In 2015, after a year of research that included visits to two gradeless schools and a sit-down lunch with Alfie Kohn, whose research validated my plans, I stopped using grades in my classroom. I teach middle school language arts in mixed-grade (6,7,8) classes. The grade 4-5 science and social studies teacher joined me in the “gradeless pilot program,” and we worked with the support of our director and SAC committee. To stop grading after many, many years of using grades represented a huge paradigm shift for myself, my colleague, and our students.
Lake Eola Charter School’s original charter was based on assessment. At the time, new research pointed educators away from traditional grading systems deemed ineffective towards new, standard-based assessments including multi-modal, standards-based, rubric assessments. Unfortunately, as highlighted in the research of Alfie Kohn, those systems, in an effort to make assessment more meaningful, actually removed students farther and farther from the natural instincts they had to learn — namely, intrinsic motivation. Alfie Kohn and other researchers make a compelling argument with astounding implications in the classroom. They posit that the most effective learning comes from intrinsic motivation, which is natural, and that all of the artificial motivational systems, including rewards, punishments, point systems, leveling, etc., only impede children’s intrinsic motivation. For example, when you give a child candy as a reward for reading, the child reads for the candy rather than the story, thus working to lessen his/her interest in reading.
The implications of eliminating grades in the classroom are huge, messy, and empowering. Without extrinsic punishments (you’re going to fail if you don’t pay attention) or rewards (do exactly what the rubric says and you’ll get a 4), every assignment must have a purpose. I can no longer say, “do this so you’ll get a good grade;” instead, I must be able to say, “this lesson will serve you well.” Making this shift has affected my classroom practice in a multitude of ways, some of which I’ll be writing about in future posts.
After the first year, a survey of parents and students indicated enough support to continue with the experiment, and in the second year, two additional teachers joined the pilot program. Now in its third year, approximately 1/2 of the classes at Lake Eola Charter School are gradeless.