Thursday, November 27, 2014

Attitude of Gratitude #24: My Dream? Do Away with Grades!


Participating in TeachThought's blogging challenges introduced me to a host of bloggers and education websites. Educators from all over the world share lessons, digital gadgets, philosophies of teaching and learning, and all kinds of learning trends. And I get it all for free, learning on my own schedule, often on my smart phone.  I'm grateful for this new way to stay connected with the field and my colleagues. I'm "getting" what it means to find and nurture my own personal learning network. 

Because of the challenges, I now follow Mark Barnes, the educator and blogger behind Brilliant or Insane: Education on the Edge, His provocative ideas about assessment, testing, and learning bring me to today's prompt: "What are your dreams for education in the future?" 

Barnes advocates doing away with tests and grades. He's not against evaluating or assessing, but he is against the sort of standardized testing, the sort that privileges teaching for coverage rather than teaching for learning. 


Like all my colleagues, I struggle with figuring out point systems and percentages that attempt to measure learning. Ditto for constructing rubrics for individual assignments. Points, percentages, and rubrics do make it easy to assign grades. They even make it easy to justify those grades. But those numbers and letter grades don't measure learning. 

Backwards planning helps, and when they are effectively written, so do learning objectives. What I'd like to figure out is how to provide meaningful feedback that not helps students see what they are learning, what they are the verge of knowing, and what they have yet to learn. 

That's my big dream - to figure out how to better measure learning that doesn't rely on traditional grading schemes. 

Barnes' SE2R technique begins to solve that problem, at least in part. The acronym stands for Summarize, Evaluate, Redirect, and Resubmit. Rather than using static numbers or letter grades, Barnes proposes we use his acronym to have a dialogue, a conversation with students about what they do well, what they can improve, and what they need to try again. In theory, this sounded great, worth trying. 

So I did. When I conferenced with students midway through their writing process a whole-process project, I used SE2R as my script for each meeting and an abbreviated rubric for the major skills (the learning objectives) associated with the project. 

As we read through their drafts, we discussed first what worked and then where they lost control of their ideas. I asked students to take specific notes as we spoke, writing directly on the rubric what they did well and what problems they might address next.

Adjusting from looking for errors to finding what students did well felt odd, but I saw how positively students reacted to hearing which skills they demonstrated proficiency. They knew what foundations they could build upon - and they knew that I knew, too! They experienced conferences weren't about me simply recounting errors and bleeding all over the papers with a red pen. And we reinforced what they were learning. 

Figuring out what learning objectives the students "were on the verge" of achieving and what they needed to work on next was a bit more of a challenge. I had to be crystal clear for myself which objectives were most important and which problems to prioritize for their next draft (second of the two Rs).  Not only that, I had to limit just how much redirection I gave each student. Too much and they'd feel overwhelmed. Not enough, and they wouldn't feel challenged. 

These are great problems for me to solve. The other problem I need to streamline the process so I can do it more often. I had hoped each conference would take 15 - 20 minutes (I have 120 students), but most went significantly longer. Some of that is about being on a learning curve; some of that is going to mean being much more creative about how I use time in and outside of class.  

Another issues is figuring out how to verify if this approach works, if SE2R actually helps students gain proficiency (and mastery!). 

In terms of doing away with the grading Barnes is against, I'm not sure how that happen - or if it should. We operate in a world that relies on numeric and letter grades to measure learning. But working in this system doesn't absolve me from making the local changes I can institute in my classes. As I gain skill, I can do away with grading that stifles learning. 

I'm excited to continue learning, modifying, and experimenting with Barnes' ideas. He's got a Facebook group called  Teachers Throwing Out Grades and his twitter handle is . I follow both. And no, I"m not on commission. But I am sold on the SE2R process, open to figuring out better ways to assess learning. I look forward to hearing your ideas about Barnes' work and other ways to effectively assess learning.