To Grade or Not To Grade

November 13, 2017

Creating opportunities that spark intrinsic motivation.

Leaders in the field of education have spent lots of time addressing the question of annual assessment in the form of standardized testing and fashioning report cards. At Voyagers’ Community School, in Monmouth County, New Jersey, we understand this is short-sighted. Instead, we dedicate time to discussing intrinsic motivation. What makes students want to do their very best? Can we teach intrinsic motivation? Are there ways in which we stifle this? Inevitably assessment, in the form of grades and rankings, weaves its way into the conversation.

In schools across America, most often student work boils down to one thing, a grade, which represents everything about the child’s experience in a single class and, collectively, in a school year. Most people say, “So what, shouldn’t the best student be rewarded for being the best?” “How else are we going to know how a student is performing and what they learned?” Grades are often subjective, arbitrary and, in some cases, demoralizing. They often, whether an “A” or a “D”, serve to squelch motivation and ignore a student’s learning path. Grades also either open or close doors to opportunities, as they become gatekeepers.

No Limit To What We Can Learn

Voyagers’ Community School, serving children from 6 months to 18 years, and other progressive schools like it, are built on ideas, challenges, experiences, and engagement. We often say, a class in a project based and experiential (handon)school is an inch wide and a mile deep. At Voyagers’ teaches create opportunities for students to dig into a subject and to linger in and with ideas, including those presented by everyone at the table. There is no limit to what can be learned. Teachers are assured learning happens because interest builds and risks are taken. Students are not hampered by an impending grade. Even when grades are a part of a student’s’ life, as is the case at Voyagers’ Community School High School, grading becomes a group project. Students create rubrics, grade themselves and others, and defend their position regarding grades. High schoolers are encouraged to debate assigned grades.

In this environment, grades become one piece of a larger narrative, as teachers keep detailed notes and students and teachers populate individual digital portfolios that show and tell the topics and ideas being explored and the work being done. Of greater importance, is the fact that students and teachers openly question each other’s thinking, work, and contribution to the learning environment. This goes well beyond the competition that comes with grades. Students are motivated because they see themselves in a broader world outside of themselves and they want to be a part of the conversation.

Through feedback, students learn to be more effective researchers, writers, orators, and thinkers. They become passionate learners, who know themselves deeply, direct themselves, take criticism, and push to improve. This can’t be graded and it shouldn’t be undervalued.

The Measure of a Teacher’s Worth

So, what about teaching at Voyagers,’ where content and student engagement rather than a grade proves a teacher’s worth? This is a challenging job. Faculty members are asked to keep students’ interests at the fore and to incorporate the skills they need to learn. The conversations that are typical among teachers include constant questions, recap, and what ifs. Teams of teachers talk about what they heard, how they, compared to their colleagues, interpret what they heard, what it means, and where to go next. Designing a class that is flexible and structured, deep without preconceived notions, and student directed with facilitation is not for the  fainthearted.   As a humanities teacher entering a two-hour class without a sure plan, I feel like I do when I fly a two handled stunt kite. “Where in the world is it going and how do I keep it in flight?” It’s exhausting, energizing, and always interesting. No class is like another. Some are stupendous. This is not because I was on my game, it’s because together we, the students, teachers, and I, connected well beyond that which is typically evaluative.

At Voyagers’ Community School we skip grading for all student through eighth grade; translate work to grades for 7th and 8th graders applying to programs that require them; and grade high school students over stretches of time, with their help. We invest an inordinate number of hours in narrative documentation for all of our students and expect that students demonstrate their learning through the use of their digital portfolios. In an hour or two, you can see and, in conversation with a student, understand what has been learned. This is far more informative than any single grade or collection of grades. It is far more reflective of a teacher’s ability to engage, motivate, and inspire students. There is no better measure of a teacher’s worth and value at Voyagers’ Community School or any school embracing this philosophy. Narrative reporting can be implemented in any classroom, or school-wide, with a shift of perspective and an understanding of how to create meaningful opportunities to recognize learning.

Karen M. Giuffre’, M.Ed., Founding Director
Voyagers’ Community School

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