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A Teacher’s Journey to a No Grades Classroom

When I began my career as a classroom teacher nearly 25 years ago, I was convinced that teaching was about lecture, worksheets, homework, tests, and grades; back then, I thought “grades” was a synonym for “assessment.” What I learned in my pre-service days was that most educators believed that assessment was just about math. Students scored points on assignments. We added the numbers, calculated a percentage, and placed a letter grade on a report card. Reflecting on this horrible practice, it occurs to me that I was not alone. In fact, most teachers back then and, sadly, many today continue this archaic tradition.

After more than a decade of returning students’ work with only numbers and letters scrawled at the top, I decided it was time for a change. One school year ended with more than half of my 120 seventh graders receiving an F in language arts. In the past, I always blamed lazy students or bad parenting for failing grades. This particular year, was different. How could half of my students fail? I wondered. Was it possible that the real problem in my class was the teacher?

I considered quitting my teaching job that year, but my wife talked me out of it. She suggested that I spend the summer reflecting, which is ironic because reflection later became such a huge part of my new teaching philosophy. That June, July, and August, I read everything I could about best practices in education, intrinsic motivation, inspiring reluctant readers, homework, and grades. One day, I had an epiphany: Almost every teaching strategy I used up to then was ineffective, and the worst method was employing traditional grades for assessment.

My students had been failing because they weren’t doing the work. My research, which included Drive, by Daniel Pink, The Homework Myth, by Alfie Kohn, and The Book Whisperer, by Donalyn Miller, helped me realize that my students weren’t lazy; they just didn’t enjoy the work, and one more D or F wasn’t significant enough to motivate them to engage. The activities and projects had to change, along with how I assessed learning.

The next school year, I turned my classroom into what I later called a Results Only Learning Environment (ROLE)—a vibrant, somewhat chaotic place, rife with curious, independent learners. In the ROLE, the only thing that mattered was the result, and the only result we wanted was learning. The most amazing part of this incredible classroom is that it existed without traditional grades. Numbers, percentages and letters disappeared from students’ activities, projects, and even tests. In their place came written and verbal feedback, questions, and visits to prior learning. Without the threat of a grade, students were eager to rework assignments and resubmit them, looking forward to a continued conversation about learning.

Technology’s role

During the summer of 2007, I spent many hours searching for a web-based platform that would broaden student engagement. We started online discussions one spring with a simple, standalone message board. That single digital tool, I realized, was only a doorway to an amazing world of web-based learning. One all-inclusive classroom website could change everything.

So, I searched for something that included a message board, a place for lessons and work samples and, most important, individual student web pages. Eventually, the quest ended with a platform that led to the creation of our new one-stop-shop for learning. I’ve joked with friends that I created the modern Learning Management System; I took a modular wiki host and fashioned something far ahead of its time. In essence, it was a digital portfolio, similar in some ways to FreshGrade. The goal of the classroom website was to give 21st-century learners an interactive hub, where they could communicate with the teacher, parents, and peers. It housed activity guidelines, video instruction, projects, conversation, and became a place for both public and private narrative feedback.

It took a couple of years for me to fully understand the diversity of the classroom website, and the idea of using it as a feedback tool eluded me at first. In the beginning, it was a playground for learning. Students uploaded video and graphic presentations and wrote daily journals and other lengthier prose, all to demonstrate an understanding of concepts and skills.

At first, I would review students’ work on the website and put a number or letter grade on it, as I had done for so many years. It wasn’t until my research on motivation, collaboration, and feedback that the site’s role expanded, and it became an invaluable assessment tool. Students could access the classroom website from anywhere with an internet connection, and when they updated their sites, I received an email alert that included a direct link to the student’s web page. This virtual world made it easy for me to leave written feedback from anywhere, using any Internet-ready device, including a Smartphone.

The technology helped me rebuild myself as a teacher and reimagine teaching and learning in my classroom. Old school methods disappeared, as did traditional grades. The journey was challenging but life-altering for me and my students.

In Part 2 of this article, Mark Barnes shares the challenges to creating a learner-centered, no-grades classroom and provides tips for making a successful transition.

Resource: Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in the Student-Centered Classroom, by Mark Barnes. Available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and ASCD.org.

FreshGrade Advisor Mark Barnes is a longtime teacher, author, international speaker, and publisher of the Hack Learning Series, books that provide right-now solutions for educators. Mark is a recognized authority on digital learning and is the creator of Teachers Throwing Out Grades, a global Facebook group with more than 5,000 educators working to improve assessment practices around the world. Follow Mark on Twitter @markbarnes19.


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