There’s a ton of stuff messing with my head today and I’m not quite sure how it’s all going to come together yet. So bear with me.

I just got through reading Daniel Pink’s latest called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us and am working my way through the Dan and Chip Heath book titled Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard.

I ran across an article several weeks ago about a Duke University professor who stopped grading student work. Instead she let students grade themselves using a system based on contracts and “crowdsourcing.”

I’ve had two conversations since yesterday with principals and curriculum directors about helping to create quality assessment tools in their buildings. And reading Steve Wyckoff’s thoughts on grades and assessments reminded me of Alfie Kohn’s work on grades and assessments in education.

So . . . all of this stuff, together with over-the-counter cold medication I’m taking, is making my head a little fuzzy. My goal was some sort of unified theory of grading, some nugget of wisdom. But this is all I’ve come up with so far.

The current grading system stinks. And it needs to change if we want true learning to happen.

It seems to me that most research is telling us that the stick and carrot methods that we’re using in schools to drive learning don’t work.

Kohn describes the problem with the current system:

The research suggests three consistent effects of giving students grades – or leading them to focus on what grade they’ll get. First, their interest in the learning itself is diminished. Second, they come to prefer easier tasks – not because they’re lazy, but because they’re rational. After all, if the point is to get an A, your odds are better if you avoid taking intellectual risks. Third, students tend to think in a more superficial fashion – and to forget what they learned more quickly – when grades are involved.

Pink has similar thoughts based on his research:

The secret to high performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.

The carrot and stick approach can actually significantly reduce the ability of workers to produce creative solutions to problems.

Kohn suggests that:

. . . the only real solution is to eliminate grades altogether, or to come as close to that as is practical in a given school. Of course, this presumes that our goal is for students to become more enthusiastic and proficient learners. If our goal instead was to sort kids (deciding who’s beating whom), or to induce them to do things they have no interest in doing by bribing or threatening them into compliance, then we might be more reluctant to question the use of grades.

Cathy Davidson, the Duke University professor in the USA Today article, noticed a big difference between earlier “teacher-graded” classes and students in the student-assessed class:

I think students were going out on a limb more and being creative and not just thinking about ‘What does the teacher want?’

I’m not sure what the best solution is but I like the idea that Davidson built into her class – collaborative student assessment and detailed feedback rather than just letter or number grades. Kohn agrees that when teachers modify their grading systems to include student feedback and an emphasis on specific feedback rather than letter grades, true learning increases.

Perhaps that’s part of the answer.

  • Focus on ways to minimize grades until the end of the grading period by providing narrative feedback only to specific assignments.
  • Provide ways for kids to assess their own learning.
  • Use rubrics more often, created with student input.
  • Like Davidson, design ways for students to collaborate on feedback.

But I think the most important thing we can do is to be more aware of what the research tells us about how grades and assessment have both positive and negative impact.

The next rant? Homework.

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend