Deeper Learning & Throwing Out Grades

Learning is a process.  Learning has no end point.  Learning is a continuum.

These are principles of “learning” that must not only be understood, but applied effectively if we are going to have a meaningful and authentic discussion about “deep learning.”  For fans of the movie Shrek, learning is like an onion.  When you learn about something, a layer is removed.  The point of learning something is to get to its core; its center.  In the learning continuum, layers are continuously peeled off to get closer and closer to the center.  So, what happens when you get to the center of the bulb?  Break out the microscope, folks… there’s always more to go.

That is the core component of learning.  There’s always more to learn.  And this should be a core value and belief in our educational system.  The key word in that last sentence is: should.

Our current educational system does not reflect this core value and belief, and the evidence of this has been under our very noses and hiding in plain sight for over one hundred years.  All teachers have experienced the student who has done “well” in the unit, and then bombed the test.  Or who has done well in the class, only to have forgotten everything the next day.  Or who has met or exceed every expectation that we have thrown at them, only to struggle when we ask them to learn independently or autonomously.  In fact, many teachers may have been some of those very students when they were in school.  It’s been an “accepted truth” in our educational system.  Look no further than the summer brain drain.  It’s an accepted fact that students will not fully retain the learning and information from June to August.  

Why is this accepted?  Why do schools continue to shrug their shoulders and simply accept that this happens?  Teachers regularly have to intentionally and explicitly plan remediation for the first month or two of school.  This poses the question, “to what extent did the students deeply learn what was taught the prior year?”  The automatic response would be: “look at their grades and find out.”

And there is the core problem of our educational system that is, unintentionally yet directly, preventing deeper learning in our students: grades.

Going back to the initial premise:  Learning is a process.  Learning has no end point.  Learning is a continuum.  Grades are end points… and our students use them that way.  Students who get “Cs” are often not intrinsically motivated to independently improve that grade.  Granted some do, but remember that every generalization is false in the specific.  If a student earns a “passing grade,” that student moves on, even if that student has not deeply learned the core material and/or proficiently proven the skills.  Grades stop learning.  They were intended to be an efficient system of feedback for students and parents, yet over the years have morphed into something based more on assumption than fact.  That efficient system worked, but like all systems, there comes a time when that system needs either tuning, repair, or redesign.  Grades are not a more efficient communication tool than email, social media, or texting.  Grades come with symbols and interpretive skills that vary based on the individual student, parent, teacher, school, district, community, state, and nation.  Grades were meant to be an easy way to communicate progress of learning, but ask any teacher, student, or parent what a “B-” or “C+” means regarding specifics of learning and ability, and the answers will vary from “meh” to “ok” to “I guess I did well enough to pass.”  The real problem here is that no one is actually communicating what was learned.  It’s way too vague, and in an era of globalized economies, instantaneous connectivity, and greater competition than ever before in the history of humanity, specificity, detail, and clear and effective communication have become some of the most important components of success and growth.  Education is not outside of these rules and realities; in fact, we need to drive them.

It’s time to throw out grades for a better system of feedback; one based on language, purpose, and meaningful conversation between teacher, student, and parent about the learning process.  This won’t be easy; but it’s necessary.  

Check out AOS #94’s pilot/draft of a new proficiency-based scale:

Language-Based Proficiency Scale

2 thoughts on “Deeper Learning & Throwing Out Grades

  1. Right on target Dan. Problem is getting schools and the people who are in charge to change both their mind-sets and their systems. And systemic, culture change is probably the most challenging of all because so many are married to the status quo. It calls to mind this quote, and I dont know the origin, “He mistakes the edge of the rut for the horizon.”
    I think we need more entrepreneuerial, experimental, progressive, and bold people to do what needs to be done.

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