… so how would you know you learned something if you didn’t get a grade?

“I don’t know,” was her response. And she looked at me with great confusion.

Yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to meet with two middle school students for “make up”  student-led conferences. We gazed intently at their laptops as they walked me through work they completed, observations of MAP scores and a self-assessment against some work behaviors (“I work hard in class all the time” – sometimes, always, never…) Unfortunately for them, I recently read Kohn’s The Case Against Grades and they were a captive audience coached to respond to my probing questions.

They were both well-prepared and I had been part of a thoughtful conversation with middle school teacher leaders on how to improve a potentially powerful structure. It seems things are off to a good start. Slides had been compiled to guide a story of the beginning months of school – but when it came to the question of “how do you know you’re learning,” they both hesitated, and started by going back to the grade to prove  they learned.

Kohn claims that, “Grades don’t prepare students for the ‘real world’ – unless one has in mind a world where interest in learning and quality of thinking are unimportant.” I’ve taught in non-graded environments, and although I believe deeply in the learning culture that emerges,  it was always a struggle. Learners need feedback; they need tools to help them measure their growth. They need to know where they are in relation to where they want to be. The question to me isn’t about grades, it’s about having a deep understanding of what the grade represents.

As we continued through her conference, one student spoke deeply about her goal – to play midfielder on the JV soccer team. Why? “It’s the hardest position – you need to defend and attack — you need to have endurance. You need to be a well-rounded player.” She knew exactly where she needed to grow to achieve her goal. It gave me pause of how I can support students in speaking with the same clarity in other areas.  As we continue with our curricular review and build shared clarity around strategies for communicating learning targets to students, I’m confident we’ll see consistent dialogue from the soccer field to the science lab about what it takes to advocate for learning. Our school-wide goal around assessment is intended to foster exactly this culture.

It is exciting to watch  practices emerge across the Graded campus, and hear thinking percolate about the importance of reflection as noted in a number of PLC Groups. Like the middle school students, I, too am tackling going beyond what I do – to consider what it means, both to the organization and to my own practice.


About Colleen

Senior Fellow at The Donnell-Kay Foundation Chief Learning Designer, ReSchool Colorado

Posted on November 4, 2011, in Instruction, Professional Learning, Student work. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Colleen, Nice post about SLC… relevant perhaps to all of our classes… how do kids at Graded know that they are learning? How do they measure their own progress.. or lack thereof? Leads me to the question of how teachers know that kids are learning… do we have the authentic assessments that lead to the kind of learning that allows kids to answer this question?

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