Monday, April 05, 2010

Other Than Grades

With the holidays last week, I wasn't able to answer several questions, so let's get to a few more of them this week.

Jeff asks,

"So the problems with the "grade model" of education are fairly obvious, and discussed before on this blog. The worry, however, is that many students enter a class without any antecedent interest in the subject - they are there to fill credits or what have you. It would be a dangerous (to the education of these students) to assume that we, as educators, can inspire an interest in learning the subject for its own sake that could operate independent of grades. We can hope to inspire that kind of interest against the backdrop of grades, but that's quite another matter all together. Grades can be a source of motivation to do the work, and thus hopefully reap some of the educational benefits.

So my question is this - what other models might we use? How deep would they have to be implemented (e.g., with students raised in an education system without grades, or could it be implemented at an upper level)?"
It is certainly true that to suddenly take students raised in the gading model and putting them in anything else would likely lead to the worst case scenario unless they were emerged in a pre-existing culture that modeled a different type of learning.

I think I've told this story before, but one of the middle schoolers to whom I taught philosophy at the Montessori school where my kids attend moved to a traditional high school. When her old school was discussed in an English class, the teacher and other students honestly did not understand why she would do any work if she wasn't being graded on it. Their question made no sense to her because learning is what school was for. You wanted to know stuff and figuring out how to figure it out is just what you did at school. To them, of course, obeying the authority so that you get the carrot of a good mark or avoid the stick of a bad one is why you do something in school. The idea of internalized motivation to learn simply made no sense to those socialized in a system in which students are treated like rats in a psychology experiment. Students are conditioned and simply removing the positive and negative stimuli is not likely to result in freed minds. There does need to be a radical shift in understanding one's place relative to the world of the classroom.

At the same time, I don't mean to say that there is no assessment of learning, but it is very different from the grading notion. It results in narratives that come from in depth discussions between learner and teacher. It requires discussions before hand, where the two discuss goals and approaches. It requires the maturity and self-discipline to work according to the plan without being shackled to a chair and force-fed material. And it requires much more time to evaluate progress in a more holistic and nuanced way. It is much more time intensive for both learner and teacher, but it holds the student to a higher standard. In essence, this is the model we use for graduate students after they pass their quals and how we evaluate colleagues in the Academy, but it is only once someone has shown they are part of the club that we allow them to be assessed in this way. The rabble surely could not be treated the way we treat each other.

How one goes about making the shift in educational contexts more broadly is a difficult question, but it is a necessary condition that you have students and teachers who buy in to the new system whole-heartedly. Anyone attend or work at a college or other educational institution where there are no grades? How does/did it work for you and what adjustment problems or hidden difficulties are there?