Shifting the Conversation from Grades to Learning

This is Part II of a piece about Why I’m Quitting Grading

The most important part about quitting grading is the focus on a continual dialogue with students about their learning process. The conversations have to move away from “when is this due?” “how much is this worth?” and “when will we be done?” and start broadening to “why is this text relevant to me?” “what connections can I make to my life?” and “what do I already know that connects to this topic?

When kids start learning how to think in these terms, their need for the information stored in grades (which is overly complex and synthetic, not to mention varies from teacher-to-teacher and day-to-day) begins to shrink.

The toughest students to get on board of this train of thought are the “good students” who are compliance-minded. I’ve had several students in the past year who just couldn’t grasp concepts that I didn’t tell them were on a test, in a paper, or for a grade. If it didn’t have to do with their path to an A, they literally had no reason or way to learn it. What they did know, very well, was how to get grades and obey orders.

The kids who were on board right away, as you might guess, were the “slackers.” They rejoice at the phrase “no deadlines” but… didn’t quite know what to think, when I followed through with high expectations and support in their learning. When they stopped worrying about how they’d rank in comparison to the rest of the class, or to the kind of grades they were used to getting, they actually started paying attention. The started to discover what intrinsic motivation felt like even if they had never heard the term.

I didn’t take up a lot of time in my class explaining beforehand that I would be a “teacher with no grades or deadlines.” I talked a lot about English, about writing and reading meaningful texts and creating our own instead. I focused on the kids’ lives, the content, and the class context. I didn’t start the conversation about grades, deadlines and homework unless I was prompted. In those cases, I tried to subtlely blot out their use of those words. I knew if I could neglect to even use the word “grade”, I would be focusing them on more meaningful verbs.

When students are focused on what they are doing and thinking in a given moment, they learn to leave out adjectives completely. Good and bad grade or student ceases to have meaning because they become more interested in themselves as writing students or inquiring thinkers. Those are engaging processes that have objective value rather than some other person’s subjective rating.

The conversation extends to teachers too. In an article I wrote for, I spoke about the dangers of the good/bad teacher debate and how labels are damaging our ability to look critically at real pedagogical decisions and actions. We can’t just “fire all the bad teachers” as Newsweek’s cover so cavalierly put it last year. We certainly can’t “get rid of all the bad students” either as a truly scary number of teachers I talk to see as a solution (“well at least that kids out of our school…”).

As educators, we owe it to all children to provide an enriching experience which teaches them how to live and work in a world which they will eventually create for us. If we think dumping out “bad” teachers is a solution, that’s exactly what such schools will do to “bad” kids. If those are solutions, we’re going to need a lot more investment in prisons than schools in the next fifty years (a trend that is already going in a frightening direction).

Teaching kids to think and learn without concern for grades or points is not about having no consequences. It is not about having no rules or low expectations. You have to push kids every day to go beyond what they think they can do and know. They need to feel challenged and supported by you and their peers as much as possible. I hold my kids to high standards and I do everything possible to help them learn.

Teaching and learning in my classroom does not look like laziness and indolence as I pussyfoot around some hippe feel-good “non-grade” system. My kids know they get a grade at the end of the semester, but their role in shaping it is alive and dynamic rather than prescribed and static. They know that if they want what they see as a meaningful grade, they have to talk to me, a lot. They have to show me they have set goals and explored the process by which they grew and challenged themselves. As a teacher, I had to understand that my letting go of bestowing grades on kids would free them to take ownership and develolp autonomy. They do nothing just because I tell them to, my job is always to validate where is kid is coming from when they enter my door and open their mouth. If they know that’s my goal, then they start to open their minds.

When talking to my administration in the last two years, I’ve always made the conversation about what the kids were reading, writing, and discussing. I didn’t talk about an “upcoming test” or a “big deadline” for which I had already drawn up a bell curve of predetermined rankings. I talked about each child’s learning story specifically. My principals and fellow teachers have never turned away from hearing about kids learning. No matter what kind of hard core assessment program they support in your school, if they don’t listen to you talk about the kids, you can feel comfortable pressing them on that.

When a principal hears that you have kids years behind in their tested reading ability who are reading and writing willingly every day, they have to be crazy (and I’ve met some crazy ones) not to buy in to what you are doing. Most leaders in schools really do care about kids and want to do right by them. I made it a very important goal to be non-adversarial with my school, district, and all the stakeholders with my choices in the classroom. I am no white knight.

Nothing I did could become about me doing something great in a competitive or confrontational manner; that’s why I spent a year writing and considering the impact of my last post. Your school and community are key to your ability to learn whether you’re a kid or an adult. That’s exactly what we, as teachers and principals, have to model for kids: the willingness to learn and grow when what we’re doing just isn’t working.

5 thoughts on “Shifting the Conversation from Grades to Learning

  1. Really enjoyed your post, a fascinating insight into how to really engage children with learning. I particularly like the way it stimulates creative thought & builds confidence – I wish you continuing success with it.

  2. Thank you so much for your comment Helen, I plan to continue writing about it and sharing. Confidence is one of the main outcomes I see students building when they stop focusing on grades.

  3. You paint a compelling, and believable, picture of how you are taking the existing system and twisting it around to take the emphasis off the actual letters that go in your gradebook.

    I think I’m a little jealous, because I can’t imagine how I could do something similar in math class. There are no rough drafts, no brainstorms, no places to create more than one answer. There are certainly places for creativity, but that’s usually at the end of a unit, once they have learned all the skills they need first. I can’t very well tell them there are no deadlines to learn how to solve this equation.

    However, I applaud your efforts, and I will keep up with your adventures. If anybody can figure this out, you can!

  4. This is a great follow up to your previous post, Steve. Your focus on the learning process, as opposed to the product, makes complete sense to me. I’m sure you (and your students) will get a lot more out of the dialogue you have set up, than you did when you were constrained by the language of grades and scores.

    I wonder if your “slackers” will turn out to be more successful than your “good students” as they are supported in a move from dependence to independence?

    You make a powerful point about the need to model a willingness to change when things are going nowhere. Nurturing this attitude in our students will help to ensure that they leave us with the beginnings of the resilience they will need to face personal and professional challenges that they may face in later life.

    I look forward to future posts on this subject. Best wishes,


  5. Great follow up to your previous post.
    love this: “As educators, we owe it to all children to provide an enriching experience which teaches them how to live and work in a world which they will eventually create for us.”

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