What do those grades really mean?

The first quarter is over and the first grading reports have been issued. The interpretation of grades by parents can have a significant impact on the mindset of their child. Grades are external motivators and research is showing that using external motivators are actually a deterrent if the goal is to encourage real learning. Richard Curwin in a recent Educational Leadership magazine states that “Rewards, punishments, incentives, threats, and other external strategies create finishers, not learners.” All parents want their child to succeed and for better or worse, the most visible measurement of that performance is the grade. There are many issues with the standard A,B,C,D,F traditional system. The primary issue is that a single mark cannot be an effective measure of something as complex as learning. There are simply too many factors that go into a grade for it to be very precise in the measurement of any one thing. For example, if a poor grade results from not turning in homework, isn’t that really more about a weak student skill or habit and very little to do with what has been learned? Maybe that student performs very well on tests, but is severely penalized for not doing work. Single grades most often don’t separate the habits from the learning. A second significant issue is that no two teachers use the same standards for establishing a grade. An “A” in English has no relationship to an “A” in science, or social studies, or math.

Grades present an enigma for parents and schools. A familiar mantra is “You have to get good grades to get in college!” and colleges do indeed consider a grade-point average for college admittance. Undeniably, grades are important, and they are the reality of this particular time despite all that is wrong with the system. We at TNCS are taking a very hard look at assessment that is meant to encourage and support real learning, this type of assessment is called formative assessment. Students are given a specific objective and work toward mastery of that objective. They are encouraged to repeat and practice until the objective is mastered. Formative assessment is focused on learning! If students are really learning and are assessed in ways to direct that learning, then performance measures based on the learning objectives should be fair and real assessments of the learning and not a hybrid of many other factors. We are moving in the right direction, but change will happen very slowly.

Having conversations about grades with a child is important. An awareness, however, that a grade is a flawed measure should be kept in mind. What is most important is helping a student learn to reflect on habits, skills, and effort. Developing good skills and habits and a willingness to invest effort are what ultimately builds the long term foundation of personal success, not whether a student got an A,B, or C in a particular class at a particular point in time. A grade can be the entry point to such conversations, but it is important never ever to associate a grade with a child’s perceived value and self-worth. Students should never leave a conversation about grades feeling as if they have been measured as smart or dumb. Students perceptions of a message being given can be very different than what is intended and that is fragile ground. Whenever possible obtaining information from a teacher about skills, habits, and effort will help gain a better understanding of what a grade may really represent. As mentioned in a previous blog, middle school goal setting is centered on skills, habits, and effort and not performance. Being aware of and discussing progress toward the stated goals is a much more meaningful conversation than the grades. There is even a voice in the ongoing conversation of whether grades for 5th, 6th, and maybe even 7th graders should even be given. Focusing almost entirely on formative assessment free from all of the pitfalls of grades would seem the best system if indeed learning is the most valued objective. There is a lot to think about and many conversations surrounding assessment are needing to happen. Make yourself part of that conversation!

Setting Goals

Each year in Middle School one of our first activities is having the students set goals. Learning to set and accomplish goals is of course a life skill that guides progress and success in most if not all endeavors. The most common goals that students suggest for themselves are to earn all A’s or make Honor Roll. Grades are performance goals and though worthy ideals, by themselves they have little value. We instead want students to set “effort” goals. The process of setting “effort” goals begins with identifying what skills need most attention. Most often, and most usefully, the skills we want to identify are what we call student skills. Student skills include, but not exclusively, completing homework on time, completing homework thoroughly, utilizing study skills from their study skill toolbox, organizing materials, organizing time, editing work, and communicating with teachers. Once a skill or skills are identified, the next part of the process is to make an “effort” plan as to how the skill can be developed. For example, a student identifies that doing homework thoroughly is difficult, and therefore is an important skill to work on. The “effort” plan for this student might be to read what has been written and then employ the 5-W study strategy that uses prompts such as “why” and “what” to help students develop more detail to their basic thoughts. “Effort” goals require active involvement from the student and provide them with the practice of something specific so that improvement can be realized over time and can become habit. Our belief is that if we place emphasis on “effort” goals, and provide opportunity and guidance for practice, the performance goals will happen as a consequence of improved student skills and habits. In the long run, it is the skills and habits that will be foundational for future academic success and meaningful employment.


