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Mark Barnes

ASCD, International Society for Technology in Education

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Isn't it time to eliminate grades in education?

Give a student an F, she's learned nothing. Giver her an A, and what has she learned? Still nothing. Grades are subjective crutches, used by teachers because they either do not know any better, or because they are forced to give them by an archaic system.

Grades should be replaced by meaningful narrative feedback, which helps students understand what learning outcomes have or have not been mastered. Feedback also encourages learning, while grades only stifle it.

It's time for grades to be eliminated.

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Closing Statement from Mark Barnes

This conversation was a remarkable experience -- one that gave me plenty to think about and to write about in my upcoming book (ROLE Reversal, ASCD 2012). I believe that many people here seem at least open to the idea of moving beyond the subjective, punitive grading system that we use today. Some still believe that grades are the only way to evaluate learning. It appears from the discussion that, in most cases, this is because they haven't been exposed to formative assessment and self-evaluation over summative testing and grades. Grades are a measuring tool, and not a very good one. The problem is not just grading but the idea that measurements are necessary in the first place. Learning should never be measured. Rather, it should be shared, discussed and evaluated openly; these discussions should be accompanied by objective feedback that guides students to other possibilities and to reflection and self-evaluation.

Upon consideration of all comments here, I remain steadfast in my belief that education needs ongoing narrative feedback. Any other system is arrogant and a mistake.

Thanks to all who participated.

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  • Jul 27 2011: Yes.(!) But why stop there? (not to say you would) I think the very word 'education' is the problem.

    Education implies a sense of rigidity; a system. Within rigidity and systematization, I believe that this 1-dimensional approximating (of that which to characterize as n-dimensional would still be grossly misleading -- we might as well give out clay mouldings instead of report cards), which we call 'grading', is a foregone conclusion.

    Learning, I believe, is the goal; education is our current solution. Education is about worldly knowledge, but learning, I believe, also includes self knowledge.

    The information age brings an abundance of worldly knowledge. It seems to me that the underlying assumption of any given high school curriculum is that there's an information shortage; to the point that self-knowledge is secondary, if at all acknowledged.

    In this way, I contend that grades, to which knowledge level can be (relatively) easily mapped, were useful decades ago. But knowledge is trivial now, knowing yourself is not; education is easy, learning is more profound.

    So I say: Why not have students teach and evaluate each other? Not just as an exercise, but as an intrinsic part of the institutional culture.

    Consider the nuances involved in explaining anything to anyone. The ego-taming involved. The creativity to come up with the right explanation of the right length for a specific person in a specific situation. The joy of sharing that "Oh, I get it!" moment.

    Consider the difficulty of evaluating anybody or anything. The trauma and humility of being wrong about it. The self-reflection that uncovers hypocrisy. The compassion that follows in suit.

    I admit that designing a system that makes this practical would be a huge challenge. However, this could be far more scaleable: Teacher shortage? The students are the teachers!
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      Jul 27 2011: Chan, your understanding of what I 'm trying to do is amazing. You're absolutely right that using narrative feedback is only the beginning. What I want is a Results Only Learning Environment, which embraces the self-evaluation, autonomy and intrinsic motivation you speak of so eloquently.

      I love your term, "ego-taming." I agree completely that getting students involved in self-reflection and evaluating one another is critical to 21st-century learning. This is where a ROLE comes in. I hope you'll read more about it at www.resultsonlylearning.com and comment there as well.

      Thanks so much for your invaluable insight.
      • Jul 29 2011: Wow.....I love your website. If you are a parent, I envy your children.

        It's knowing that there are people like you doing these kinds of things that forms the basis for my fundamental optimism about the world.

        Thank you for this opportunity to vent, and I sincerely wish you success in your endeavours.
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          Jul 29 2011: Thanks for your kind words and support, Chan. I am a parent of two wonderful kids, a boy, 8, and girl, 7.

          Thanks again.
    • Jul 27 2011: Please define for me "self knowledge." Are you talking philosophically? Spiritually? Needs wise? Knowledge of emotions, values, morals, what?
      • Jul 29 2011: For me, self-knowledge is ultimately realizing how alike I can be to anyone.

        I believe philosophy, morality, spirituality are logical outcomes.

        The elements that form, what I call self-knowledge, can be a list as rich as what would constitute worldly knowledge.

        Here are some that come to mind:
        - Recalling thought-chains and their causalities (e.g. Why am I thinking about rabbits? Oh, because this just happened, then I thought this, etc)
        - Being able to identify not only instances of long-lasting, obvious emotions, but also short bursts of subtle emotions, their causes and their physical manifestations (e.g. breaking eye contact the moment an uninteresting discourse begins, shaking legs at the onset of restlessness, etc.)
        - Empathy; the acquired skill of considering what must be going on in someone else's head (important!)
        - Understanding why some details are remembered and others are not (i.e. memory skills)
        - Likes/dislikes/disinterests, and recalling the chain of events that have led to them and understanding how they affect your decisions
        - Understanding the mechanics of your own attention (what grabs it, what does not) and ultimately having control over it

        Essentially, I think self-knowledge is understanding the mechanics of your self (the thing that Thandie Newton discusses in her talk).

        The educational systems I have experienced either consider self-knowledge as non-existent, unimportant, as common-sense and/or something that is magically acquired with the passing of time and subsequently undeserving of any serious attention.

