Grades: Adventures in Missing the Point

Note: This post is part of a series on the unintended consequences of metrics in school. Each is inspired by quotes from The Costs of Accountabilityby Jerry Z. Muller.


“[W]hen performance is judged by a single measure, and the stakes are high (keeping one’s job, getting a raise, raising the stock price at the times when stock options are vested), people will focus on satisfying that measure often at the expense of other, more important organizational goals that are not measured. The result is goal displacement, where the metric means comes to replace the ultimate ends that those means ought to serve.”


Forgive the meme. It was the obvious choice, but grades are also the obvious place to start when writing about the unintended consequences of measurement in school. Grades are the measurement in school. They are the only metric that the average person on the street associates with school. How are you doing in school? Is little Johnny smart? Is Susan a good student? Is Jefferson High a good school? The first, instinctive answer to all these questions–and so many more in education–is a grade. If you’re smart, you get high marks; if you’re a good school, your students get excellent grades. The general public wouldn’t consider a letter grade an inadequate answer to these questions. Grades and school go together like pen and paper, preferably on a test.

Teachers don’t need convincing that many students care more about grades than learning. Every educator has a story or a general complaint about students who want to know how many points an assignment is worth before they complete it, or who want help calculating what score on the exam will achieve their desired final mark. But, while blaming students or even their parents for prioritizing grades, educators have contributed to the problem.

First, teachers unintentionally helped establish grades as the focus of school by using metrics to defend their profession. When questions about results arise, when concerns about teacher bias are levelled, teachers have often used grades as a seemingly objective, airtight defence. The numbers don’t lie. And this tactic makes some sense because parents and students understand the language of grades, but the objectivity of grades is illusory and by appealing to them as the final authority, teachers have helped establish the supremacy of grades.

The tyranny of the grade grows when teachers use them as the primary motivator in school. You better write this down; it’s going to be on the test. I’m sorry, but this is late, so I will have to deduct marks. When teachers wield grades as an all-purpose carrot and stick, they communicate that grades are the valued currency in school.

Grades have become so entrenched in the culture and structures of school that many teachers have become resigned to the situation. I believe this is the biggest way that teachers contribute to the problem of grades taking priority over learning. Even when a teacher agrees that grades have replaced learning as the focus of school, they often don’t know that there is anything they can do to significantly change the situation. They can’t imagine their school operating in the real world without grades dominating.

Teachers, we need to reignite or refocus our collective, pedagogical imagination in order to re-establish joyful learning as the focus of school. We also need to take a long view on the situation because grades displacing learning didn’t happen suddenly; it is a generational problem that will take generations to reorient. Rather than be discouraged by slow change, we must be encouraged by building momentum and be mindful of succession as we share our vision for the future of a learning-centric education with the next generation of teachers, students, and parents. And momentum is building with groups such as Master Transcript Consortium and Teachers Going Gradeless, so while it may still seem obvious that grades have replaced learning as the goal they were meant to serve, from my vantage point, the future of learning is bright and promising.


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Unintended Consequences


photo credit: Alexas_Fotos

The Costs of Accountabilityby Jerry Z. Muller, drifted through my Twitter feed a few months ago, and its words have stuck with me for months. The essay connected with so many of my developing ideas about motivation, culture, and evaluation in school, that I thought I would use them to jumpstart my blogging with a series of responses to the words that I found meaningful.

I’ll start this series with a quote that sums up many of the problems in school:

There is a natural human tendency to want to simplify problems by focusing on the most easily measureable elements. But as we have seen, measuring performance, especially when there is much at stake, often leads to unintended consequences.

Unintended consequences. The field of education brims with well-intentioned people who want the best for children. However, too often in our attempts to create repeatable success, develop best practices, and bring efficiency to communication, we have undermined our own goals.

Education is complex and challenging. People, contexts, and curricula shift and change, more like sand dunes in the desert than Zen gardens. I understand the desire to bring some order and control to a home, school, or classroom–I am only human after all–but too much order and control create rigidity and power imbalances which crowd out relationships and reduce humanity. Out of my very human need to bring order to the complexity of education, I sometimes unintentionally stifle the relationships and communities of trust that I believe are essential to learning and well-being.

