Tinkering and the grades question

Tinkering is still at the top of my mind these days, even though I haven’t had much time to blog about it much (besides this). But often when things are on your mind, everything you see seems to relate. If you think about buying a yellow car, all of a sudden the world seems full of yellow cars.

So reading this Alfie Kohn News and Comments article about grades made me think about tinkering again. Because often when we talk about doing something different in schools, we hear, “but how will that fit into the current classroom?” And that means everything from 42 minute periods to test prep to grades.

But tinkering is one of those things that doesn’t fit in neatly. It takes time, doesn’t result in neat projects that work with canned rubrics, and might not have any impact on test scores. But should that matter? Can’t we help kids at least a little by making things more like tinkering and less contrived and pre-planned?

Then this hit me.

As for the research studies: Collectively, they make it clear that students who are graded tend to differ from those who aren’t in three basic ways. They’re more likely to lose interest in the learning itself. They’re more likely to prefer the easiest possible task. And they’re more likely to think in a superficial fashion as well as to forget what they were taught. Alfie Kohn

These are exactly what kids need to be able to do to tinker. And grades squash that.

Maybe we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe implementing “some tinkering” where kids are eventually graded, no matter how authentically, is a contradiction. Maybe even counterproductive if it confuses kids. Is it even worth doing?

15 Replies to “Tinkering and the grades question”

  1. I was just outlining a post related to this myself last night. I 100% agree that grading is a huge factor in decreasing motivation to be adventurous and experiment with tinkering. True tinkerers (word??) do it for the love of tearing things apart and exploring. Grades are meaningless to these types of people. I am considering asking my administration to let me try my class as credit/ no credit next year. Then I would be able to tell my students on day one: “Grades don’t matter. Come here with a learners mind ready to explore and experiment.” I don’t know if they will agree but I can ask.

  2. I hope you will blog about what happens – it will be interesting.

    Your statement “grades are meaningless to these types of people.” has a lot of things to think about it in. If there is indeed a “tinkering type” of kid who is predisposed to approaching learning this way, yet has no interest in the grade as a motivating factor, aren’t we driving him/her out of the system? These are exactly the kind of attributes we talk about as a 21st century learner.

  3. I abolished grades from my classroom five years ago. That was when I found Alfie.

    I write about my experiences with abolishing grades at http://www.joebower.org

    Would love to talk with you about your experiences with this idea as I believe we can no longer just tinker with grades. We must work to abolish them.

  4. A recent Learncentral interview with Dan Pink, author of Drive, brought about an interesting discussion on grades. According to all the research, grades are REALLY damaging to student motivation and the participating educators generally agreed. Here’s a quote of Pink from the interview:

    “When I was in high school, I got very, very good grades, but it wasn’t because I was learning anything. The key to good grades was giving the authority figure what she wanted, the way she wanted it, on time, and neatly. And so I think grades often foster a sense of compliance rather than engagement and that really short-changes kids over the long haul.”

  5. I’m ready to abolish grades but with 150 students everyday I shudder at written feedback on a regular basis. And I teach middle school! Since I still need to provide some sort of evaluation for my students I’m going to take a tiny step. I will abolish grades and only provide students a Standards score. Our elementary does it so parents and students will be used to it. It’s not as good as eliminating all form of grading (reward and punishment) but it’s a start in the right direction. I’m going to need to re-train myself because I find that I encourage students to get back on task by telling them their “grade” depends on it! Agh!

  6. Joe, really interesting stuff – I’ve subscribed to your blog. Looking forward to reading more!

    Chris, Even though Dan Pink says similar things, I tend to rely on people like Alfie Kohn who backs up what he says with solid research. I think when you are fighting a battle this big, you need real ammunition, not stories about what you did when you were in school. It just lets other people say, “well, I got graded and I’m fine.”

    Al, I think some of the literature about authentic assessment might be helpful to you. In short, just replacing one from of teacher-centric assessment with another doesn’t work either. You are just setting yourself up for being a bottleneck and burning out.

