Few would argue that 2020 was a stellar year, but some might argue that we learned many things from our “grand pause” during 2020, especially in the field of education. Modified face-to-face, hybrid, and virtual learning have all cast bright spotlights on our “classrooms” and practices, and have revealed strengths and weaknesses that require analysis, and, in some cases, new starts. In a way, the grand disruption of 2020 has forced us to examine and perhaps change the way things have always been done. We have a rare opportunity to use lessons learned to find better ways to serve all children. Where should we start? What things might be best to tackle first?
Over the years I have often wished we would change how we measure learning. Though the pandemic has brought this issue clearly into focus recently, I have long questioned the importance of grades, and how all of us (educators, kids, parents) view them. I have a myriad of questions. For example, what exactly do grades measure? Do they measure engagement and motivation (or lack of it)? Do they ultimately measure lasting learning? Why do grades motivate only some kids (and especially not some gifted kids)? What exactly does an “A” mean? Do kids earn grades for themselves or for others; do they earn them for the immediate present, or for the future? How do grades open or shut doors for some kids -- and is this fair? How do grades reflect the “need to know/want to know'' disposition that predicts lifelong learning? Why do some kids think of grades as the ultimate goal, and not value the learning along the way?
The more I taught gifted kids, the more I realized that many of them get good grades to please their parents or teachers, and some even confess that they get good grades to avoid punishment. Many put extreme pressure on themselves, and view themselves as failures when grades are not perfect. Some barely put forth any effort to get good grades, and may consider themselves imposters for getting those grades with so little effort. Some consider grades the be-all and end-all; when test scores or report cards are received, the learning is done. And...some kids do not care at all about grades. Those were the kids that puzzled me the most. If grades didn’t motivate them, what would?
So it was with great interest that I read this article in Edutopia, How to Help Kids Focus on What They're Learning, and Not the Grade. The author, Sarah Schroeder first requires us to examine why we give grades. She asserts that we historically have given grades to measure product, not process, and therefore we are implicitly teaching students that grades themselves are the goal. She includes these as examples of measures of product:
Schroeder, in her article, offers some remedies for students with this profile. She speaks eloquently about the need to reframe learning as driven by process, not product, and offers these reasons:
Many years ago, as a gifted and talented specialist (and untethered to traditional grading systems), I chose to exclusively use timely and specific feedback with my students in place of grades. We focused on problem/challenge-based learning, and we stopped often to examine the process of learning. In this way we could discuss things like the importance of making mistakes along the way, choosing excellence over perfection, setting goals, measuring progress, reflecting on what we’ve learned, and applying it to future learning. Over the years, I saw much more success in ALL of my gifted learners, those motivated by grades and those not. It often eliminated the questions, “Why are we learning this?,” or “When will we ever use this?” It also, incidentally, set the stage for job performance ratings in adult life.
Process-based learning also proved to be much more conducive to lifelong learning in my former students. Many of them (now adults) have contacted me to report on how this kind of learning poised them for success in their lives and careers. They remember reflecting on what they learned, how they learned, and how they grew as learners. They report that they continue to use reflection as they continue to grow in adulthood. How wonderful is this?
As we move into the future, I am hopeful that grading, along with many other educational practices, will be carefully examined. If you are interested in following one teacher’s journey into effecting personal change surrounding grading, you may want to read this article from Edutopia,
How to Make Sure Grades Are Meaningful to Students.
This article contains much food for thought, and consideration of steps to take along the way.
During the pandemic we’ve learned a lot about what motivates and engages students and improves their learning outcomes. We’ve seen some students do very well, and others struggle. I believe that the information gleaned can be used to transform learning. We have a unique opportunity to make some fresh starts as we move into the future; let’s take advantage of it!
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas; together we grow.
Jackie Drummer, Past President
WI Association for Talented and Gifted
(WATG would like to extend a huge thank you to Martha Lopez of Milwaukee Public Schools for translating this article into Spanish for our Spanish-speaking families and educators. The translation can also be found below.)
Gifted in Perspective
A column designed to link the gifted perspective to other perspectives, and to make you think.