I’ve already written about my discomfort with measurement in education; in this series I will further reflect on some of the unintended consequences of measurement in school.




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Accountability and Community

The departure from traditional letter grades has made me more accountable to the people who matter most: my students.  –Andrew Spinali

This quote and attitude from Andrew in his post, Teaching the Teacher: Lessons Learned in Shift to Gradeless, could easily get lost amidst the other quotable lines, but we need more of it in education. Control and compliance play outsized roles in school classrooms and board rooms and have negatively affected accountability and authority.

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Some governance models in education outline pyramids of stakeholders with a boss-like figure at the peak and students and parents at the base. The higher up the pyramid, the more authority one has, and accountability runs from the top down in a straight line. In the classroom that makes me, the teacher, the boss. I tell the students what to do. They are accountable to me, and I both punish and reward them, most frequently with grades. (Is that the kind of teacher you hope your son or daughter meets on the first day of school?) That pyramid or flowchart may look neat and clean on a presentation slide, but it doesn’t reflect reality because it ignores relationship; it creates organizations, but it doesn’t create or honour community. I’m not against accountability and authority, but if they are used as tools of control and not community then they will do more harm than good.

I’m all for authority that leans away from the part of the definition about the power to enforce obedience and more toward someone with extensive or specialized knowledge. When I can’t decipher the ping in my car’s engine, I’m happy to seek out and submit to the authority of my auto mechanic who is both an expert and someone who has used his knowledge and skills to build a relationship with me. If my boss generally uses his authority to control, I am unlikely to seek him out when I have a problem, regardless of his knowledge.

Some people fear that a working definition of authority that leans toward credibility and expertise rather than control will undermine accountability. “People won’t get anything done!” This is simply not true. I’ve already written about motivation here, but more than half a century of research into motivation has demonstrated that people don’t need extrinsic motivators to get some work done. (For starters, see Daniel Pink and Edward Deci.)

Accountability can actually take the form of encouragement. When an administrator asks me about how things are going with one of my PD goals and shows interest, she is holding me accountable for my work in an encouraging way. Accountability within the context of relationship can actually bond people, in fact, it is essential for community. However, accountability based in or motivated by control will damage community. As a parent, have you ever slipped up on a family rule and been respectfully called to account by one of your kids? If you have, then you’ll know that how you respond is tremendously important. Authoritatively dismiss being called to account, and you’ll lose respect, undermine your authority, and plant the seed of future rebellion. Humbly apologize and accept that you are accountable to the same rules and rightfully called out by your child, and you will garner respect, establish credibility, and strengthen relational bonds.

Of course I am accountable to the authority of my administrators, and my students are also accountable to me. However, let’s not pretend that I can’t rightfully expect administration to abide by our community guidelines or that I am not accountable to my students. If I am not accountable to them for my professional and relational responsibilities in school, then there will be no community in the classroom. People in relationships and communities are accountable to each other. Accountability that only flows in one direction isn’t a community, it is merely an organization of people, a pretty sterile and inhuman one, too. If we truly want learning communities that include people from all levels of the school governance structure, then respectful accountability must flow both ways among all the relationships.

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Edtech in the Gradeless Classroom: Google Keep

Teachers Going Gradeless

“To one with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This adage reveals the power tools have to shape our perceptions. What does this mean for the tools we use in the classroom? If using a hammer pushes me to see nails wherever I look, how is the grade book software on my computer influencing my vision? 

One effect of the digital grade book is an emphasis on artifacts and tasks, often to the detriment of other essential tools such as conversation, observation, and feedback. A gradeless classroom that prioritizes feedback over grades requires new tools or using old ones in different ways. When it comes to documenting feedback and anecdotal evidence, a traditional grade book (digital or paper) is not up to the task. One tool that has the potential to help place conversation and observation in the classroom back on equal footing with artifacts of learning is Google

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The Problem With “Measure”


One of the biggest blessings in my life is my marriage; I love my wife.

When I dislocated my knee (twice!) I experienced pain.

I can react with anger when personally confronted with injustice.

Joy warms my entire being when one of my daughters suddenly slips her hand into mine as we walk.

