Shifting Mindsets about Grades

I’m sure you’ve all experience the excitement of working like crazy on a project or studying for a test and sat in confident anticipation waiting to receive that beautifully pristine A that shows the rest of the world how brilliant you are. But your work is returned with the ugly old B or perhaps the dreaded C or maybe something unspeakable was scribbled at the top of your paper in that shamefully bright red ink. In that moment, you feel like a failure. You’re heart sinks and you begin to think that you’re stupid. Or maybe you’re so shocked, you don’t even know what to feel and can’t even begin to describe the sense of all the lost time and effort you invested into what you believed to be your latest item of brilliance. You’re not alone. We’ve all been there. So the question is – Why? We do we put ourselves and now our children through this inner turmoil? Is it really just about having an easy way to ‘catalog’ learners?

A few years ago, I took a course titled Disruptive Technologies. Although we did talk quite a bit about the design and use of technology, we also spoke about alternate ways of thinking about measuring student learning. One aspect of the discussions that has always resonated with me was the idea of changing the traditional grading scheme to something with less emphasis on a letter or number designation, but instead assigning grades based on a students effort and demonstrated ability within the classroom.

I believe the message we send to learners through our grading schemes sends a very poignant message to them. You’re either brilliant or a failure. It’s something that we reinforce on a daily basis in our society. You want to be seen by the surgeon who graduated at the top of his class and has a proven record of never making mistakes. You want the architect who comes with the best references and does the highest quality work. We even have rating scales for our phones, headphones, TVs, and even diapers. One quick look on Amazon, Etsy, or Netflix and you’ll see a rating scale applied to everything. But is that really what we should be doing with learning?

Learning is supposed to be a lifelong process. As humans, we are continually evolving and encountering and learning about the new perspectives of the world around us. Why do we think we can capture and ‘rate’ that learning. This to me seems like it’s simply the easy thing to do. But what are the ramifications of this grading scheme we cling so tightly to?

What if we could treat learning more as a process and place less emphasis on achieving the grade? What would happen if students were encouraged in their learning rather than labeled? Would this create a ripple that changes the very fiber of how our society views education? Would students want to learn instead of feeling the pressure to achieve that perfect A and resort to cheating, feeling that is the only guaranteed way of obtaining that goal we value so much?

What if we could ‘grade’ students, not based on a measure we place upon them, but rather by allowing them to demonstrate their effort? Do you think it’s possible? Could we make this type of a paradigm shift in our educational systems? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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