I recently started to learn to paint using watercolors. I have no illusions that I might become an accomplished artist, but that isn’t the point. I was looking for a creative outlet and have always enjoyed looking at art depicting landscapes so I thought, why not? I had never given any thought to trying to paint and had always assumed that I had absolutely no talent therefore the experience would be futile, it would be a waste of time. It may prove to be true that I have little natural talent for this endeavor, but I have already surprised myself in the improvements I have already made and how much I have learned. All of this has sparked some thoughts about students and creativity.

Much has been written about education focusing on 21st century skills. Creativity is often mentioned as what many employers will apparently value highly in the years ahead. This increased interest in creativity arises from the belief that competitive advantage in our age of abundance comes from creativity. One only has to shop for cereals to know that we don’t really need new types of cereals. The competitive advantage will arise from creating a new type of breakfast fare to replace cereals, a product that we can’t even now imagine. This type of thinking is what kept Apple in the forefront of driving technological change. Apple had people who were creating the visions for smart phones before we consumers ever imagined we would need one. So there is almost a mandate in the educational community that emphasis be placed on creativity.

Talking about creativity being an important objective in education and actually making it a meaningful part of an educational curriculum are two different things. Creativity happens when thinking and visioning are free to roam one’s mind because there are no constraints. One of our students says it better than I. “When I come to art class it feels like I’m walking in to another world. It’s not just any world it’s a world that I create every time…In art there isn’t just one right answer. The answer could be anything that you want”. Creativity of course isn’t limited to art, but her assessment generalizes to any type of creativity and evokes an unintended tension between a voice for creativity, a recognized need to promote creativity, and a well entrenched institutional tradition of school being a place structured and programmed to learn “right answers”.

The difficulty the educational institution has in implementing more opportunities for creativity is that creativity cannot be objectively measured. In this age of SOL’s where education is driven by objective measurement there is great difficulty in making creativity fit this “testing” agenda. So how do we measure creativity? This is a difficult question to answer if we cling to our traditional mindset. What if we make a shift in our mindset? My current creativity endeavor has helped me tackle this question.

Creativity cannot and should not be graded in a traditional sense. If my first painting had been graded it would have earned an “F”. Actually, even though I have worked hard to develop those paintings, quite honestly, I’m still at an “F” level. Grades have a way of posing a judgment on work that has little to do with potential. Repeated failure, particularly in young folks, is discouraging and offers little incentive to stay on task. Carol Dweck’s research has shown that a performance mindset erodes motivation and discourages the risk taking that often is a beginning place for discovery. In my mind, creativity cannot and should not be graded.

Creativity, however, can be and should be assessed. Formative assessment can guide creativity in a very meaningful way. When I look at one my paintings, I look for ways that I can improve. I then pick one aspect of the painting I want to improve and then practice. My practice requires effort and the more effort I want to invest, the quicker the improvement. I would be improving faster, if I had the good fortune of a teacher who could offer suggestions and teach me the techniques that are basic to water-color painting. I would welcome and need assessment to improve my journey. I don’t need a grade or someone’s judgment about whether my painting is good or bad, I need a mentor who joins me on my journey and makes suggestions, and offers me his or her expertise on how to paint better, and offers me way to practice more efficiently, but never imposes a boundary or limit on my potential.

We have to be willing to give up a lot of our control in a classroom if we are to encourage creativity and that will be difficult. We have to give up our obsession with grades if we truly want to encourage creativity. We have to allow students the time and space to be creative and in a culture of “right answers that is going to make for an “uncomfortable” classroom because we teachers will have turn over control to the wondering minds of our students. What is that going to look like? What is that going to feel like?

We shouldn’t be afraid of a shifting mindset toward allowing creativity. We have the opportunity to embrace a new role that is better understood as mentorship. One likely scenario is that we can actually get more engaged with the individual minds of our students and likewise they will become more engaged, active, and find school a lot more enjoyable. To continue the thoughts of the art student, “You also don’t have to make art for other people- you do it to make you happy”. If embracing creativity in school offers the possibility of making kids happier, then our time would be well spent in truly making “creativity” a part of our school culture. Companies are saying we need folks with creativity. Meeting those future vocational needs while mentoring our students to develop the potential of their individual minds seems like a “win – win” situation to me.

Anticipating a new school year

I have been dropping by school lately and each time there is an increased sense of activity as we get ready to open our 2014-15 school year. There are only a couple of days of summer break left and this is the time in recent years where I have paid particular attention to how I am feeling toward the upcoming year. Is there still the rush of excitement and eagerness to get started, or will I be feeling my first signs of dread, a possible indicator that I should think seriously about retiring (nearing 65 perhaps it is ok to entertain that thought)?

