Teaching Opinion

Shifting the Conversation: Change, Growth, and Assessment

By Starr Sackstein — December 03, 2018 4 min read
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Guest post by Michael Marchione

Data is all around us and informs so much of our world. We organize and categorize ourselves based on numerical values such as age or socially constructed data like economic status.

Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise me that the learners in my classroom have such a strong dependence on data - namely, in the form of a “grade” or “mark”.

I’m not suggesting there is no value in data, however, I do believe that measuring our learners’ success and knowledge numerically not only frustrates me to my very core but stifles a crucial part of education - an intrinsic desire to simply learn.

Reinforcing with my learners that I don’t believe grades are true reflections of their learning was not a shock to them, because I make that very clear on the first day of school.

However, I decided to take this to a whole new level - we gathered in a community circle as a class where I walked my learners through an open, honest journey of my own struggle to attribute a number as a measure of knowledge.

Following our community circle, I had my learners fill out a Google Form.

One question I asked was, "What do you normally think of when you think of 'grades' or 'marks' in school?". Image

Here are some responses (pictured here)

Some responses I expected, many of my learners shared how grades are good because they tell you how ‘good’ you are in a subject or that their parents/guardians care about getting ‘good grades'. However, those responses upset me just as much as the ones I just drew attention to.

Our young people are developing a self-concept around letters and numbers and many feel they need this data to understand where they fit into the world.

I became an educator because I want to inspire lifelong learning and motivate others to believe they can affect positive change in the world. I began to question myself almost in two extremes.

One, am I doing a disservice to my learners when I don’t put grades on their work fully knowing they want it and will likely receive grades after they leave my learning environment?

And two, how can I inspire and motivate when I legally have to put a number on provincial report cards for the foreseeable future? The answer: I don’t know. What I do know is this year I am fortunate enough to be a part of opening a brand new school, fostering a community of innovative teaching and learning. I plan to use this opportunity to challenge assessment standards. To top it off, I have a relatively open-minded learning community and they’re open to doing things differently...sort of.

So now what?

I needed to engage my learners in meaningful and crucial conversations around assessment and how they can and should be a part of the process. I put together a series of Google Slides that helped organize my own thinking while also document the contributions my learners made to the dialogue around shifting assessment.

I needed my learners to know the ‘Big Ideas’ of our curriculum. By linking the tasks they were doing in class to actual curriculum standards, my learners no longer asked, “why are we doing this?”. We rephrased our learning into student-friendly language that we all could understand and developed success criteria as a learning community.

In Mathematics, this learner documented their learning in a sketch note task. Their goal was to demonstrate their knowledge of linear growing patterns. They linked their knowledge to our ‘Big Idea’, represent linear growing patterns with whole term values in a variety of ways. In their reflection, they connected to this ‘Big Idea’ by identifying the strategies they felt most comfortable with and rated their own learning at the end by linking their growth to our success criteria.

While it may not be the level of thought-provoking reflection I’d love to see, this was a great moment for the first month of school!

In Science, this learner documented their journey in a video. They had to build a structure that performed a function (a direct ‘Big Idea’ in our Science & Technology curriculum!). They reflected on their personal strengths and goals and can always review this video during our next building challenge. When I conferenced with this learner afterwards, they were able to share their learning clearly and found value in the task itself.

I am still struggling with this shift. My learners are too. Just today I conferenced with my class on a piece of writing they submitted and one learner said, “So, I know we’re shifting away from marks but what grade would my writing get?”

Honestly, I caved and shared with that individual where I thought that writing could be based on the feedback I had given. I felt I owed him that. After all, I needed something written in my gradebook to justify my Term 1 marks on the report cards for February. At least that’s what I tell myself.

My hope is that, just as my learners trust me to try new things, I need to trust myself and my learners that real learning is happening in our classroom. That I recognize and support my learners when they need it and foster curiosity and a desire to learn. That one day, my ‘gradebook’ will be the portfolios of products, recorded conversations, and documented observations that reinforce learning for my class. The system limits me and my learners, but we will continue to try.

This is a prototype, and we iterate daily on what this journey will look like for us. But the last thing I had each of my learners share with their families at the end of their student-led conferences last week was,

We are more than just a number.

I would love to hear open and honest experiences with going gradeless. Feel free to respond with thoughts, questions, and ideas! Always up for growing my Professional Learning Network!


My name is Michael Marchione. I am 26 years-old and a relatively new teacher. I have taught Intermediate Grades 7&8 and covered many grades in between! Positive mental health and wellness is central to my personal and professional development. When I'm not in the classroom, I might be reading a book, watching T.V, or spending time with loved ones. I am currently teaching Grade 7 in Milton, Ontario, Canada.

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