Going Gradeless

I’ve written and presented on assessment many times in the past 2 decades. The trend in education is clear: Most people, if not all, believe grades are a poor representation of learning and yet many can’t figure out how to either de-emphasize or get rid of them entirely. My current grading gig is with Wilkes University. I play the game but I’m clear with my students from the onset I don’t value them at all. To that end, I’ve shifted to full-on self-assessment. Unless someone is completely delusional, whatever grade they justify, they get. I’m not interested in quibbling over a few points here. As graduate students, I’ve yet to find any that are delusional. To that end, my course and I believe any teaching comes down to 3 questions:

What do I know now I didn’t know before?

What can I do now I couldn’t do before?

Why does it matter?

That’s it. For the most part, grades have not been an issue in my teaching. Yet I know so many still struggle not so much from a philosophical perspective but a practical one. I can’t speak to all the barriers that exist so here are several schools and districts who are making this shift. I promised to share them so here they are:

I would be remiss if I didn’t add the great work from our late colleague Joe Bower who championed the gradeless classroom.

Sometimes I’m not Very Bright

Depending on who you ask “Sometimes” is a very loaded word.

As someone who has been pretty vocal about the limitations of Twitter, I should know better.

I’ve railed against the use of pithy tweets and so only moments after I send this baby out did I realize that:

  1. I was guilty of breaking my own rule.
  2. I had started a small fire storm.

Immediately the retweets and likes started flooding in. I hopped on a plane and landed to see the error of my ways. This tweet, in particular, reminded me of what I had done.

They’re right. It was a rather insulting tone and that was the moment of regret. I wanted to start a conversation but the awkward tone, lack of nuance, and labelling teachers  with such a volatile topic polarized the tweet rather than give an opportunity for civil discourse. I considered deleting the tweet but felt I needed to own my mistake and do what I should have done in the first place: write a blog post which could add nuance and context and invite a civil conversation. Some of the replies got pretty nasty and while my instinct is to fight back, I decided to back off and try and resolve things here.

So with that confession out of the way, let me better state my belief about assessment, deadlines and grades.

The idea of redoing work and penalizing late work has long been studied and explained brilliantly through the work of Ken O’Connor and Rick Wormeli.  If these are new names for you, I suggest you explore their ideas. In essence, my statement about redo’s being more work for teachers is true. I think there are teachers who don’t allow students to redo work because it’s more work for them. While it’s understandable in some cases, I don’t believe it should carry much weight in your decision to allow redos. My second statement is more complex in that it points to what I believe is a dividing line of teacher beliefs. It starts with what you believe about education and what you teach. In every course, I teach the first thing I say to my students is that it’s not my course or class, it’s theirs. They are welcome to do as much or little as they please. My job is to facilitate learning and by making it relevant and by supporting their efforts in whatever way I can. The fact that deadlines exist is to create what I feel is the best experience. That said, since it is there education, they can choose to ignore them. In rare occasions, I’ve had students do nothing for the entire course and then submit work at the last possible moment. That doesn’t bother me. In these cases, the work is not usually the greatest and reflects a lack of interest and effort but that’s the student’s choice. Along the way, I ask questions and remind them of my role and availability. But in the end, they own the learning, not me.

I think part of the issue here is that teachers take these things personally. They also feel an obligation to “teach them about the real world”. I’m not so interested in that lesson as I am about the learning. To me, the “real world” does offer second chances in some cases so a blanket statement that suggests you’ll get fired if you submit things late is debatable and to me, not the point of the course unless you’re teaching a course in time management.

I recognize this is a hot-button issue and I have an opinion that is shared by many but not all. I’m also sympathetic to teacher load and but also believe our first priority is to evoke learning. My tweet in retrospect did not offer a chance for the right conversation. I shouldn’t have sent it. That said, if you’re interested in discussing this topic with civility and respect, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I don’t mind disagreement, in fact I welcome it. But as I’ve said before, Twitter is a lousy space for it. I apologize for offending anyone, that wasn’t my intent. I screwed up.

