Global Society’s Infatuation with Grades

As the sun rose over Mount Cardigan this morning, my school’s Science Department met for its bimonthly department meeting.  A recent article about Carol Dweck’s work with Growth Mindset was the focus for our meeting.  As Growth Mindset is one of our school’s Habits of Learning, we wondered, how is what we are doing in the classroom, helping students develop and utilize a growth mindset?  Are we over-praising our students so much that they feel as though just doing an assignment or work is exceeding or meeting the objectives covered?  Are we negatively impacting how our students work in and out of the classroom?  What can we do to help our students effectively use a growth mindset when faced with a problem or challenge?

Our discussion got me thinking: Why does it seem as though society, and our students in general, seem so focused on grades?  Instead of asking, what is my grade, how do we help our students see that it’s about the learning and skill acquisition?  Is it possible to transition from a grade-driven educational system to one that is focused on objectives and skills?  If so, how?

Filled with many more questions than answers this morning, I entered the classroom, excited to try and change the global educational system, on a micro level.  In the sixth grade, our focus has always been on the objectives and skills.  While many of our students enter our class in September coming from a school where the focus was on grades, we retrain them over the course of the year.  By June, our students talk about objectives and scores out of four instead of percentages and letter grades.  It’s no easy task, and we have to constantly remind the students that it’s all about the process of learning and the skills needed to be successful.  The effort and work involved seems totally worth it to us in the sixth grade.  The benefits far outweigh everything else.  The students leave our classroom at the end of the academic year equipped with the skills needed to be successful global students.  They know how to think for themselves, read engaging books and tackle the text in meaningful ways, reflect on their work in order to learn and grow, solve problems using critical thinking skills, and effectively coexist with their peers.  But, then what?  If other grades and schools use the letter grading system and focus on grades as the goal of education, then this new outlook we have provided our students with becomes useless.  What do we do then?

That’s the billion dollar question.  How can we change the system?  President Obama’s new education directive, Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), seems as if it will remove emphasis off of grades and content knowledge, but is that enough?  Is the idea of earning perfect grades already so ingrained within our society that change can never possibly come?  I’m a dreamer and so I think anything is possible with hard work, dedication, and collaboration.  Teachers at all levels around the globe need to unite and send a common message to their students: The Habits of Learning and skills involved are what truly matter.  A grade is just a letter or number that can be altered or deleted with the push of a button while the skill of problem solving can never be taken away.  This won’t be easy and it will take everybody working together towards a common goal.  I know that my idea is utopian in nature, but it’s better to dream big than to do nothing and complain about the issue, which is why I started working towards this goal in the classroom today.

I met with students today during Humanities class to review their recent work regarding the skill of participating in a Socratic Discussion.  As I met with each student, I explained what this skill truly enveloped.  “It’s more than just participating in a class discussion.  A Socratic Discussion is about support, facts, and connections.  You need to be able to understand the question and topic being discussed so that you can actively grow the conversation with your words.  You need to effectively prepare for a Socratic Discussion in order to demonstrate your ability to meet the objective.”  I then provided each student with feedback regarding their individual performance and offered suggestions for improvement.  The boys seemed to process what I was telling them.  I felt pretty good about the conversations I was having, until the final chat.  This one conversation allowed for a deep discussion regarding the sixth grade program and it’s purpose.

This particular student struggles to utilize a growth mindset.  He is very fixed in his thinking.  We’ve worked with him throughout the year on this very skill.  We’ve offered him strategies and feedback at every possible moment to help him understand how to be open to new ideas, challenges, problems, and feedback.  He’s made great progress but still has much work to do in this area.  When I met with him today, he didn’t seem to hear any of the feedback I was offering.  Instead, he focused on the grade.  He was so worried that a 2.5/4 would keep him off of Honor Roll that he couldn’t “listen” when I provided him suggestions on what to do to improve next time.  That’s when I stopped and reminded him of our focus in the sixth grade.  “We wish we could just tell you how you are progressing towards meeting the objectives needed to be successful global citizens, but our school mandates that we report grades to you and your parents.  While we do occasionally tell you your grade, we want you to focus on the skills and how you are working towards them.  For us in the sixth grade, it’s about empowering you to see beyond the grades.”

Although this student probably only really processed about 10% of what I said as he was so focused on the grade, I’m hopeful that if we continue having conversations like this with our students, we will eventually be able to break the cycle.  Let’s talk about skills, whether they are soft, social, or content specific, and let’s say, “Goodbye,” to grades and, “hello,” to what really matters.


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