With some thought and effort I believe I could describe my love, pain, anger, and joy to you. Perhaps I could even express some degree of the intensity of those feelings, but I can’t measure them. My wife is pretty good at assessing my frustration, and my doctor does her best to assess my pain as she seeks to alleviate it and diagnose its cause, but neither of them are engaging in measurement.

Measurement requires a standard unit of measurement, a recognized standard that can be objectively applied in proper context. I can measure my bike ride to school in units of length (centimetres or kilometres). If I share that measurement with my colleague who also pedals to school, we can objectively compare that element of our commutes and determine who travels the greatest distance each day. What isn’t measurable or objectively comparable is the peace that the twenty minute ride brings to my day.

When it comes to measurement, learning fits into the same category as love, pain, anger, joy, and peace of mind. Learning can’t be objectively measured. There is no standard unit of measurement to apply to “Learning.” A skill can be demonstrated, progress can be noted, understanding can be communicated and shared, but technically this evidence of learning isn’t measurable.

As a teacher I have been moving away from traditional grading because I have recognized the limitations of grades in motivating, communicating, and promoting learning. Part of that journey has included using standards based learning and grading and prioritizing meaningful learning over the measurement of learning. However, I’ve been hanging out with the TG2 crew, and they have me reflecting on the power and importance of the language that we use in our conversations about education.

I wrote the post (linked above) about measurement and learning less than a year ago, but now I feel the word “measure” is fatally flawed when applied to learning. I moved to SBL/SBG to shift attention from grades to learning, and I think it is arguably an  improvement over traditional grades because it can help more clearly communicate learning. However, I hadn’t used SBG long before I realized words like “measure” and “accurate” were popping up in my conversations with colleagues and parents about standards-based learning. The problem with words like “measure” and “accurate” is that they aren’t about learning, they are about grades.

I am not working hard to reimagine my classroom and structures and practices to produce more accurate grades! I want to better nurture learning. The danger of using “measurement” language when we discuss learning is that we will mistakenly believe that we are talking about learning when we are actually perpetuating the very system we are seeking to reform. I have no desire to rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic or improve the aesthetics of our scoreboards.

So, what language should we use instead? Any thoughts? For now I’m using “communication” language to help me share learning with students and parents. Also, and forgive the cheesiness, what might happen if we replaced the word “measure” in our conversation with “treasure?” Imagine a world where learning wasn’t measured, but rather, like love and joy and peace, treasured.


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The Power to Choose Nothing

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“I have a student who says that he isn’t passionate about anything. I ask him what he’s interested in, and what he does outside of school, but the answer is always the same: nothing. What do I do with a kid like that?”

The above snippet was part of a much larger conversation about Genius Hour that took place during an edcamp event I attended this spring. Genius Hour, Passion Projects, 20% Time, or whatever label it is given, isn’t a new concept, but it has gained momentum as a way to increase student voice and choice in the classroom.  Once teachers begin to believe in the reasons behind Genius Hour, it isn’t uncommon for their good intentions and belief in the basic principles to be tested by a student like the one referred to in the quote above. When a teacher shares their experience with such a student, they are often wrestling with an assumption that lies just beneath the surface of his or her frustration: students in school must do something; nothing is not an option. As I did during the edcamp session, I respectfully disagree. Just as doing something does not guarantee learning; doing nothing does not mean no learning.

After years of experience with an education that relies heavily on compliance and external motivation, is it any wonder that students are wary when a teacher tries to hand over more control (and responsibility)? Student reactions to Genius Hour vary widely, but even the most hopeful, positive student wonders, “What’s the catch?” It is a certainty that some students will not choose a passion because they don’t understand the concept, don’t know how to make the choice, or are nervous about “doing it wrong.” These students can usually be helped with some coaching/teaching aided by resources such as the Genius Hour livebinder. It is the student who seemingly refuses to choose that truly tests the resolve and philosophy of the teacher who advocates for student choice.

I don’t wish to oversimplify, for people and motivations are complex , but in my experience, most students who refuse to choose are influenced by a combination of two factors: disbelief and disavowal. They don’t completely believe that they can choose whatever they want, and they don’t want the responsibility for directing their own learning. The two factors may be mixed in different proportions, but generally they are both present in any student who persistently deflects any attempts to help them. There isn’t a type, but don’t be surprised if the student who rejects Genius Hour and other forms of student-centred learning is a bright underachiever, someone who doesn’t like to play the compliance games in school.

