The Power of the Mark

My Experience as a Teacher

Something very interesting happened to me during our 2nd parent-teacher interviews this year.  None of the parents I spoke with asked about grades.

Most of you don’t know the school that I taught at, but in many ways it is quite different from other public schools in BC. I don’t have the specific numbers, but about 80% of our graduates this year are moving onto university next fall.  I believe the average in BC is closer to 30%.  Even if I’m off by a fair bit, there is a significant difference.  In any event, I can assure you that the students and parents at our school are very interested in grades and marks.  Given this, what explains the gradeless discussions?

To start with, several of the parents that I met with have kids that struggle a bit.  Their prime concern is not about grades, but making sure their kid finishes the year and passes.  But I also had several parents of high-performing students.  So what was their story?

I think what happened that evening is best described in this small story.  A parent came up to my table and we exchanged pleasantries.  I then pulled out Jim’s (not his/her name) learning portfolio, pointed out the learning objectives that Jim had mastered, and the few that he was still improving on.  This triggered questions about Jim and whether he enjoyed class, if he was engaged, what he might study at university, and a few other bits.  After our meeting, Jim’s parent then moved to the table beside me, to meet with another one of Jim’s science teachers.  The parent was shown Jim’s gradebook which was full of marks and I couldn’t help notice that the conversation turned to repeated questions about tests, grades, and how to improve the marks.

I’m guessing on this one, but my overall experience this year from 2 evenings of parent-teacher interviews is that the learning portfolio and absence of a calculated overall grade completely shifts the conversation.  There are no marks, tests or assignments to discuss.  The material put forward to the parent  has less abstraction, it is bigger picture thinking.  If their child is not excelling at “describing projectiles using words and mathematics”, it’s pretty obvious that their child can focus on that if they wish to improve.  There are no marks to wrangle, conjure, combine or regress.

Do you think one or the other discussion may have been more fruitful? More informative?  Which one may inform the parent more about their child?  Of course there is only one person that can answer these questions (Jim’s parent), but these are things to think about if you’re a parent meeting with your child’s teacher.

My Experience as a Parent

My son entered Grade 4 last September.  In BC, Grade 4 is when student progress begins to be tracked with letter grades. Prior to this, progress is tracked through statements like “Meets Expectations” or “Exceeds Expectations”.  A few weeks into the year, my son came home after handing in a poster project that he completed. I asked him how it went. I was prepared for some response about what the teacher liked, or what his classmates found interesting.  Instead, he simply said, “I got a B.”

I got a B.  Four years of school had all of a sudden been reduced to a letter grade.

Things got even worse.  We also talked about some of his friends’ projects.  One friend got a C+, and apparently he was happy with that. I spoke with this boy, and he confided that a C+ was good and that he will probably get a C+ next time too.  For this child, the grade had allowed him to have a static mindset.  The act of putting a grade on something had completely reframed how their school work was approached.

What Can Drive Change?

No, I don’t mean how can we change grading systems. What I want to know is, how can we change and improve kids learning in school.  There is a lot of research on this, with John Hattie’s work standing out.  Unfortunately, it seems like many of the directions and approaches taken up in here in BC won’t do much.  Teacher evaluations, changing hiring practices, increasing access to independent schools, etc, are highly unlikely to result in much change. If we really wanted to improve our kids’ education on a year by year, day by day, minute by minute scale, we would get rid of grades.  Trying to encapsulate months of work and dozens of learning outcomes into a single number is incapable of telling us much, and trying to entice our kids to learn or do something because “it’s for marks” is Skinner’s behaviourism at its worse.