        I believe that changing this can be one of the great opportunities of our generation.
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          Jul 29 2011: I agree and it was interesting to read your list. Our minds are not under our complete control a lot/all of the time (possibly an understatement), and self-mastery is perhaps the grand pursuit of all knowledge. With a solid foundation of self awareness, I'm sure anyone can achieve much more. Doubts, distractions, inappropriate emotion; even neuroses, paranoia, obsessive compulsions and so on, can affect performance dramatically. These deleterious manifestations are common, and often mild enough to go undiagnosed, but have huge accumulative effects. But the whole territory is so complex, how could schools teach anything about it? Does anyone understand it, really - so who would teach? I think making school a safe place to be definitely helps, so students are not afraid or intimidated, and can express themselves fully - minimize bullying for example. Perhaps bullying is another symptom of an overly rigid system and ROLE could eradicate this as well, as seems to be the claim (given there are no discipline issues), so there's another possibly huge plus. I'm not sure grades or feedback apply to self-mastery, do they?
      • Jul 30 2011: Ian,

        I agree that the territory is complex. But at the same time, I don't think we need to break it down into its elements and teach those elements one at a time.

        I have three ideas in this respect:
        1. Students should teach other students
        - I estimate that it requires a great degree of self-mastery to actually accomplish teaching

        2. The art of conversation and listening should be taught
        - I think deep, balanced and meaningful conversation can only be had with sufficient self-mastery

        3. Meditative practices with neuro-metric feedback should be implemented

        1 and 2 can be coupled with video recordings of those sessions for later review. I think watching ourselves on video is strangely instructive.

        3 may be a real possibility in the near future. With more and more research being done on the neurological correlates of meditative practices (e.g. Mind & Life Foundation), it may become possible to measure the progress of meditative practices such as Vipassana and the like. And if this can be done on simple EEG devices that are beginning to proliferate (think Emotiv Systems), I think meditative practices deserve serious attention.
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          Jul 31 2011: Hi Chan. I like the thoughtfulness of you comments. Certainly, when one teaches something, one's own knowledge and understanding grows. It was surprising to discover many of the problems foreign students have with English, and I had to learn a lot to be able to guide students through language patterns that I had just taken for granted. I think students would benefit a lot from this, both in terms of subject mastery, and social skills. Their maturity and responsibility towards each other would increase - this all sounds great. The art of conversation and listening would have to develop to meet these goals. As for meditation, I'm aware of dozens of practices and I think it would be very difficult to standardize anything across an educational stysem. It's a much more controversial area. So, the authorites could allow each school free choice about incorporating different elements of meditaion into their syllabi, but I wouldn't make it compulsory. Keep it as an extra-curricular activity because I think it's a very personal pursuit and still a minority activity, despite growth in it's popularity. Brain scans to measure progress (however you'd define progress) is still science fiction, I think, but of course sci-fi today can be old hat tomorrow :)
    • Jul 29 2011: Look, as a semi-recent high school graduate who learned more outside of school on my own than in, I think grades suck and are a great way of rewarding people who put way too much effort into wasteful tasks. The reason why I graduated 60th in my class but was voted most likely to succeed was because I knew things that mattered. As much as I hate grades, they're a necessary evil.

      I'll give you that if we lived in small communities and didn't need skilled professions we could throw grades out the window today. The problem is a secondary education doesn't get you anything in our complex society. People have to go to college. Employers have to hire a limited number of people. You can't say, "John got a gold star in sharing, empathy, math, and reading. He would be a great addition to your university." At least not if there are ten thousand other people with gold stars. You can't say "John was a great engineering student at our university" without an objective measure of how well he mastered advanced math and expect him to get a job anywhere.

      Find a real way to satisfy universities and employers without grades and I will campaign it all day long.

      Grades are necessary, but the learning can be altered. Kahn Academy has the best vision I've seen on where learning needs to go. Let's find a way to get the technology into kids' hands now.

      College isn't for everyone. Let's stop teaching math and science to those who have no interest in it. Business skills are much more practical and applicable. Let's get everyone who doesn't want to go to a university in a trade school or starting their own business. Leave the grades to kids who want to go to college.

      I'm all for teaching philosophy, but teaching should not BE philosophy. Socrates wasn't trying to build planes, computer networks, or manage finances.

      Change how curriculum is taught, not how it is evaluated.
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        Jul 29 2011: Brian, the Results Only Learning Environment changes everything, not just evaluation. There are no traditional methods at all, and meaningful narrative feedback creates a real thirst for learning in students.

        Real feedback isn't saying a student got a gold star. You can see examples at my blog, www.resultsonlylearning.com.

        Thanks for weighting in.
      • Jul 30 2011: Brian,

        I think you present a very practical view of what can be changed.

        However, I take exception to your implying that empathy is somehow easy or unimportant. And I also find that your 'gold star' example is exactly the kind of disinterest in self-knowledge that I think is the source of one of our generation's greatest opportunities.

        You mention that business skills are much more practical and applicable. What are these exactly? What is involved in networking? What is involved in customer service? What is involved in negotations? What is involved in a good business decision? What is meant by "It's business, not personal"? I contend that it is exactly the things that are involved in what I call 'self-knowledge' that form the basis for what you call 'business skills'.

        In fact, I love your idea! Entrepreneurship as a mandatory part of the curriculum would be amazing. Your grade would be the accomplishments of your enterprise.
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        Jul 31 2011: Hi. I agree with much of what you said. I think we have to be careful not to separate students too soon, but having a less academic route for those who'd rather get into a trade faster is the right approach, I think. Refering to Chan's comment, I don't think you were saying empathy is unimportant, but just difficult to measure and not a substitute for grades. I had a look at Kahn Academy. I haven't had time yet to judge how good it is, but I agree there's a big furture for on-line lessons. I love them: so convenient, and once the market provides a good choice of providers, schools could be almost exclusively for projects and collaboration, not learning the data. At school, you have the teacher you're given; on-line, you can pick and choose, mix and match. Now I have to take up maths again! Cheers.

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