So, it is time to get back to the question of the frustrated teacher, “What do I do with a kid like that?” My answer is, “Honour his choice.” Show him that you really do give him the respect and authority to choose by allowing him to refuse to participate…and then keep trying to encourage him to participate. Make it your Genius Hour project to get to know him without a hint of compliance pressure. I’ll repeat the hard part: without a hint of compliance pressure. Keep the conversation going; keep the invitation open.

As long as we connect the student’s choices to relevant, natural consequences and keep the lines of communication with the student and her home open, then we have created the environment for learning. Perhaps some of the most important learning the student will experience will come from doing nothing. She will learn that you keep your word. She will learn how to build a relationship with an adult. She will learn that you respect her and that she is the one primarily in charge of her education.

If we truly wish to foster independent learners and believe that compliance is not the way to do it, then we must allow students the power to choose nothing.

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Attentiveness and Participation Assessed! Sort Of.

In an attempt to reframe effort in the classroom I’m trying to sift through the more traditional elements of effort (attentiveness, participation, compliance, focus, organization) and save the learning kernels after the chaff has drifted away. In my SBL and TTOG classroom I’m finding the learning outcomes that help students see the reason we tried to value effort by awarding points.

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My less-than-effective way to encourage and grade classroom conversation: Track how often students participated in class activities. Award points to frequent talkers, hand-raisers, and question-askers. Remind infrequent participators that class participation is part of their grade.

My less-than-effective way to assess attentiveness: Observe the body language of 20+ students while I lecture. See who can answer the occasional pop question. Prod the inattentive or slumbering with a walk down the aisle and/or a reminder of the importance of attentiveness to their participation grade.

Even though it has been a long time since I practiced those methods, it’s pretty embarrassing to see them in print. What specifically did I think I was teaching those students? And while I stopped using such methods (which were far more about filling up a grade book than about learning) I didn’t find alternative ways to help teach the skills that I was ineffectively trying to value with my participation grade, skills such as speaking and listening.

Speaking and Listening are two of the language arts that appear in my curriculum, and they are a big part of what I was trying to encourage when I stressed the value of participation. They are valuable tools for learning and everyday skills that can improve quality of life in and out of school.

Here is my more effective way to teach and develop attentiveness and participation in class:

The beginning of the year includes mini lessons on speaking and listening. For example, I try to simplify speaking to the intentional use of face, body, and voice in order to enhance meaning. A good speaker will use a gesture to emphasize an important point or feeling; they will use a pause or change in volume to draw attention to a key idea. Other teachers use other methods (PVLEGS for example), but once the basic instruction for speaking and listening is in place, the classroom is ready for some practice.

Next I will ask the students to listen for moments of quality speaking in class. Perhaps, Jason shrugged emphatically when he replied, “I’m not entirely sure,” to a question. Maybe Sherise paused effectively when challenging Greg’s line of reasoning. I will also point out a few quality moments as a model.

Once a few examples have clarified the type of observations that I’m after, I will more formally assign a minimum number of positive observations to be made in a set time period; something like five observations in the month. I’ll have students post their observations using Google Keep notes. If you haven’t used Google Keep, it is basically a Sticky note app with variety of helpful functions like tags, sharing, and colour-coding. I will have students tag their observation notes with tags signifying standards/skills (eg. speaking, voice) and then share the note with me and the observed student speaker. When it is time for me to track or assess progress, I can search and filter my Keep notes by standard or by student.

There are many benefits to this assignment:

  • It creates artifacts of learning that can be tracked over time for both individuals and the entire class.
  • It creates teachable moments for speaking and listening.
  • It offers insight into further instruction based on which standards/skills are underrepresented or observed without adequate sophistication.
  • It values attentive listening and quality speaking in everyday classroom conversation.
  • It builds community and reflection through the encouraging, positive observations of peers.

That’s my rough draft idea, one way to reconcile “effort” and standards-based assessment. Already I can see the potential to teach responsible social media use by having the observations shared class-wide, but at this moment I haven’t imagined how to make the tech happen (a Padlet wall? A class social media account? Any ideas out there?). I’m excited to try it out in class, and I will report on field testing during the semester.


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