What If?: No Grades

The story on the Ever-Renewing Society has made it clear to me that we, as educators, need to be deeply questioning the paradigms upon which we were raised. Not to say that they weren’t accurate (for the time); rather, to emphasize that hackneyed traditions may no longer be adequate to deal with the reality of the present situation, and that we have to be aware of when (and when not) this is the case.

Today, let’s talk about some assumptions implicit in the American educational system, as well as introduce a new character in our story: Steve.

Steve begins every school semester by telling his new class that everyone in the room will receive an A this semester, because every single learner in the room is capable of an A, so he knows that they will achieve it. Accordingly, the idea of grades is totally blown up. They aren’t a factor anymore. Let’s pause here to emphasize (as he does every day in class): the single largest motivating factor, the supposed glue that all of us presume is keeping together our strange system where the customer is all people and are forced to buy the product (at least to some level), has been removed from the system. “What now?” he asks.

There is of course a magic that Steve contains, one that can’t be bottled up and sold, that allows this technique to be effective – I, personally, can’t currently do it. He will tell you that the magic is based in focusing on the human-human interactions and relationships, and encouraging each one of the learners in his room to seek and achieve their unique and innate potential. What he does is essentially Jedi Mind Tricks that eventually make students learn about themselves and actually try. One of my friends and mentors, Eric, went to observe his classroom once; he chose a student who he perceived (totally subjectively and based on appearance) to be a student who is typically unengaged and asked him “Why are you doing so much work? You know [Steve] is just going to give you an A anyway! Why don’t you just kick back and relax?” The student looked at him like he was an idiot. “Because then you wouldn’t learn anything.”

What Steve is doing goes far beyond what I have seen in any other classroom I have observed. He is subconsciously asking students to question values. Students enter the classroom having been told that grades are what matter most – they hold the most value in this institution known as school. But, then they find out that Steve doesn’t value grades. This, of course, forces them to ask what does Steve value?

Previously, students have learned to ‘play the game’ and they recognize that relationships with their teachers either don’t have value, or hold superficial value… so they don’t choose to focus their energy on those relationships. They focus on grades. Yet, inside, kids also have excellent “BS meters,” and they can sense that there is a disingenuous nature to the grading system on which we place so much value. They begin to realize that it is an institution that is abstract and (at the same time) holds more and less value than anything else in their school-bound life. When students recognize that what Steve cares about is them, human beings self-actualizing to see their potential, strive, and live consciously in this world, they get to begin anew. Learners are not judged on where they ‘get to’ within the subject matter in relation to the standards or their classmates, they are judged on whether they discover some deep questions and relevance in relation to where they are when they enter the class, and that judgement is mostly self-reflective. Students who previously achieved high grades get a chance to ask themselves Why? and define purpose for themselves. Students who previously did not achieve high grades have probably done so for a multitude of reasons, but most likely because they recognized, socially, that ‘the game of achieving high grades’ was not a game at which they excelled; like a kid who tries basketball and realizes they aren’t very good at it, these kids eventually quit playing the game, at least to the extent that they were allowed to quit (what with truancy laws and such). Well, these students, under Steve’s ideas, get a chance to re-focus the purpose of school also. When the game you are playing is not one of competing against others, but constantly competing with yourself to become a better person and achieve what you know you are capable of (as he constantly reinforces), there is no reason to cover up your shortcomings and vulnerabilities with any sort of shield. The activities are not meant to be ‘something to be good at,’ every activity is meant to be something that a student says ‘How can I use this as a chance to walk away a stronger person?’ Now, I know that all good teachers are telling students that this is what the game is about, but again, students have a ‘BS meter’ and can sense that something is awry when the policies (grades) don’t back that up.

What Steve is doing is pushing over the first domino in a long line of dominos that lead into a Rube Goldberg machine. And the ‘problem’ with his methods, from an outside perspective, are that they don’t ‘produce results’ in 18 weeks. I suppose my message is for us, as a nation, to stop being so myopic. What effect do these messages have over the next several years? If students are inspired by this message to go out and figure out who they are and become lifelong learners and engaged citizens (versus a kid who in 18 weeks raises his SAT score 100 points but is an unengaged citizen as a 30-year-old), then that has value that is not being measured by our society.

At the end of the day, though it seems like Steve’s philosophy might ‘mess up the system!’ for the school, boosting student’s GPA’s for one year in one class, the techniques Steve uses are not actually that subversive. Students are not getting a boost in GPA that will ‘put them over the edge,’ to get into this or that college, but rather are learning the value of their own unique talents and interests, which, if they are in working with the hands and fixing stuff, means they can feel free to pursue a career in working with the hands and fixing stuff (automechanics, plumbing, etc) without stigmatization or feeling like a second-class citizen. They have learned about themselves and grown confident in their unique gifts to the world.

As I mentioned, Steve has found his unique way of creating value in the world, and as amazing as I find it to watch, I couldn’t do it in the same way. I am effective and provide value in my own way, and that’s OK. The point is that in analyzing and evaluating the implicit assumptions that Steve is tearing down, we can each begin to question some assumptions in our practice and play a part in creating the Ever-Renewing Society. What works to achieve your own defined purpose of your pedagogy? What assumptions are you going to question? What has changed about our society that may no longer allow the customary systems and structures handed down through the years to affect change?

Note: The reason Steve structures his class this way is not necessarily for the reasons listed above. The reason is because he truly believes that ‘grades’ are a system conceived in order to create and perpetuate a societal class system of ‘have’s and have-not’s,’ which can separate and categorize people into easily labeled categories of capacity. See On Equity of Thought for the tip of the iceberg into these ideas.

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