Author: Alfie Kohn
Publisher: West Virginia University Press
Publishing Date: December 1, 2020
Pages: 269 (Paperback)
Grades as we know them today have been ubiquitous for nearly a century1. Only a century, and yet we can’t imagine learning without them…or can we? Over the past 50 years, research in education and learning psychology suggest that, not only do grades fail to accurately measure learning (11), they actually demotivate learning and discourage academic risk taking (13). In short, grades focus students on grades, not on learning. This consequence of grades is, perhaps, an unwelcome truth for both teacher and student alike. We want grades to mean something (why else “My kid is on the honor roll” bumper stickers?). We want our kids to learn and love learning!
Can you imagine what learning might look like without grades? The 13 teachers (ranging from seventh grade to university) are attempting to do so in the stories compiled in Ungrading, a volume instigated and edited by Susan Blum, (the author of “I Love Learning; I Hate School”). The book is aimed at educators, and in it, the authors tell the stories of why and how they went gradeless. While this might seem like an invitation for non-teacher readers to skip the rest of this article, I want to encourage you to skip the next paragraph, but to stick with me, because parents, mentors, and coaches play a significant role in shaping how students think about grades.
The contributing teacher-authors for Ungrading are a diverse group—five teach at the secondary level and eight at the college level. They are spread across disciplines (including language arts/writing, philosophy, film studies, math, organic chemistry, and more) and types of institutions. They are tenured faculty and contingent faculty. Some have been gradeless for decades while others are recounting lessons learned in their first semester or two of going gradeless. While they would like to do away with grades entirely, they all teach at institutions that require them. They each have different approaches for how they determine that required term grade, but they all involve students in that conversation. The essays in Ungrading demonstrate that there are a multitude of creative ways to make your classroom gradeless (right up to the end where you have to assign grades). They demonstrate that you can do it no matter what discipline you teach. The consistent feature of these approaches is a focus on giving rich, constructive feedback, with no grade attached.
There are as many reasons for going gradeless as there are authors, but all are motivated in some way by the belief that “the ultimate goal is to deemphasize the talk of grades and play up the discussion of learning” (76). Some authors are motivated to make the switch by a desire for social justice, driven by “a pedagogy of equality” (106) or the belief that “grades are currency for a capitalist system that reduces teaching and learning to a mere transaction” (28), while other authors wanted to remove the barriers preventing them from connecting with their students. Many of them have been inspired by educator Alfie Kohn’s insight that “the more students are led to focus on how well they’re doing, the less engaged they tend to be in what they’re doing” (141) or as editor Susan Blum observes “students are taught to focus on schooling rather than on learning” (57).
So what’s the point of grades, and why should Christian parents, coaches, mentors, or educators care about a movement to go gradeless?
The dominant model of schooling in North America is basically a game to collect points, and while “games are fun…if the goal is amassing points and winning at any price, then a game is the wrong model for [education]” (56). If we want our students to focus on learning rather than on schooling, we need to start engaging in conversations and actions that question the assumptions and philosophies embedded within our words, actions, and systems. The work by Neil Postman, Charles Adams, and others on the philosophy of technology makes a strong argument that technologies predispose or tilt us toward certain types of actions.2 Grades are a technology, and one inspired by an assembly-line factory-inspired vision of education driven by the industrial revolution (after all, we send students through the system based on date of manufacture).
So, what is a parent, coach, or teacher to do? First off, think about words. Subtle biases are often reflected in the words we use. For example, we often talk about “getting grades,” language which implies that the teacher has a supply of grades and gives them out. One small change I’ve found helpful is to rephrase “getting grades” as “earning grades.” The shift in verb changes the emphasis of the origin of the grade. Secondly, consider the ways you engage in school discussions with your students. What do the questions you ask at the dinner table imply about the important things from school? Consistently asking “what grade did you get” builds a different mindset than “what did you learn today?” or “what good question did you ask today?” Thirdly, engage and support your children’s teachers as they explore why and how they grade. Finally (if you yourself are a teacher), consider making thoughtful changes to how you provide feedback to the learners in your care. This doesn’t necessarily mean going gradeless on a whole course—start small, maybe just one assignment or category or course. Shifts like this are not easy (it took several years for “earning grades” to become my default), but it might not be as difficult as you think.
There is no one way to go gradeless (just like there is no one way to construct the grading table on a syllabus), and the accounts in Ungrading are not prescriptive, but they are rich in detail and experience and will provide a guide for any teacher who wants to dip a toe in the waters of encouraging learning by not using grades. Regardless of how crazy (or not) this idea seems to you, I encourage you to carefully consider the point of points and how you use them—do your conversations focus on learning or on the grade? “How did you do on the test?” and “what did you learn [from the test]?” are two different questions with different postures toward learning.
Grades as we know them (A/B/C/D/F, 4.0 GPA, etc.) are a newcomer to education (considering that we’ve been doing education for all of human history). It’s difficult to track down the exact origins but letter grades appear to have originated in the United States in 1897 (7) and the pressures and connectedness by the Industrial Revolution spurred rapid and wide-spread adoption by schools ↩
For more details see Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman and Exercising Our World View by Charles Adams (among others) ↩