Wednesday, December 21, 2005

De-Grading Article

Much of what we have talked about in the 21C group thus far has been theoretical. As we look ahead to next semester, though, we should probably also be talking about the short-term practical applications of all this theory. On page 5 in the De-Grading article, Kohn acknowledges that authentic assessments and other de-grading ideas are difficult to work into the current high school schedule of 45-55 minute classes, especially when teachers have hundreds of students. Yet, at Arapahoe we seem to value the college-like, non-5-by-5 schedule. So, what practical ideas do we have to integrate these seemingly incompatible values?


  1. Nice job not giving your opinion, Amanda! Once I find out yours, I will be happy to react to it!

  2. One thing I am really considering implementing is that with most of their writing processes it will just be about feedback and not about attributing a grade to each of the steps of the assignment. Also, I am going to try and encourage for them to provide more feedback on each other's work so that one, it lessens the feedback I need to give but also allows for them to see as a class where each individual is at.

  3. My son came home from law school for Christmas and we enjoyed several interesting discussions about education. One was after I read the de-grading article (sorry it was on the plane to Michigan and after 12/22) and Karl's post "A Good School for Anyone". My son said all the grading is blind grading in law school. Also, he said you can get feedback from your professor at anytime throughout the semester. And, of course, a professor gives failing grades to anyone who does not succeed. THEN the professor takes all the other exams and, after ranking them,gives the middle test a 75% and assigns percents to each paper and they cannot give more than five A's. When I asked him how this encouraged learning (vs. concern for earning a grade) he had to stop and admit that the feedback was helpful but the ranking did not foster (motivate?)learning. But then again, law students are there because they WANT to be there!

  4. I guess it is hard to come up with practical steps when I (along with many others, I presume) am not sure whether I want to go this direction. I noticed that Kohn said on p. 5 that the first step is "to open up a conversation - to spend perhaps a full year just encouraging people to think and talk about the effects of (and alternatives to) traditional grades. This is clearly the step we are at, and I know that I would need to spend a lot of time in this stage before deciding to move forward.

  5. The article (Degrading) states that "the more people are rewarded for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward." If this is true we have many foolish people in our capitalist system who are paying out a lot of money to get the best people to do a job.

  6. I couldn't find an article by Alfie Kohn that specifically addressed capitalism (I'll keep looking), but I did find one that addresses some related issues. I would be interested in what he has to say about capitalism itself. Here are a few excerpts from a related article.

    "At least 70 studies have found that rewards tend to undermine interest in the task (or behavior) itself; this is one of the most thoroughly replicated findings in the field of social psychology."

    Then later . . .

    "That finding [financial incentives do not improve performance quality] needs to be understood in the context of at least two dozen studies in other settings demonstrating that rewards are not merely ineffective but actually counterproductive. Subjects offered an incentive for doing a task (or, in some of the studies, for doing it well) actually did lower quality work than subjects offered no reward at all. As University of Texas psychologist Janet Spence put it after discovering this surprising effect in an early study of her own, rewards "have effects that interfere with performance in ways that we are only beginning to understand."[5] One would never guess from their defiant assertions about how the research backs them up that the reality is very nearly the reverse of what Gupta and Shaw claim. The detrimental effect of rewards on performance has been demonstrated with children and adults, across cultures, with every kind of reward imaginable (including but not limited to money), and with a range of tasks -- although the damaging effect is more pronounced as the tasks become more complicated and quality becomes more important."

    And still later . . .

    "To create a more democratic and collaborative workplace is not inconsistent with compensating people adequately for what they do. I am not arguing against money, which is necessary and even nice. I am arguing against (1) attributing more importance to money than it actually has, (2) pushing money into people's faces and making it more salient than it needs to be, and (3) confusing compensation with reward (the latter being unnecessary and counterproductive). The problem isn't with the dollars themselves, but with using dollars to get people to jump through hoops.
    Thus, my formula for how to pay people distills the best theory, research, and practice with which I am familiar into three short sentences:
    * Pay people well.
    * Pay people fairly.
    * Then do everything possible to take money off people's minds.
    Notice that incentives, bonuses, pay-for-performance plans, and other reward systems violate the last principle by their very nature."

  7. Kohn briefly discusses alternatives to traditional methods of grading: "Abolishing grades opens up possibilities that are far more meaninful and constructive [including] narratives (written comments), portfolios (carefully chosen collections of students' writings and projects that demonstrate their interests, achievement, and improvement over time), student-led parent-teacher conferences, exhibitions and other opportunities for students to show what they can do."

    When I lived in Manhattan, I student-taught at a school for teenagers who had been kicked out of their other schools for behavioral problems. Because grades had never motivated these students, the school abandoned grades and used only portfolios for assessment. I was skeptical at first, but I was amazed at the amount of work students quite happily put into their projects and writing. Few students from this school attend college when they graduate; many already work fulltime jobs while they attend high school and have more than child to care for. Yet they enjoyed doing their work for the sake of doing their work because their teachers were able to set the curriculum firmly within a much larger picture. I know that we all worry about how much time it takes to grade writing and portfolios, but it can be done. Many of us are already doing it; we simply endure the task of attaching a number or letter to the worthwhile feedback.

  8. I agree with Roger that I am not sure what direction I want to go. It is very difficult to develop practical steps when you do not fully believe in what is being said. I need more time to decide if this is the way I want to go or not. This is definitely an issue that takes time, learning, and understanding before practical ideas can be presented.

