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