What’s important?

Below is a conversation that a mum shared in response to a blog post I was reading and It made me reflect on the topic of grades in the learning process.

Conversation between mother and son about grades:

Sam: Would it be fair to say that school ultimately is about the grades?
Mom: No! It’s about learning …
Sam: But then why do they send home report cards with our grades and not our learning, because taking a test doesn’t ultimately show how we learn or what we learned. I’m only asking cuz I got into a discussion with my physics teacher who … said that school is not about the grades, so I asked him why colleges look at the grades and not the learning progress… Because grades can also reflect what we didn’t learn . . . I’m not arguing that grades don’t reflect learning but ultimately what it comes down to is what our grades are in school, we don’t ask our friends what their learning is in a specific class, they ask what’s your grade. It’s not a competition between learning, it’s a competition between grades. What we learned in some of the classes isn’t going to be important in our lives or in college, but what matters is how we did in the class and how good our grades are. Like even when adults talk about school, they never say they either learned a lot or didn’t learn anything, they say whether they had good grades or had bad grades. So when we apply for college, it doesn’t matter what I learned in Psychology or physics, it matters how our grade is, especially if we never intend on pursuing a career in that field.
…I know I need to be on his good side but he was saying things that I didn’t agree with so I just said it to him, and then some lady walked into the room and started to argue also?! I was actually pretty mad at that point. She then told me that I need to accept the world we live in and go sit down… Nah.

I think if we were all asked what is more important, grades or learning we would respond with learning, just as the teacher/mum in the conversation did. But if we think deeply about what we promote to students we may find that grades are what we promote above learning. Do we tell our kids, “I want to see how far you have come from the start of this unit to the end. I want to see your growth” or do we say, “to get an ‘A’ you have to do this, this and this.” We could argue that the two are not mutually exclusive while others argue research suggests grades have no benefit or place in the learning process at all.

Now don’t get me wrong, grades/reports can reflect learning but they don’t necessarily show how far a student has come. A child who see’s a D grade on their report feels inferior to his classmates who have achieved B’s and A’s. He may have work exceptionally hard to achieve the D and come from a really low base level to achieve it. Regardless of this effort and growth the overwhelming focus is on the grade not the learning. The student still sees themselves as a failure with little achievement made. If we see the learning process as important should we focus solely on that? In a system that requires grades can we even do that?

As teachers we are caught in a situation were parents, universities and students expect them, we can’t escape them. It could be argued that we can do both, focus on learning and then provide grades reflecting that learning and growth. Some would argue we can’t.

“We’re addicted to grades. I’ve nothing against grades at the end of the school year. But telling students, after every piece of work, that they’re on an A, B, C or whatever is bizarre, perverse. The national curriculum levels were meant to be descriptions of the totality of achievement over an entire key stage, not judgments on individual pieces of work. Assessment should be part of a conversation with pupils that helps teachers to decide where lessons should go next. It should be “assessment for learning” (to move learning forward), not “assessment of learning” (a full stop in the learning process). Dylan Wiliam

I encourage you to read articles from the following blog, not because I think you should or will agree with everything on it but because I think it will challenge your thinking.

The following link will take you to the blog “for the love of learning – abolishing grades page”.

What is your position on grading and it’s importance in student learning?

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