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To Grade or Not To Grade: Sparking Intrinsic Motivation

Leaders in the field of education have spent lots of time addressing the question of assessment, standardized testing and reporting grades. Why? Because they believe grades motivate. Many educators are rethinking this theory and consider it shortsighted. Teachers and even whole schools are dedicating time to discussing intrinsic motivation. What makes students want to do their very best?  Are there ways in which this is stifled? Inevitably, grades and rankings weave their way into conversations.

In most schools across America, a student’s work boils down to one thing: a grade, which represents everything about the child’s progress in a class and, collectively, during a school year. Most people say, “So what, shouldn’t the best student be rewarded?” “How else are we going to know how a student is performing and what they learned?”  More often, educators are realizing grades are subjective, arbitrary and often demoralizing. Whether an A or a D, grades serve to squelch motivation, limit possibilities and ignore a student’s learning path. Grades either open or close doors, as they become gatekeepers to colleges and careers.

Progressive schools around the world and in our very communities are built on ideas, challenges and reflective engagement. Among these ideas is the abandonment of grades wholly or partially. Instead, educators in these schools compose narrative reports and often, with older students’ self-reflection in mind, provide an individualized and comprehensive evaluation. They rarely assign grades and always provide a lengthy look at the whole person in the context of academic, social, and emotional learning.

There is no limit to what can be learned when the race to the best grades is removed from the equation. When students can dig in without fear of failing or slipping in class rank anxiousness disappears and the floodgates open. Teachers are assured learning happens because interest builds and risks are taken. Students are not hampered by an impending grade. Even when grades are a part of a student’s life, as is the case at Voyagers’ Community School’s (VCS) High School in Eatontown, grading becomes a group project. Students create rubrics, grade themselves and others, and defend their position regarding grades. High schoolers are encouraged to debate assigned grades.

So what about teaching at a progressive school where content and student engagement rather than grades prove a teacher’s worth? This is a challenging job. Faculty members are asked to keep students’ interests at the fore and to incorporate the skills they need to learn. The conversations that are typical among teachers include constant questions, recap and “what if”s. Teams of teachers talk about what they heard; how they, compared to their colleagues, interpret what they heard; what it means; and where to go next. Designing and delivering a class that is flexible yet structured, deep without preconceived notions and student-directed is not for the faint-hearted. As a humanities teacher entering a two-hour class without a sure plan, I often feel like I do when I fly a stunt kite. “Where in the world is it going and how do I keep it in flight?” It’s exhausting, energizing and always interesting. No class is like another. Some are stupendous. This is not because I was on my game; it’s because together we, the students and teachers, connected well beyond that which is typically evaluative.

At VCS we invest an inordinate number of hours in narrative documentation for all of our students and students demonstrate learning through the use of digital portfolios. We skip grading for all students through eighth grade; translate work to grades for seventh and eighth graders applying to local schools and academies; and grade high school students over stretches of time, with their help. In an hour or two, a parent can see and, in conversation with a student, understand what has been learned. This is far more informative than any single grade or collection of grades. It is far more reflective of a teacher’s ability to engage, motivate and inspire students. Narrative reporting can be implemented in any classroom or schoolwide, with a shift of perspective. In this way, teachers and students are rewarded.

In this environment, grades become one piece of a larger narrative, as teachers keep detailed notes and students and teachers populate individual digital portfolios that show and tell the topics and ideas being explored and the work being done. Of greater importance, students and teachers openly question each other’s thinking, work and contribution to the learning environment. This goes well beyond the competition that comes with grades. Students are motivated because they see themselves in a broader world outside of themselves and they want to be a part of the conversation. Through this interplay students become passionate learners, who know themselves deeply, direct themselves, take criticism and push to improve. This can’t be graded and shouldn’t be undervalued.

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