Two years ago, seventh-grade history became the only ungraded class in the school. The administration agreed to let me try it, as a means of empowering students to take more control over their learning. The students receive comments instead of letter grades as their assessment. I point out the strengths of their work as well as the next steps that they should take. Over the course of the year, the goal is to have them do more and more of their own assessment. At the start and end of every lesson, we talk about the skills that they used, and they write a self-reflection, based on three questions. What did you do well in this assignment? What did you find challenging? What would you do differently if she had to do it again? After they have written their self-reflection, I review their work and reflections and write comments. I make sure to point out where they had growth or new success. I also help them identify the next steps.
Because there is no final goal post of an A that allows the student to stop the learning process, there is always another challenge. Students show a lot about themselves when the grades are removed.
1. We have trained many of our most successful students to work only for the grade. When the grades are taken away, so is the validation that they are good students. Their effort was to please the teacher; it was totally disconnected from curiosity and learning. They are good students, not because they are good at learning, but because they are good at playing the game of school. These students take the longest time to engage in the work of the class. They continually asked, “Will this be graded?” as a sign of how significant the task is. On the last day of school, I had a student come up to me and ask, “So now will you tell me my grade?” She was convinced that I had a secret grade book that I just wouldn’t share with them. We created these students, through our use of grades as rewards and as punishment. We trained them that the work of school isn’t about the work of learning. We need to find ways to undo the damage that this has done to our students.
2. Students who are used to getting medium to poor grades felt like they have been freed from prison when the grades are taken away. Most of those students learned early on in their days at school that their best efforts did not lead to success, and that it would be someone else squealing with joy over a returned test or quiz. They had given up on working hard, simply wanting to hide in the classroom. When grades are removed from the equation, these students begin to flourish. It isn’t scary to get back their work, because there is always praise on it. There is also direction for every student of the “next step.” They are not the only ones with work still to do. Class becomes a safe place, rather than one where they are in danger of being exposed as inadequate. The vast majority of students begin to come alive, willing to test their ideas and take risks that they never did before. They also are willing to help each other learn. It wasn’t a competition for the best grade; it was a journey of learning that we are on together.
3. Finally, students love to learn. When they no longer worry or hide, they simply engage in the process. There are no students who want to be stupid, who want to be failures. They all want to grow and learn. We have just created a system that discourages that from happening. When we take away the fear of failure, and we allow them to develop and become more competent, they want to do it. They are willing to do the hard work of learning! The students began to set higher and higher goals for themselves, each one pushing herself to reach new levels of understanding. When they felt safe, the sky was their limit.
Hadley Ferguson is a middle-school history teacher at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. Ferguson is co-founder of edcamp philly and a board member of the edcamp Foundation. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter @hadleyjf.