I was told a story about a high school English teacher who had done away with marks and was using assessment for/as learning. She was invited to a PAC meeting and was excited to share what she was doing in her classroom. A parent asked for clarification along the lines that follow:
Parent: So you’re telling me that a student who would be getting a “C” at the beginning of the term/year can work hard, learn new skills and redo projects and they won’t be assessed with a letter grade until the end of the term/year. They will be assessed on what they know at the end and could get an “A”, whereas my child who is an “A” student already will get an “A” too?
Parent: That’s bulls*&t!
Here’s what everyone needs to understand:
Let’s look at this from a learning perspective.
With Assessment for Learning, the “C” student receives feedback on an assignment outlining the areas that met all of the criteria/learning outcomes and areas that need improvement. The student is then given further instruction in the areas that require improvement and works towards learning these skills. The next assignment the student is given will focus on the skills that need improvement. The assessment continues along these lines until the skills are mastered. At the end of the learning the student will be assessed on mastery.
Let’s look at this from a winning perspective.
In a “traditional” high school classroom, the student who would have received a “C” on assignments in the beginning of the year could work all term and by the end be handing in assignments that were receiving “A”s but could only hope to receive a final mark of “B” at best because of the law of averaging – even though his/her knowledge at the end of the term reflected an “A” standard – thereby giving the student that was receiving “A”s from the beginning of the term an advantage even though he/she may not have improved/“learned” at all.
The parent in the story sees this new way of marking to put his child at a disadvantage because he/she is no longer winning at school regardless of the learning. This new way of Assessment for Learning is seen as a threat because now all of the “A” student’s peers are on an even playing field.
Let’s look at this in terms of learning to walk
Developmentally, anywhere from about age 10 months to 18 months a child learns to walk. First he generally holds on to furniture and moves around the room, occasionally stopping to let go; testing his balance. After he feels confident with his balance he may take one or two tentative, staggering steps between pieces of furniture, sometimes making it there and sometimes falling. Eventually though, every healthy child learns to walk. We don’t grade them as they explore their balance and keep a tally of their scores so that when they have finally mastered the task they will only ever for the rest of their lives be a C+ at walking because they started at a later age or fell more times. We encourage them to try again when they fall and celebrate their accomplishments. End of story.
Let’s look at this in terms of work
Often times when a young person is studying an area of interest he will work as an apprentice or intern in that particular field of interest; gaining knowledge and insight into this possible career path; receiving feedback on personal growth; choosing additional courses to study in hopes of rounding out theoretical knowledge to put into application and ultimately deciding whether to pursue a career in the field. Once a level of education and practical knowledge has been attained, a person is hired as an employee. Generally, a person will start in a fairly entry level position in a field, gaining further knowledge and feedback from a mentor or supervisor. Once a certain skill level and mastery has been attained, an employee can become a supervisor who then passes on knowledge to other more junior employees. This supervisor can gain further knowledge and training within the field and move further up the ranks through Management, Department Head etc.
Again, we see a pattern of learning with feedback and improvement along a continuum.
Let’s look at this in terms of Sport
I had already written this heading and thought I might have trouble making this argument when all of a sudden it fell in my lap (well, in this case, my inbox). Recently Jason DeVos – one of Canada’s most accomplished soccer players wrote an article for TSN (the entire article can be found here)
DISPELLING THE MYTH AROUND “NO SCORES, NO STANDINGS” - Jason DeVos
“The reason that scores and standings are being removed for players under the age of 12 is not because the children are causing themselves irreparable harm by tracking their results. It is because adults are using scores and standings as the only measurement of success.”
“This pressure-filled environment has nasty repercussions for children. Rather than fostering their natural creativity and curiosity about the game, it stunts their development. In such an environment, children are not free to make the mistakes that are necessary for learning to occur. They play the game with a sense of dread, fearful that a mistake will lead to a goal against or a lost game.”
“Keeping scores is not, in my opinion, the problem. Kids keep score no matter what game they play and they will continue to keep score even after scores have been ‘officially’ removed. The problem is our system of promotion and relegation, which is entirely dependent on keeping standings. Removing these concepts from the game for children below the age of 12 will go a long way towards improving their learning environments – something we can all agree is in their best interests.”
So, is it about learning or winning?
Logically, we can see that it should be about learning. If we fast forward to post-secondary applications we can see where the parent’s sense of competition comes from. If everyone can potentially get an “A”, how will the screening process work for post-secondary applications?
This is a good problem to have.
Post –secondary institutions will have to look at more than just GPA when reviewing applications. They will be required to look at the whole person including what they do outside of academia to challenge themselves, explore passions, connect with community and become well-rounded individuals.
Students who have learned to analyze, edit, and rework their assignments through Assessment for Learning are more successful academically in post-secondary and have lower drop-out rates than students who have never had meaningful feedback but have been successful in a traditional setting. Students who learn in the traditional environment are less likely to take risks and typically stick to assignments they know they can ace rather than pushing themselves to take learning risks that might actually help them grow.
Employers are repeatedly complaining that although university graduates look good on paper, they don’t have the practical skills (critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, perseverance, leadership) required to enhance a company and help it thrive.
It’s time to let go of our fears and let kids become, as George Couros described “solid learners, not simply kids that have mastered school”.