Sunday, May 4, 2008

Grades, grades, and more grades!

Have you ever wondered where the concept of letter grading came from? Do you ever find yourself asking why you do it? Do grades kill creativity? Do grades stifle learning? I've started to ponder these questions as we enter into the annual rush to graduation. Our awards ceremony is looming close at hand. Don't get me wrong, these students are deserving of all the ribbons and accolades we can heap upon them, but in the end does the struggle for the 4.67876 over the 4.67776 really matter? Does the competition for grades get in the way of learning? Are students better off and the cause of learning best served by blowing up the current grading system?

The Beginning: Have you ever heard of William Farish? Grades first entered the educational system with the industrial revolution. Prior to this time, education consisted mostly of students in small groups working with mentor teachers. The quality of the education was tied largely to a teacher's ability to pass on skill and knowledge to this small group of students.

The industrial revolution and the shift from rural to urban life brought large changes to society. One such change was the transformation of the traditional pedagogical approaches of education to one that could serve mass numbers of students in an efficient manner. Enter William Farish. A tutor at Cambridge, Farish came to realize that the more students the school could enroll with fewer instructors, the more revenue each instructor could potentially receive. Farish's adoption of "grading" from factories where products were "graded" into the classroom made it possible for teachers to see greater and greater numbers of students each day. For most schools this process of grading remains.

A better way: Is there a better way? How would Catholic high schools and schools in general operate if grades where not part of the academic day? It is a startling proposal in many ways but one in which education and all its faults might find a new source of creativity. Would it work? Would student learning flourish? Would cheating come to an end? A recent exit survey with our own senior class found that 50% of students see cheating as a major problem. The percentage goes to 75% when we adjust for those tracked in the honors classes.

We all sense the profound shift education would undergo if these practices were changed. The remnants of the industrial revolution keep a strong strangle hold over secondary education. In many places my school included we suffer along with an industrial carnegie model for classes with an agrarian schedule.

Are the Critics right? Critics of abandoning grading argue that grades lead to motivation, colleges demand such grades, and that the whole concept of assessment would need to be rethought. These critics raise valuable points. Alfie Kohn takes a few shots at the critics here. Granted, the work of Mr. Kohn is rather radical but it is certainly thought provoking.

Catholic World-View and Grading: Being schools driven by the Catholic world-view brings forth even more issues regarding these practices. Is grading compatible with our world view? How would Jesus (the great teacher) have graded the Apostles? An interesting question never the less.

To help gather some info on our current grading practices, please take time to fill out the grading survey: Survey Here

History of William Farish


Benjamin Baxter said...

I only started reading the piece, and I read this nugget:

"Researchers have found three consistent effects of using – and especially, emphasizing the importance of – letter or number grades."

The key is to avoid emphasizing grades. Grades are fine, as long as they are understood to be general guidelines, or at the very least they are a necessary evil.

Charlie A. Roy said...

I've been trying to wrap my mind around what the typical high school experience would look like without grades and I must say I am coming up blank. Someone help!

Bill Farren said...

Hi Charlie: You might want to take a look at Alfie Kohn's books "The Schools Our Children Deserve" and "No Contest". Sure, his ideas are radical, but that's just because he doesn't let what seems to be the prevailing "common sense" of the day get in the way of his beautifully-elaborated arguments. He shows, through meticulous logic and research, how grades impede learning and diminish the act of discovery to mere point-mongering and rank-chasing.
Maybe a good question for all of us to ask is, "Am I only giving grades for this task because it's so odious that otherwise students would not do it or not do it well?" If the answer is "yes", then I think the culprit becomes evident: unengaging, unmeaningful curriculum.
I think that Jesus would not have needed to give grades since what he taught was inherently useful and engaging--no sticks and carrots needed!
Be well, Bill

Charlie A. Roy said...

I think I will pick those books up as part of my summer reading. I hear his arguments bantered around and it is probably time I read them thoroughly. One instructional strategy that I despise is that of "busy work". I've never understood why a teacher would give an assignment for a completion grade that they have absolutely no intention of ever looking at. Strange strange.

Joon said...

hello, I am a student from Korea International School.
Your blog post has a lot to do what Alfie Kohn said. He's one of those guys that support getting rid of grades.
You should read my blog post "Grades are like Drugs to Asians!" I wrote the same topic from an Asian's point of view.
My blog address is


Clay Burell said...

