and going back to the drawing board in our classes. You don’t move on until you get it. And we’ll hang with you until you do.

While we have a lot in common, there’s an endless variety — probably too much for education’s current obsession with standardization. What I see is a community of educators fostering authentic, personal, collegial relationships with their students. I see teachers who love their subject too much to see it degraded by grades.

It’s not that we’re afraid of “objective” evaluation as some suggested in the comments; most of the teachers going gradeless are high performers in that paradigm of measurement. Most of us are still evaluated in that way.

It’s just that we’ve seen the research, we’ve done our homework. We’ve seen how going gradeless helps our students succeed — even within the reductive realm of testing.

But more importantly, we’ve sensed that there’s something wrong with grades, something that undermines the trust and reciprocity fundamental to teaching and learning; something that atomizes and itemizes our rich, complex, interconnected subject areas; something that seeks to objectify, measure, and evaluate everyone — claiming that mutuality is better mediated by machines.

But, as Jean-Paul Sartre put it, we can never be “made into an object”:

All kinds of materialism lead one to treat every man including oneself as an object — that is, as a set of pre-determined reactions, in no way different from the patterns of qualities and phenomena which constitute a table, or a chair or a stone.

We are educators who resist this tendency, who have no desire to live in Antarctica, a frozen wasteland of objects. Instead, we seek to thaw that world, bringing forth a future populated by human beings, not numbers.

Author’s note: We don’t (actually) want to thaw Antarctica. It’s a metaphor.

Care to join us? Find Teachers Going Gradeless on Facebook and leave a comment below. And please click the ❤ so more people get to see this.

Previous Post: Teachers Going Gradeless

Next Post: The Monster at the End of this Book →