Teaching Opinion

Guest Post: A Grading Journey of Epic Proportions (Part 1)

By Starr Sackstein — May 28, 2017 3 min read
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Guest post by Jonathan So

The sketchnote (provided by @debbiedonsky) to the left sums up my epic journey of the past two years to give up grades.

It is not too often that you come across life-changing pedagogy in your career, but last year that is exactly what happened.

It has been one year since I first learned about a “Gradeless Classroom”. Since it has been a fabulous ride, I’m eager to share some of the journey.

When I first started, I was really questioning the purpose of assessment, feeling stuck between what I felt assessment was and what “school” was telling me it should be.

And by “school”, I don’t mean our individual boards or schools, but the ideals of school or education systems in general. “School” seemed to see assessment as the end product. It was purely evaluative, a comparison and seen in isolation. Essentially it was a means through which we gather data.

For me though, assessment was more about the learning.

Of course I wanted my students to learn content and have standards. Of course I wanted them to be the best they could be, but I wrestled with how we communicated learning and the nature of grades.

Questions around grading:

  1. What is the point of a letter grade?

  2. Why are they needed?

  3. Do they really help students?

These questions led me to a lot of research, and my greatest noticing from that research was that when we put a grade on a student’s work, they tend do not read the feedback provided.

First Iteration of the Process:

All grades were dropped on my students’ work and students only received feedback. I also wrote parents a narrative every month about their child’s learning and progress.

For the first time I noticed that my students were reading their feedback. Students were listening to each other and not competing with one another. In fact, they were helping each other learn.

However, I still wasn’t happy because it was still too teacher-centered and not enough was in the hands of my students. Although students were reflecting, they were only reflecting on my pre-determined success criteria and not understanding what those standards and outcomes meant.

The Second Iteration of the Process:

After reflecting deeply on the successes and challenges of my first year, it was time to make some changes that would put students more in charge of their learning.

  1. More attention needed to be given to the classroom community and students’ ability to see themselves in their own learning environment.

  2. More focus on students’ understanding of standards and how the curriculum helps them learn these skills.

What that looked like:

At the beginning of the year we started with a #YouMatter board, so that students could have the opportunities to record who they are and what makes them amazing.

I got this idea from Angela Maiers and I thought it would help students see themselves first as people and not just a cog in the wheel. Additionally, the board was used to share goals and ideas that they wanted to work on this term.

How does this fit with being “Gradeless”, you may wonder? By allowing students to feel more comfortable with reflection.

Before I did this, feedback was primarily teacher-centered. Students read it and we continued to talk but when I shifted the classroom to show the students that they mattered, the advice they received all of a sudden had more meaning.

Not only was it validating to their needs but they started to see how it met their personal goals. School wasn’t just a place to show up to and be a part of, but it was a place of valued learning; a place they saw themselves in and wanted to be a part of.

Going “gradeless” has been a revolutionary. The power is more in the students’ hands and has shown them that they have the capacity to change and affect their school lives. In part 2, I hope to showcase more from my second year of going “gradeless.” So stay tuned.

Jonathan So teaches grade 6 at Ray Lawson Public School, in the Peel District School Board, Ontario, Canada. He has also taught grades 2 to 5 and is one of the lead instructional technology and math coaches at his school. He is a proud parent of 3 young children Izzy, Micah and Levi. He is always looking to promote creativity and exploration in his family, students and colleagues. His interests lie in math, assessment and technology (not in any particular order) but he is also passionate about inquiry and the endless possibilities it has for his students. Connect with him via twitter (@MrSoClassroom)

The opinions expressed in Work in Progress are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.