Stop Worry About the Achievement Gap

“Closing the Achievement Gap” is a term and movement that has been around for a while. Born out of good intentions, it’s essentially a recognition that we need to attend to students with lower grades. Fair enough. And yet I see this obsession flawed in a few ways and it once again is more about adults and accountability than caring for children.

The essence of the problem stems from the inherent flaws of our education system. We tend to focus mostly on students’ weaknesses and spend an exorbitant amount of time and money in attempting to remedy this.

When a student says, “school sucks” it might be for a number of factors but my intuition is that for the majority of them it’s because they spend time working on things they hate and an inverse proportion on things they enjoy.

Scott McLeod and I just release our new book on Different Schools for a Different World. Scott shares a graph from Gallup that offers some insight.

While all three of these results are troubling, it’s’ the last, the one in red that addresses the problem. How can we live with the idea that only 20% of students feel they spend time doing things they are good at? What if in your job you only spent 20% of your day doing things you do best?

In addition, research from Bittrader is clear that we get way more return on investment from focusing on our strengths than weaknesses.

Consider the experiment done in Nebraska in the 1950s on speed reading.

…a study that shows how much your performance skyrockets when you invest in your natural talents. Subjects at the University of Nebraska were given two chances at a speed reading test. Those who were average at speed reading made solid gains (66% increase in words per minute) after getting training and learning new tactics. Yet the magic happened with the above average readers. Those who had a natural strength in speed reading saw an 828% increase in the number of words read per minute.

Ideas like genius hour and passion projects are getting closer to addressing the problem. But even when these are implemented, I fear that the “at risk” students are still being hammered with remedial support in order to close the achievement gap. I’m guessing they make up about 100% of students who don’t think they get to spend time at school doing things they are good at.

So what’s the solution? It’s not easy and I get it, a student that can’t read needs help and should receive it. My argument is we worry too much about those gaps and instead should invest more time in working on their strengths. In addition, the data and obsession we have with these gaps need to be tempered.  Maybe a new measure should include how well we’ve identified student strengths and what efforts have been made to grow them. That shift would represent a fundamental and I dare say monumental change in schools.

Three Questions

I say a lot of things on Twitter. Most tweets get very little attention and rightly so. Occasionally I manage a lucid thought that seems to resonate more than I anticipated. Sunday I tweeted:

So I thought I’d provide a bit more context to explain this idea.

My journey into assessment and changing the narrative has been going on for over a decade. Specifically dealing with the question, “Who owns the assessment?” It shouldn’t be about what satisfies me but what aids the learner in getting the most from the experience.

For the most part, we’ve over complicated assessment. Our data-obsessed world and education system continues to look for silver bullets, accountability, and/or justification of our practices. More tools mean more ways to try and measure learning. My mantra remains:

You might not be able to measure learning, but you can document it. 

So assessment and evaluation remain elements of my teaching that I’m always tweaking and ultimately empowering the learners as much as possible. It’s why they primarily grade themselves. By the way, if your argument is that students won’t learn without a grade, check out Brett Clark’s short post on that topic.

The three questions I ask as a summation of a course is to simplify but also focus on the essence of any learning. Whenever I design an assignment or assessment, it’s important to me that they be applicable and valuable for the learner. It’s why I want them to tell me if they don’t find something valuable. That’s part of my role as designer, to continue to make things as relevant and useful as possible. These questions, I hope achieve that goal. For the current course I’m teaching, I’ve added a short descriptor.

What do I know now that I didn’t know before this course? Perhaps a list of 3-5 key understandings or ideas

What can I do now I couldn’t do before? Think more about skills, techniques, work habits, etc

Why does it matter? How will this make a difference in the future?

Some folks asked if they could use these questions. Of course, no need to ask. I imagine you might need to add your own descriptors or modify these a bit. I’m never sure if this approach would work in any context. What about Mathematics or Science? How would you use these in those contexts or are they just too simple?

Finally, I’d love to know your thoughts on assessment and evaluation. Do you think we over complicate it? What can you do within your constraints to simplify it or do you think we need to make it more complicated?

