Monday, February 14, 2011

The Grading Instinct



I have a nine-year-old, incessantly creative sister. Yesterday, we were taking a Sunday afternoon walk when she had an idea: Why can't we clean the water in gutters before depositing it in oceans? (I have a feeling that the water cycle has been stressed in her science class lately.) 

After we made it home, she continued developing this idea--to the point of writing a "book" on it (complete with table of contents). Once it was finished, she proudly walked up to Dad, handed it to him, and said, "What grade would you give this?"

Grades. They're the nemesis of students (and many teachers!) everywhere. But I must say that I think it's somewhat sad when the first thing a nine-year-old can think of after she's finished an independent project is to ask for a grade.

At the risk of recycling what every other edublogger has ever written, it seems to me that the real question is what role grades play in an educational system. Are they superfluous and redundant and have no real meaning, or are they a vital and essential system that tell all of the knowledge a student has?

I intentionally overstated both sides of this story so that the strengths and weaknesses of both sides could become more apparent. But still, does a report card with simply a final letter grade really give anything but an overview of a student's "knowledge" within several different subjects? What about the overlap within certain subjects? After all, most physics classes depend at least somewhat on mathematics. Should there be a way to display the student's understanding of the overlap of these materials?

Then, we should spend some time evaluating the role that grades play within the lives of students. The prime example here is my sister asking for her "grade" on her book. She felt that she would not know the value of the work if she did not have a grade on it. She also attends a school where, like many schools, late work earns a zero. Of course, this drives me crazy. After all, all it really says is that if you don't demonstrate understanding of a certain topic by a certain date, you must not understand the topic.

Right?

I've intentionally left many questions unanswered here, simply because I don't feel that I have the level of expertise necessary to answer these questions. However, I do want to know what you think. Let's share ideas and see how this develops.

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