  9. I think that if every teacher in our school read this article, the overwhelming response would be that abolishing grades is impossible and unrealistic given the standards and expectations of the state and colleges. That certainly was my initial response.

    Obviously Kohn anticipated this response. (Smart guy!) On page 4, he writes "The practical difficulties of abolishing grades are real. But the key question is whether those difficulties are seen as problems to be solved or as excuses for perpetuating the status quo."

    That thought (along with all of our class discussions) certainly challenges me to take my current system of grading and see if and how I can make it the most effective for the most students.

    We all have students that are highly motivated and will excel no matter what kind of system is in place. Without any push from us, they will get the 100%, the positive comments, whatever we are offering as feedback.

    But, what about the ones that dont? If I made a subtle (or drastic) change in how I grade, could that help them?

    So, I'm going to try some new things. I started this semester by telling my kids that we had been chosen to look at some new methods for grading. I told them to be honored because the school felt that they could offer valuable feedback about how to make grades more meaningful.

    I'm collecting an assignment tomorrow and I'm going to tell my students what my expectations are. (As I write this, I realize this should probably be said BEFORE students are given the assignment.) "I want to see that you understood how to make and use a dichotomous key." From there, I'm going to ask them to come up with the standard for a grade. How many should you get right to show me that you understood? 100% 70% If you didn't, do you fail, or do another key that offers more practice? I'm hoping that this will engage students. Maybe they will be more interested in comments and feedback if they are involved in the process. This obviously won't work all the time, but even doing it every so often might be one way for me to "stop perpetuating the status quo."

  10. I think that it would be great to abolish grades. I would need to discuss all the ramifications with different levels in the school (students, admin, parents, ect.) to see what the perception is from all the players involved.

  11. I found Kristin's comment very interesting. When I taught at Northglenn, the majority of my students were not motivated by grades. The school did not implement portfolios (although this has and is being tossed around at the school right now) but I think that this would be more worthwhile to the students. The majority of them are not going to college, and will be entering some field of trade ( a place in which grades are not necessary). My students were more interested in learning,(especially the large immigrant population)for the sake of learning and coming to a "safe" place, they getting an A. In teaching at a high school that is college based and where the majority of students/parents are motivated by grades creates a different scenario... however, I do think that grading should be changed. How to change it, is the challenge that we all are faced with.

  12. I find it interesting to see that you are talking about using portfolios for a grading system. I wonder how many of us had to complete a portfolio for our teaching requirements. I know that I had to do one. It has sat on a shelf since and collected dust. My sister was graded by the state based on video performance during a lesson. Her license depended on how she did on that one artifact.

    I agree with the comments by Roger and Jesse and James. While we need to seriously look at these alternatives to grading we need to look past the changes and at the fallout of the decisions also. Is it something that we are willing to commit to for the long term? Or just a passing trend?

    I am jsut trying to change the feedback that I am giving the students, like Anne, and I cannot wait to see the changes that come about from it.

  13. After collecting my narratives about the value of learning and grades I found that most students in at least my classes, value grades significantly, most for the wrong reasons-and I asked them to open their minds and focus on shifting their perspectives from grades to learning. Most were very open to the idea. My question is-is this (de-grading) something we can do? Would we have the support? If "de-grading can be done in stages"-how do we go about it? And if students don't receive grades, and just get feedback-how is learning assessed then? I understand that there are alternative assessments, such as the portfolio (which is GREAT)but is it enough? What are we to tell parents and students who thrive off the basic system that is set now? Do we just leave gradebooks empty? Do we let other teachers in on this idea and our superiors?
    I know now that I have two grades in each of my classes as of now, and things that I would usually add in, I overlooked this time because I didn't find it relevant. I always give feedback into writing, and like Smith I have not given points for doing the process in the position paper because I think it may inhibit their learning and they may feel defeated by being "wrong."
    I know, like you, we all struggle with this at some level-but is this idea that easy to do? D owe just go to a pass/fail system?

  14. Ok I'm trying this again for a second time. It will probably be shorter than verion 1.

    I worked with some FBLA kids last week creating resumes for their competition. WE did a lot of research on the current trends in resume writing. Instead of references, employers would rather see some sort of statement about a career or experience portfolio that would be discussed during an interview.

    Perhaps that is a good alternative to a letter grade but I'm with Jessie on this one and don't know if that is enough.

  15. I am not sure where I stand on this issue. I probably tend to lean more toward Kristin and Alison. As a special ed teacher in a resourse room, I would see on a daily basis with probably 90% of the kids that grades just don't matter. They are so used to getting poor grades and most of them know they won't go to college With the lack of vocational educational opportunities for these kids there isn't much too motivate them. The System has failed them, I believe. They have nothing to "buy" into. What would motivate these kids? I don't know at this point but I think many of them would do well in a hands on learning environment learning a skill of somesort. Not A's, B's, C's and F's.

  16. One key piece that is missing from the article's discussion is the relationship with the teacher. I believe that because of Kristin's desire for students to succeed, to turn in quality work (regardless of their long-term goals), and her commitment to them, personally. I am certain that her sincerity was something the students responded to.

    I do believe that students get "fire-up" about learning when they are engaged in the content, interested in learning because it's fun to them. I saw this with my freshmen as they researched a topic during Shakespeare's time period. I never discussed the grade of the project, but told them they needed to be our expert on this resource throughout the play. They were totally engaged and the projects were wonderful. However, a grade will be assessed for this.

    I wonder what little steps we can take to let go of the grade-grubber attitude and have the students invest in "simply" their learning.