Hi Charlie,

Great post that hits a question I'm going to spend the summer exploring too. Maybe we can read Kohn and otherwise research the issue, and fire up Skype for some podcast conversations. I have the feeling I'd like speaking with you as much as I like writing with you.

Every time I read the Gospels, I'm always struck how Jesus gives authentic feedback to his disciples by seemingly banging his palm against his forehead and saying, "Jeez, don't you guys get my parables? Don't you have ears to hear?" In my memory, he seems to have felt his "students" were about as adept at interpreting his lessons as my own are when we read poems and fiction together. (And have you heard the interpretation of the "Peter, upon this rock I'll build my church" line was actually Jesus punning on the name Peter, which etymologically relates to "rock" - think 'petrified'- but I'm sure you know this one. I've always liked the hints of irony and even sarcasm some of the Gospel writers give when characterizing Jesus.)

To the point of your post, though: It's eye-opening that the whole purpose of grades was to increase class size so teachers could earn more by "teaching" more students at a time.

To me, class size is the other damnable impediment to effective teaching-and-learning. As a friend of mine in California shared with me recently: "1 teacher, 30 students: You do the math." It's impossible to effectively teach more than a handful of students - I'd say five to ten - and grading doesn't solve the problem.

We need to expand the "radical" critique beyond Kohn's anti-grade crusade to include an anti-large class size campaign as well.

Large class sizes plus the GPA game transforms students into grade-junkies, and teachers into mere graders. My evidence: I've had about 50 students ask to meet to discuss their grade this year, and how they can raise it. I've had three ask to meet to discuss how to write better, read poetry better, or otherwise "learn from teacher." My take-away: they see me as a grade-giver, and school as an instrument for getting them into college, not a place to learn.

End of comment, except: I can't tell you how cool it was to discover Joon's comment as I read this post. He's a student from my school here in Korea :)

Clay Burell said...

Ahh, Charlie, I re-read your comment, and your cry for "help" seems hopeless because you say you're trying to envision a "typical high school experience without grades."

Any high school without grades is not typical, right? And any high school with teacher-student ratios below 1:10 also atypical.

So to me, the problem is that typical high schools can't work. But the Kohn article you link to suggests otherwise (or was that link in Bill Farren's comment?).

Nate said...

I've always liked Alfy Kohn as well...There is in me a great desire to want for a classroom where learning is the great motivator and distractions like grades fall off the wayside...But then I look around and ask myself: in what major human activity is there something equivalent to class without grades? Businesses pay you and fire you and evaluate you. Artists keep score with reputations and commissions. Musicians compare records sold or audience sizes...Maybe love and dating? No one grades your kissing, at least not directly.

Imagine the pressure put on a teacher without grading. Everything would have to be intrinsically interesting. Aren't some scaffolding or intermediate learning situations less than fun but they lead us into the fun stuff. How do people get motivated to do them?

Charlie A. Roy said...

I remember reading your blog post on the grading topic. Very insightful.
Reading Kohn this summer sounds great to me. I've never had the chance to sit down and read his full works just an article here or there. Jesus the great teacher and the Gospels have a lot of fuel for a look at pedagogy. Speaking of class size it is interesting how he chose 12 for the most intense work. Seems to be a good student to teacher ratio. As far as breaking down the class size I do agree it would be rather "atypical" and perhaps my dreams would take a radical restructuring that is anything but typical to be accomplished.
I realize there are performance benchmarks that indicate if one is doing there job or not but I have to believe these indicators are used to gage performance not as an indicator of learning. The problem is looking at grades as signs of learning. They are not necessarily correlated. In terms of where all the intrinsic motivation for teachers and learners will come from I can't really say. I'll have to think a little longer on that one.

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

Though my K-12 school did have grades, they were de-emphasized. In the lower school (through 8th grade), the ratings were Excellent, Good, Passing, and Unsatisfactory. All grades were accompanied by narrative comments from the teachers.

We earned the usual A,B,C,D,F (+, -) in the upper school, still accompanied by narrative comments from each teacher and an overview from the dean.

As evidence of how well this system works, I still have an evaluation sheet from fourth grade and a report card from 9th grade and still get a swell of good feeling from them.

Car Servicing Dublin said...

I've been reading your articles and they are very helpful with teachers like us. It's very inspiring and the tips are very useful. Kudos!

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