Being Self-Aware


I’ve had a few conversations lately with family, friends and colleagues about self-awareness. I find it fascinating as a personal introspective but wondering if it can be and should be explicitly taught. For the most part, I consider myself pretty self-aware. I suppose most people would say the same. We like to think we’re honest with ourselves about our strengths and weaknesses and foibles and annoyances. It usually takes more than simply being reflective to address this. It requires the eyes of others to at times let you know when you’ve missed the mark or even when you’ve done well but weren’t even aware of the impact. On more than one occasion, I’ve come to terms with my own lack of self-awareness.

Exhibit 1:

I’m one of the worst complimenters on the planet. This is now a running joke among the folks I work with at Discovery Education. I have a bad habit of using “actually” or some other odd qualifier when I give people a compliment. “Actually, that’s not a bad shot” (ask Steve Dembo for the full story) I certainly wasn’t aware I was doing this but after being called on it more than once, I now can catch myself when I do it.

Exhibit 2:

Sometimes I shut down. After doing one of those online tests, it would appear I’m an ambivert. Which means, that while I’m not bothered by crowds, I often suddenly reach capacity and then shut down. My wife will call me on it later and tells me it was rude. It was, but certainly I didn’t intend that to be the case. Now she warns me when she senses I’m done.

I could go on. but you get the idea. Golf is a great metaphor for this. When you swing the club, you don’t see what your playing partners or an instructor might see. You feel as if you’re doing one thing and they tell you you’re doing something very different. The advent of video has dramatically changed golf and other similar skill based activities as we now can see what previously we could only surmise from a narrow perspective.

I value the support of others in my learning. In fact, it’s another reminder that quality learning needs to be social and that reflection, assessment and conversation are integral to growth.

I recently received some peer reviews from the book I’m working on. There were 4 reviews. Three were mostly positive and certainly made me feel good. The 4th wasn’t very glowing. In fact, let me share with you some of the critiques:

I do not think that the coverage will appeal to the audience the way it is written. There are several places where the reader could stop reading the information due to being told this is not the book for them or if they have made it this far in the book they may have a different perception. Although the book is conversational and I find it useful to tell the reader what the book is and is not, do not turn the reader away or devalue important information.

The manuscript’s major weaknesses were inconsistencies within theconversational style of writing. There were parts that seemed extremely choppy when read and others that were long and detailed. There were also areas that seemed to focus on a topic covered in another chapter rather than focusing on the matter in the given chapter.

At this time, I do not recommend publication of this book. I think the ideas are valuable to education but need to be more concisely and fluently written. After this is done I think this book could start many valuable and honest conversations about joy between educators.

I didn’t like reading this. Like many people, the first reaction to criticism is to reject it and consider reasons why it was off base. Maybe enlist others to support you and collectively renounce the challenges.

But after reflecting, I knew this person was right. I have no dreams of being a great educational writer. I have no illusions of writing a best seller, but I do want to be proud of my work. Without the eyes of strangers and peers who can see things objectively, I don’t think I can achieve the level of success I’m seeking.

Self-awareness also means understanding that others will see you one way and you have to make a chose. As I write this I got a tweet from Katia Hildebrandt who teaches pre-service teachers.

This is not the first time students have sleuthed me. I fully understand that they will often call me an “oversharer” and focus on the trivial, goofy things I share. I don’t argue that. I also am aware that I’ve likely lost followers, speaking engagements and other opportunities because of how I interact on twitter. This has remained for me a conscious decision to use social media to be social and personal first, professional second. I understand that the current mantra around branding would suggest I’m doing it wrong. That said, I’m grateful for various perspectives that challenge my thinking and by no means do I pretend to do things correctly. But I do ask people to think about the idea of self-awareness even in these online spaces.

Recently my daughter told me about Photo Feeler, an app that gives you unbiased feedback about your profile photo. If you’re looking to use one for a site like Linkedin, having the right kind of photo, matters. Kiwi is another app that allows you to get anonymous advice from friends. While I see lots of problems with these apps, the idea of actively seeking feedback is interesting.

Self-awareness might be one of the most underrated skills. It seems like a key disposition to success. Being intentional is a great first step. Having people, friends and strangers who can offer unique perspectives is the next step. Being able to process this and move forward completes the cycle.