Thankfully, the adrenaline is again flowing and with so much opportunity to develop a richer type of instruction, I am eager to see students. I have spent a lot of the summer thinking about integrating the new technology now available to us, the merits of flipping the classroom, more student centered project work, and classes driven more by formative assessment with performance rubrics tied to specific learning objectives rather than emphasis on grades. I know that I have in front of me the opportunity to better engage my students in a more meaningful school experience and if I can’t get excited about that then I shouldn’t be teaching.

As we teachers face our new year there is no better time to reflect on why we teach and the awesome responsibility we have toward those students who will be driving our lives for the next 10 months. Every child that we encounter will be depending on us to make him or her a better student and a better person. Every child we encounter likely has a parent or guardian who has love and high hopes for the success of that child and they will be trusting that we will create the experience to make those hopes come true. Every child we encounter has strengths and emerging passions, we must do everything we can to help each of them discover those qualities that make them unique. Some of our students will come beaten down by a negative educational experience and we must return them to a mindset of hope and potential for success. Every moment we are with a student we will in some way be influencing them in either a positive or negative way; we must make certain that our genuine message to them is that they matter and are valued and are worth our time and effort regardless of how they may be reacting at a given moment.

Teaching is demanding work and often requires more time and energy than is available. We have to accept that reality of our work and do all we can to take care of ourselves both physically and emotionally so that we can be at our best for our students. So it is indeed time to ask ourselves why do strive to attain such high ideals knowing that the work will likely exhaust us?

My answer is found by looking in the eyes of any of my students and sensing their heart, spirit, and struggles to find a meaningful identity for themselves. As I come to understand them and know them then I have the incredible privilege to matter to them in a significant way. The real pure joy of life is found in the human experience of one to another in a significant type of relationship that matters to both. Effective teaching is about developing meaningful and significant relationships with our students. The reward is a fulfillment of joy that makes our lives incredibly rich. Best wishes to all as we begin a new school year. May your year be one of privilege and joy.

What do grades really accomplish?

I recently revisited one of my favorite TED talks featuring Daniel Pink.  Mr. Pink is the author of “A Whole New Mind”, a book  that makes his case that the type of mind needed today and in the future will be different than what was most valued in the past.  This particular talk centered on his belief that there is a real disconnect between what research says about reward systems and what actually happens in the work place.  The research says that rewards such as more money work only when the task requires systematic mindless type of activity that can be trained such as assembly line type of activity.  The worker is expected to “do” and not to think.  If the goal is to free minds to be creative and innovative then tangible rewards actually can be a barrier to progressive thinking.  Creativity and innovation are maximized from intrinsic motivation, not extrinsic motivation (rewards).

Carol Dweck, a Stanford professor, has spent much of professional time studying motivation.  She has written a profound book titled, “Mindset – The New Psychology of Success”.  This book is all about the power of intrinsic motivation in our quest to fulfill our potential.  She identifies two types of mindsets; a performance or fixed mindset where we depend on others to measure our worth, i.e. extrinsic motivation, and a growth mindset where the focus is on learning and developing independently of what others are doing, i.e. intrinsic motivation.  A fixed or performance mindset stymies the development that happens through learning.  A growth mindset thrives on learning.  Extrinsic validation or rewards actually demotivate and discourages the risk taking of creativity.  Intrinsic motivation as already mentioned is foundational to maximum growth and development.

What does all of this have to do with grading in schools?  Grades are an extrinsic form of motivation (actually I sometimes think of them as a way to manipulate behavior).  Grades do little or nothing to encourage genuine thinking and creativity.  Grades in fact are the reason that students cheat, because grades are the primary form of validation by the educational system and students know the importance of having good grades whether the grades are earned or not.  Students from an alarming early age begin to define themselves as smart or dumb based on the type of grades they receive in school.  Why would kids who are graded as failures want to continually subject themselves to a system that offers them little hope or insight that they might indeed have something to offer?  Few of us adults would tolerate for very long being in a situation where we are defined by our failures and not valued for our strengths.  Baseball may be the only occupation where failure is the norm – a highly valued hitter is only successful about 1/3 of the time and a team that can win 60% of its games stands a good chance of making the playoffs. Most of the real world does not operate like baseball.

