TED Conversations

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.


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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  • Aug 9 2011: Just curious, but has anyone ever had any problems with the ROLE teaching system?
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      Aug 10 2011: Hi Sean,

      I cannot speak to Mark's ROLE system in particular since I'm just learning about it myself, but I have used and continue to use practical project work as learning activities for my own college students, and have noticed some definite limitations. Among them:

      * It is difficult for the instructor to see the process by which students achieve their results, which is every bit (if not more) important than the results themselves. A student who achieves an end-result with proficiency every step of the way has truly mastered an objective, whereas a student who flounders in achieving the same end-result has a long way to go before mastery. It's hard to tell this difference, though, without watching them every step of the way which is quite impractical given large classes and diverse projects.

      * Uneven individual contributions in group-based projects, leading to (sometimes) gross asymmetries in student learning, even on the same project.

      * A strong tendency for students to choose comfort over challenge: opting to stay with the familiar instead of challenging themselves to do new things in new ways. This is especially evident in the types of projects students choose for themselves, if given the choice.

      As another example, high school seniors in my state are required to create "Culminating Projects" in order to graduate. These projects are supposed to demonstrate a culmination of learning over their whole high school tenure. Some of these projects are stunning to behold, while others border on the ridiculous (a girl's fashion makeover on a friend comes to mind as a particularly egregious example). Culminating projects are a promising concept, but the practical realization leaves a lot to be desired.

      I'm really hoping Mark has some fresh insight on how to make projects really work for learning and assessment, because what I've seen in student project work is wildly inconsistent.
      • Aug 10 2011: Tony, thanks for some very thoughtful, very good critiques.
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          Aug 12 2011: Hi Michael,

          The dominant teaching technique I use is what is sometimes called an "Inverted Classroom," where students encounter new material on their own outside of formal class time, freeing up our face-to-face class time for higher-order thinking skills. It is "inverted" in the sense that traditional lecture is replaced by student research outside of class, and traditional homework is replaced by realistic problem-solving activities in the classroom. To reference Bloom's Taxonomy, the students are held personally responsible for the first two levels (acquiring knowledge and comprehension) while I coach them to achieve the others (application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation).

          As I like to tell my students, I am an extremely expensive video-player: if I were to spend most of the class time lecturing and showing PowerPoint slideshows to them -- presenting new information like an actor following a script -- we would all be wasting our time. The best use of my expertise is to closely observe how students approach complex concepts and problems, diagnosing misconceptions, and coaching students to become better thinkers, and I cannot do that from behind a lectern.

          The goal of the inverted classroom is not only to foster higher-order thinking, but it is also to encourage (and require!) autonomous learning. My students have chosen a highly technical career where continual, self-directed learning is essential for success. Anyone requiring the tutelage of an expert to learn new things -- or merely believing they do -- will stagnate in their career. Of course, autonomous learning is something we all benefit from in every aspect of life, not just in our careers, but that's a different soapbox!

          Here are some videos of our in-class interactions:

      • Aug 10 2011: Thoughtful feedback. I wonder if you could share with us your thoughts on the strengths of this system?
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          Aug 11 2011: Hi Jeffrey,Strengths I've noticed by having students do practical projects include:

          * Vastly increased student interest and engagement. Rarely if ever do you have students not engaged when they know what they're doing is "real."

          * Much broader learning, and better connection of concepts in the learning. When students must overcome the myriad of challenges faced with practical projects, they learn much more than what you might expect. Time- and resource-management is just one example. Interpersonal relations, conflict resolution, making practical compromises, and the like are some of the "soft skill" areas that get addressed quite readily in project work where the project involves multiple parties.

          I hope my earlier post did not sound too negative. There is a lot going for long-term projects in learning. My primary concern is how readily an instructor is able to *assess* student mastery from their project work. We must keep in mind that learning and assessment are two different activities, and that what might work well for one may not work well for the other. A student might very well have learned quite a lot of things by doing a project, but whether or not that student has *mastered* each of those things is another matter entirely, and it is uncertain to me whether that mastery can be truly measured by the project itself.
        • Aug 11 2011: Tony
          A great insight about mastery here. Are there other teaching methods you use in particular besides the "project"?

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