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Gradeless schools and classrooms seem to be a hot topic of conversation in my life right now, so I wanted to address the idea of “going gradeless” here on my blog.
Let’s talk about what it means to have a gradeless school or classroom, the benefits of taking that route, and what to do to measure or demonstrate learning instead.
My first teaching experience was high school IB biology and that experience was at a large, urban, culturally diverse school.
The curriculum was rigorous, fast-paced, and teacher-centered. There was a lot of lecture, notetaking, and testing.
The ultimate goal for all of my students was to get the highest test scores and grade point averages.
This led to high stress and high levels of anxiety, and not just for the “underachievers”.
I put that word in quotations because if you follow my blog, you know that achievement looks different for every child. I take a personalized teaching approach, and you'll see how that's measured and shared at the end of this blog post.
Those that were at the top of their class, the “overachievers”, felt a lot of pressure to perform well ALL THE TIME. When they’d falter, which is human nature, they would crumble rather than look at the failure or mistake as a learning opportunity.
Those that were “underachievers” also struggled and constantly felt measured up against their peers. I once heard one of my students tell another student that he was the stupid kid in class.
In my experience, the emphasis on test scores and grades led to a culture of anxiety, competition, and a huge lack of confidence.
That may seem like an extreme and dramatic thing to say, but I say that because I’ve also had the chance to work in an environment that didn’t give grades. I’ve experienced graded and gradeless in action.
I want to share with you my experience working in a gradeless school and what I witnessed as a result of going gradeless.
I taught at a gradeless experiential high school for ten years. What I experienced there was a culture of love for learning, respect for and support for one another, and pride in work.
Let’s look at how this gradeless culture was cultivated and why that’s beneficial for everyone.
The Benefits of Going Gradeless
1. Quality of Outcomes and Thinking
When there are grades to be had, the grades are often the focus or the end goal of the learning experience rather than the depth of learning or the quality of outcomes.
When you remove grades, students turn their attention, goals, or focus to growth and improvement.
Students have the freedom to make mistakes, self-reflect, accept feedback, and make improvements based on that feedback.
2. Improving Self-Esteem and Work Ethic
Every teen in my IB class was intelligent in their own right. Some were incredible artists, others were genius storytellers, others were phenomenal with people, some spectacular poets, and so on.
Grades, however, can overshadow those achievements, talents, and intelligences.
When you have a school or classroom culture that places more value on grades than anything else, students begin to see that their own self-worth rests heavily on their grades.
If they don’t get good grades, they aren’t smart. If they don’t get good grades, they aren’t good students. If they don’t get grades they lack value.
That mentality can take a toll, especially on teenagers, many of whom already struggle with self-esteem issues.
Grades can send kids the message that they’re not good enough or not smart enough. Ditching the grades can dramatically improve confidence, and not just academically.
3. Supportive Classroom Culture
Removing the competition that grades inevitably create is a powerful benefit of going gradeless.
Yes, competition can be healthy in some ways, but there’s a time and a place for it, and in my opinion, a classroom is not that place.
Going gradeless removes that competitive edge and leaves room (and the desire) for your kids to build healthy relationships with their classmates, support each other, and respect each other.
4. Love for Learning
When there aren’t grades to go after, students see the value of learning for what it is.
When students can focus on the learning, on the content, or on the experience itself rather than on the grades, they are intrinsically motivated to learn. They want to learn.
That intrinsic motivation is in itself SO beneficial. It removes some of those pesky classroom management issues and it promotes lifelong learning.
Traditional grading methods can lead to inequities. Learners that have the support and resources to get extra help tend to move up the grades ladder.
And as those with more resources and support continue through the traditional academic system, they are more likely to get into colleges and get jobs that also place a lot of value on grades.
Going gradeless is more equitable, which is an important benefit.
6. Reduces Stress
Grades can cause a lot of unnecessary stress. And here’s the thing; stress is natural. There are healthy stressors. The expectation shouldn’t be that kids never experience stress. But I would argue that the stress that comes along with grades is not natural nor is it healthy, nor is it really productive or necessary.
Going gradeless does not protect or shelter kids from experiencing stress.
There is no question that kids already deal with real and sometimes chronic and crippling stress. Why add fuel to the fire with grades?
What going gradeless does is remove the added stress so that kids can focus on what matters; learning.
How to Go Gradeless:
What can you do to evaluate, assess, or showcase learning without grades? Start by asking yourself a few questions:
What is it that you want to measure or demonstrate?
What is your why?
What is the purpose of having a tool that measures or demonstrates learning?
How can your students demonstrate learning in a way that meets that purpose without assigning grades?
How learning be measured equitably?
Here are a few ideas:
There are a lot of other options. If you are thinking of going gradeless, my recommendation is to talk to other schools or teachers that don’t do grades and learn from them.
What are they doing to measure learning, why are they doing it that way, and how are they implementing that system or approach?
Now, what are your experiences with grades? Do you grade or are you gradeless, and what does that look like in your classroom? Let’s chat in the comments!
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To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.