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Truly Making the Grade

The April  Archdiocese of Philadelphia school administrators and curriculum Mary Rochford, Archdiocese of Phila, Alfie Kohn

leaders in-service focused on Engaging the 21st Century learner and effective assessment strategies.

At this session, entitled De-Grading not Degrading, Alfie Kohn was the speaker and he emphasized how important it is to focus on the learning process rather than strictly on high scores and grades. Engaging students in the learning process and fostering life long learning are surely goals for the 21st century. In this post, I will share points from this in service and some thoughts and resources on the use of technology for alternative assessment.

According to his research, Kohn indicated that a focus on grades only can have a very negative impact on student motivation.  Kohn was inspired to investigate this when, as a teacher, he noticed that a large percentage of parents were inclined to reward students and even pay them to have high grades.

Grading is a well established practice.

Why we focus on grades

1. We grade students to sort them.
2. We grade students to motivate them
3. We have control over the classroom
4. We have always done it. It is established practice.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

There are definitely students who are motivated by having high grades. However, Kohn emphasized that these students are extrinsically motivated – not intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation supports a love for learning.  Extrinsic motivation does not. The focus on grades squashes intrinsic motivation. We should care HOW they are motivated. Students should be intrinsically motivated. With only extrinsic motivation in place, students  lose interest in the learning itself.

Intrinsic motivation is there because students are inspired and engaged. Extrinsic motivation is there because of the reward.

As extrinsic motivators go up, intrinsic motivators go down. We want students to learn with proficiency and enthusiasm. Focusing on high grades can only do harm. We need a better way to assess students than with grading. If schools want to inspire depth of understanding, joy in learning and ability to apply  they should find some other way to assess students than giving tests.

For children to do well, we have to think affirmatively about what they do. What end result would we like to see? We want them to read, we want to learn. We want them intellectually engaged. Social, behavioral and ethical goals are important. We need to keep the focus on these larger more far reaching aims.

Six Problems Caused by Focusing on Grades Instead of  Learning

1. Students become less interested in learning. It is about the beliefs and desires under the surface. If we are focused on scores, we are only reaching children on a surface level. The more we focus kids on their achievement, the less well they do. Veer away from choosing competitive learning over cooperative learning. Ranking students in a classroom forms a dynamic which works against learning.

2. Students don’t see themselves as having power over learning -Power over learning comes from factors outside of the student. When your schools are all about achievement and performance, children are more likely to attribute their success to things outside of their control (such as intelligence or luck) . We should be helping students to focus more on the difference their efforts can make.

3. Students will pick the easiest task – If children have a choice, they will pick the easier thing to do. Students won’t take intellectual risks and challenge themselves when grades are the focus.

4. Children will fall apart when they don’t achieve because grades are the focus. They focus on the end result rather than the process.

5. Negative social impact to high achieving students – Social Psychology supports that they will be less open to others because others are obstacles to their success. They may be inclined to place themselves apart from others.

6. Students won’t ask for help when they need it. The more we are about achievement, the less likely students are to ask for help when they need it. This hampers learning.

What Can Administrators Do?

  1. Examine your list of activities and events that focus on grades. Examples are honors awards, posting high grades,standardized tests.
  2. Foster programs and strategies that focus on the learning tasks as opposed to strictly the grades.
  3. Become interested in having graduates who want to learn instead of graduates who know facts.
  4. Ask yourself this question: Is my school a grade oriented school or a learning oriented school?
  5. Have a year of learning – No grades
  6. Remove grading on a bell curve. Remove the effort grade.
  7. Look at Alternative Assessment – See Bruner’s Law below
  8. Work with faculty on constructing an assessment system which counteracts the six problems caused by grading.
  9. Have student led learning showcases
  10. Get feedback from parents
  11. Visit schools who have made the shift from focusing on grading to  focusing on learning.
  12. Work on designing a different environment based not in ‘what has always been done’ but what we want for children

What Can Teachers Do?

  1. Make grades as invisible as possible for as long as possible. Give comments not grades.
  2. Talk Less. Ask More
  3. Talk about what students are learning and the process
  4. Engage students in conversations about their learning process
  5. Look at alternative assessment strategies. Set up learning tasks for active learning and for getting ongoing feedback.

What can Parents do?

  1. Talk with your children about what they are learning and the learning process
  2. Don’t focus on report cards and grades
  3. Ask schools for examples of how they focus on learning as opposed to grading
  4. Think about your long term goals for your children (Research shows that 80% of parents surveyed want the following types of things for their children( To be – caring, generous, moral, happy, lifelong learners, problem solvers)

Quotable Quotes

Alfie Kohn

Everyone loses when education becomes a competitive sport.

I am not interested in kids knowing but rather in having them want to know

Positive reinforcement can backfire. Kids who are told ‘good job’ are less kind to their peers. They do the act for the reward instead of how they made the other person feel. Rewards or punishments are things we do TO children. Instead we should work WITH children so that they understand their role and the impact on others. This helps them to understand how to make a difference.

Rewards are a means to an end. With rewards in place for grades students see the positive reinforcement or reward as the goal as opposed to the result or process.

“Some of the best teachers never give tests. A. They set up learning tasks for active learning, getting ongoing feedback. B. Tests don’t provide useful information about the learning process but rather how well students

BGUTI – Better get used to it. – The only reason to give grades in high school.

If you want to inspire depth of understanding, joy in learning and ability to apply – Find some other way to assess students than giving tests.

We need to do what is best for the learner not the comfort of the teacher. We  have to move quickly as the world is quickly changing. The learner should be in the center of all we do. Mary Rochford, Superintendent of Schools, Archdiocese of Philadelphia

We want kids to regard success and failure as information, not as reward and punishment. – Jerome Bruner

What Can Technology do?

In my work with technology in education I have seen that strategies that effectively use technology for learning are ones that also engage. Technology supports alternative assessment. A wealth of alternative assessment strategies abound and many use incorporate technology infused strategies for both teachers and students.  These can be easily at our fingertips with the click of a mouse. Exploring and selecting assessment incorporating the latest of technologies can engage and inspire students.  I list some resources below.  What are your favorites? What might you add?

Using Web-Based Tools for Alternative Assessment

Alternative Assessment Primer – Using Technology

Ted Sizer – Coalition of Essential Schools

Creating Schools We Need – Discovery Blog – Chris Lehman

Digital Portfolios and 21st Century Assessment – Sheryl Nussbaum Beach

Constructivist TIP – Jerome Bruner

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Resources – Alfie Kohn

Related Articles – By Alfie Kohn

Video and Audio -Free downloads too –  By Alfie Kohn


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1 thought on “Truly Making the Grade”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I blog about this topic almost everyday at http://www.joebower.org.

    I teach middle school in Alberta, Canada, and I abolished grading from my classroom 5 years ago when I came across Alfie Kohn’s work. It was the best decision I ever made. I have a list of blogposts that provide anecdotal evidence and personal testimonies that gradeless learning is real learning. http://www.joebower.org/p/abolishing-grading.html

    thank you for sharing this. I would love to discuss this further so that we may start a gradeless movement in an effort to truly move from degrading to de-grading.


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