  7. Sylvia, Dan Pink does refer very heavily to research in his writing. In fact, he and Alfie Kohn base their ideas off a lot of the same research. I’m pushing Dan Pink’s book, not because he says anything new or groundbreaking, but because he explains many of the same ideas in a very accessible way, to a more general audience. Whether we like it or not, education is very political, and to truly bring about change, I think we need a broader message of social change that the business sector can get behind just as much as we can. I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn, but I agree that we need real ammunition – that’s what I’m trying to provide.

  8. When I was an undergrad at UCSC we didn’t have grades. All classes were pass/no pass with written evaluations. It was wonderful. However, while you didn’t worry about a grade, you got called on every little thing, like not participating in verbal discussions if your papers showed you had something to contribute, or if one paper wasn’t as good as the rest. You really had to work harder, so I am not sure no grades would do a better job of fostering engagement instead of compliance.

  9. Melinda, that sounds really interesting! Do they still do this at UCSC?

    I’m also curious about the details, if you could oblige me. Do you think being constantly pushed to engage and produce your best work helped you grow and learn? Or was it sometimes just busy work? I’m also wondering what level of autonomy students were granted to gain knowledge and skills, and to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities. For example, did you have the opportunity to choose an essay format or a presentation, etc. Did you ever get to choose your own readings or research projects?

  10. Unfortunately, they no longer do this, probably related to Al’s dilemma – “with 150 students everyday I shudder at written feedback on a regular basis.” I do know it was a TON of work. I think it did let me know as a student that they considered the entire process of class very serious, and that if they had an assignment, including class discussion, then it was for a reason and you should take it as a serious part of the learning process. At the college level, you are pretty much there (or should be) because you want to be there and want to learn, so it made sense there. I am not sure how this would translate in a k-12 compulsory environment.

    I don’t feel we had much autonomy with HOW we demonstrated knowledge and skills, but that was in the early 90’s and while we had a computer lab, it was pretty much limited to word processing and using a bbs. In most classes, we were given project parameters, like number of pages for a paper, but not a question we were supposed to answer. Our task was to synthesize or respond to the lectures and reading materials in whatever manner we wanted. This was actually really hard and really required you to think.

    For example, in a Political Freedom class we read Oedipus Rex, Thomas Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, and Dostoevsky’s The Legend of the Grand Inquistor. We were then asked to write a 7 page paper. But that was it. We had to come up with the driving question, we had to choose the theme. Coming from a high school were everything was prescribed, this really threw me. But once I figured out how to ask questions (not answer them) the entire education process became that much more interesting and enjoyable.

  11. Melinda, thank you so much for that detailed response! It’s very interesting and I find myself wondering whether this system would be easier to keep up today.

    It seems with the social technologies we now have, it would be simpler to manage feedback and maybe shift even more of the responsibility for reflection onto learners. I’m thinking students can first evaluate themselves (and perhaps optionally, each other), and only then would instructors add their own thoughts and suggestions, saving them some work. (Because honestly, I think students often know when they’ve just pumped out work not up to their usual standards).

    I’m thinking social technologies could also be used to make student work public (between the course participants, at the very least) to extend the conversation beyond the doors of the classroom/lecture hall.

    It’s too bad they don’t do this anymore. It sounds like it was a tremendous experience! Maybe the idea just came a little too early.

  12. I agree that new tools could make this process so much easier. And you are definitely correct that it would be so much better if students were not only involved in the assessment process, but also responsible for it. Like digital portfolios, without a reflection piece, the process is simply not as valuable.

  13. Chris and Melinda,
    There are many schools that operate without grades, including most prestigious law schools (Yale, yes, Yale!). Just ran across this article – Imagine College Without Grades from Inside Higher Ed http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/01/22/grades

    K-12 schools too – rare but not completely unheard of. The BIG PICTURE schools, a very successful consortium of public schools does it. Here’s their explanation of how http://www.bigpicture.org/2004/11/the-big-picture-schools-tailored-to-students-individual-needs/

    The Big Picture schools were recently praised by President Obama as an example of high performing schools that individualize learning.

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