There’s a raging debate in my province about zero-grading policies. A teacher bucked his school division’s orders to not give out zeroes, was suspended because of his defiance, and now the people of Alberta are rallying around him as a folk hero.
I’ve been watching this debate with something close to bemusement. Educational research is left by the wayside as people are coming out of the woodwork to equate school with work, a no-zero policy with “babying” students, and a whole raft of mixed metaphors that make an English teacher dizzy.
Being pro-zero or anti-zero, in my opinion, completely misses the mark. Are you ready for this?
Grading is harmful – antithetical, even – to learning.
If you want somebody to learn something, the quickest way to disinterest them is to grade it. Try it with your own children: listen to them read, then give them a rank out of a hundred once they’re done. Do it for a week and see how interested they are in reading any more.
I’ve been on a wild rollercoaster ride in my own classroom over the last year. The most important aspect of my teaching, in my opinion, has been the abolishment of percentage grades almost altogether. I say “almost” because, in the end, Alberta Education requires a percentage mark, but until that very last day of class students don’t have a mark. It makes my administrators deeply uncomfortable and the parents of my students more than a little confused, but for my students – you know, the ones who matter – this system has been deeply beneficial.
There’s no deadlines, save for the last day of class. There’s no percentage mark on an assignment at all, in fact. At the end of the entire class, I sit down with each student and negotiate a final mark based on a final portfolio that they’ve constructed. What I’ve seen this semester has been deeply rewarding: students who are interested in giving each other peer feedback without the motivation of grades. Students who are interested in writing interesting and engaging stories for each other instead of writing for a percentage.
In all honesty, it’s a difficult and messy system from a teacher’s perspective, and earlier this week, in a fit of discouragement, I said that I was going to give it up. No matter that students’ writing has improved more than I’ve ever seen as a teacher, and no matter that my students are happier without the Grade of Damocles dangling above their heads, parents aren’t happy and administrators aren’t happy. I heard that parents were roundly criticising me at a local parent council meeting because they didn’t know how their students were doing in my class.
As if a percentage mark could tell them anything about their child’s attitude, or work ethic, or even their ability to write.
Any of these parents could have come to talk to me over the course of the semester, but none of them chose to do so. And so, with a few weeks in the semester left and even other teachers wondering what the heck I was doing, I declared that I was going to give it up.
Then something remarkable happened. One of my strongest students asked me if I was going to continue the system next year. I asked her what she thought, and she said that she loved the system. “If I’m having trouble on one assignment, I can put it aside and work on it in a couple of months. In the meantime, I can work on something else.” My academic kids in grade 11, with one exception, all agreed that this semester was the most interesting English class they’ve had in high school.
(I should point out that I teach English 7 through 12, so I’m not dissing any other teacher here.)
Then another student, one who had traditionally struggled with English, also asked me if I was going to continue with this next year. I cringed a bit, but asked him why he asked. He told me that he too loved it because there was so much less pressure than ever before. This student in particular had a lot of trouble handing in assignments on time, and struggled with reading, but this year, he finished all of his assignments a week before it was all due. The lack of a deadline, ironically enough, encouraged him to get his work done early.
Next week, once their portfolios are completed, I’ll sit down with them and go through what they’ve done this semester. I’ve looked at almost every piece so far anyway, but it’ll be time for a celebration of what they’ve learned, and they get to negotiate with me what they think their final mark should be. I love these negotiations, and not just because I love to drive a hard bargain (you should have seen me in Quito back in January!). No, I love it because students consistently undervalue their own work, and the look on their faces when I say to them, “No, you’re not giving yourself a fair mark – what you’ve got here is worth more than you think” makes it all worthwhile as a teacher.
The problem, as any teacher will tell you, will be the parents who don’t get it because they just want a two-digit snapshot into their child’s work. The problem will be administrators, because they have a hard time understanding that learning can take place without a gradebook full of assignments and percentages. But ultimately, despite my earlier discouragement, my students have convinced me that this system works for them.
It’s going to be a messy and difficult next year, but it will be worth it. Can’t wait.