So if so much is known about the detrimental affects of extrinsic motivators such as grades, why do we persist in making them so important?  A common argument is that we don’t have a better way of doing it.  And how do you grade something like creativity and divergent thinking?  Creativity and divergent thinking are way too unstructured and cannot be very well quantified and it seems we must have a way to be objective so that measurement of some type can take place.  What if?  What if we looked a students creativity in whatever form it might be and instead of grading it we simply offered help and encouragement that would serve to fine tune and help a student develop long-term mastery of their creativity?  Carol Dweck talks about the power of a growth mindset that values effort to learn and improve as the way to fulfill our potential.  Daniel Pink talks about autonomy, mastery, and purpose as the way to become motivated to accomplish or create something that might even be extraordinary.

There is movement within the educational system, particularly in private schools to take a hard look at how we assess and the purpose we want to achieve as we assess.  A lot of us are in a growth mindset about formative assessment and the advantages of putting the primary emphasis on formative assessment and far less emphasis on summative assessment.  If we genuinely care about the development of the minds of our students we can’t continue to ignore what the research tells us about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.  I don’t see how we can develop the uniqueness of each mind unless we have a foundational belief in a “growth mindset” that is guided through a lot of formative assessment.  The sooner we can get rid of traditional grading the better off our students will be and the more free we will be as teachers to really teach!

Pioneering Spirit

We are 14 years into the 21st century.  The buzz in education in recent years has been about developing 21st century skills, and equipping our students for their developing culture, not ours.  The traditional educational model is under attack and rightfully so. Our students walk around with devices that give them 24/7 access to each other, and most of not all of the information that exists.  They can be engaged with whatever aspect of life they choose and any virtual world they want to enter. This is the world they have grown up in and we teachers have to enter that same world if we want to be effective. There are two ways to look at this reality, we are either overwhelmed and fearful of the change that is necessary, or we embrace the endless possibilities of richer instruction with enthusiasm.

We as the 21st century teachers are in a sense pioneers.  We are challenged to equip our students for an emerging culture that is totally uncharted and unknown.  There is no clear path before us to guide our way.  We are forging that path at every moment we choose to try a new way of engaging our students through the digital world that is now fundamental to our way of life.  The early pioneers of our country faced many challenges and obstacles along the way.  There was back-tracking and re-routing,  There was often unpredictable circumstances around the next corner of the bend.  But they kept to the task and their discoveries were essential to the development of our nation.  Never has our opportunity to effectively teach been richer with such a multitude of resources.  We should be excited to be the pioneers and in that spirit embrace the opportunity of change that lies ahead.  Our students need us to be those pioneers!


The puzzle of engaging students

Students typically don’t care  as much as we teachers do about what we hope they learn.  Why they increasingly show lack of interest as they move through the grades is really no mystery.  School is something being done to them.  They have limited choice about what they are supposed to be learning.  School even decides the exact time and days in which they are supposed to be receptive to a specific subject.  We also haven’t done a good job of selling them on a meaningful purpose for what we ask them to do each day.  School is pretty much limited to taking in information for the main purpose of taking a test.  A grade will be the judgment to be used and interpreted by different sorts of folks including parents.  School in the eyes of a majority of kids is just that, memorizing stuff that might be on a test so they can be graded.  High stakes testing has muddied the water even more.  School is driven by tests and grades!  Doesn’t that sound like a great place to spend 6-7 hours a day for 181 days a year?  Fortunately the way we have done school in the past is being severely challenged and future students will have the opportunity for a more purposeful experience.  They are unknowingly guiding us if we take the time to observe and listen and meet them in the culture they are building for themselves.  We must prepare them for their world not ours!

College kids are taught that grades are all that matter!

My wife has taught at the University of Richmond for 25 years.  Over dinner she was talking about how an alarming number of students will choose the path of least resistance.  They routinely choose their courses based on the highest probability of getting a good grade with the least amount of effort.  Lost in their college experience is that what they have the opportunity to learn is  what should really matter.  The students who are the most marketable at graduation are the ones who understand and value that it is the learning that matters.  This pervasive attitude of grade importance is what is taught from the time that students first receive grades and begin the process of ranking.  The time for this misguided system to be buried is now.  Research (Carol Dweck for one) has shown that a performance attitude does not drive real learning and actually has a negative impact on motivation.  What are we going to do to drive a change.