Part of our first program in The Agenda's Learning 2030 series featured an interview with teacher Rick McCleary, who has embraced the use of technology and new teaching techniques in his classroom. You can watch that program in the video window above.
Near the end of his interview, McCleary mentioned, almost in passing, that he doesn't assign marks to his students anymore. Due to the constraints of time, we didn't have a chance to ask him more about that. But we wanted to. New techniques for teaching are all fine and good, but how can you not assign marks? How will you know which students are doing better than others? How will parents know how their kids are doing? How will future employers know? Are teachers even allowed not to assign marks?
So we decided to ask McCleary to elaborate on his choice not to assign marks. Below is his explanation.
"John, why didn't you revise that story like we talked about? You had such a great idea to improve it!"
"I didn't need to. I got a C on it and that's fine."
"Sue, we talked about this math problem and how you can boost your grade by showing all your work and explaining your thinking. Why didn't you do that?"
"Well, you know, I already had a level 3 -- so I don't need to."
Marks can stifle learning. I've heard these two scenarios many times over the years. It seems that once a mark is placed on an assignment, many students see it as the end. They forge ahead to the next assignment, so they can check it off their list.
Mark Twain once said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.”
Albert Einstein agrees: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school."
Oh, that this were not true in students who come through our doors. Unfortunately, their schooling does seem to get in the way. I look at kindergarten students, fresh with a natural love of creativity and learning. I get caught up in their excitement over all their new experiences and discoveries, and then by Grade 6 I hear statements like, "I hate school," and, "But Mr. McCleary, if you don't give a mark, what did I do this for?"
What is happening with our students? They become more motivated by getting a sticker for completing homework than by what they learned that they can apply to their lives. Extrinsic motivation, in other words motivation that comes from the outside, not from within yourself, doesn't work to encourage long-term learning.
Daniel Pink gives a great example of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. In the 1990s, Microsoft set out to develop an encyclopedia for the computer. They hired thousands of the best experts in all kinds of fields and richly compensated them for their work. Microsoft put their best managers to the task and employed the best advertising techniques. Behold, Encarta 95 was born. A couple of years later, another encyclopedia was born -- Wikipedia -- that followed an entirely different model: do it for fun. Do it for the challenge. No one would ever be paid a cent. Do it because you enjoy it. There wasn't an economist on the planet that correctly predicted what the result would be 10 years later. Microsoft had the brains, they had the money, and they had the carrot of gain before their donkey. Wikipedia had an interest, a desire, a love of the task, and an internal motivation to make it work. The rest is history. This is the kind of "Love of Learning" that I desire for my students. I want them to be learning-oriented rather than marks-oriented. I want them not to strive for the carrot of good grades but to have a deep desire to learn.
Alfie Kohn quotes “Bruner's Law” and I wholeheartedly agree: "Children should experience their successes and failures not as reward and punishment but as information."
Students need to return to intrinsic motivation. They need to once again discover their "Love of Learning."
So, without grades on assignments what do my students expect to receive? I conference with students daily and give descriptive feedback: what I observe, plus suggestions and questions to spur students on to the next level. Students are also encouraged to use the same format to self and peer evaluate. Learners are encouraged to continually take their work to the next step, no matter what grade it would have begun at, and therefore increase their learning.
The switch to no marks on assignments has been an adjustment for those students who have traditionally been good at playing school and pleasing their teachers. Parents have been very supportive once they understood that feedback would be given, with the emphasis on long-term learning.
But does that mean there are no marks on the report card? Well, the province requires me to give a mark, so, yes, it’s there. But how do I then come up with a mark? Every student and I conference about all they have achieved over the term, and we decide together what they should receive based on their learning goals and the provincial curriculum.
Another point I'd like to make: none of us can accurately predict exactly what the workplace will look like 10 or 15 years into the future. But here's one thing I truly believe: employers won't be marking each assignment they ask their employees to do. Employers will give feedback, but I don't know of any profession that doesn't depend on an employee's internal desire to do a good job without depending on daily marks to keep them motivated. Employees are expected to take their boss's feedback and further develop as an employee. Therefore, it is important for our students to think about their successes and set goals for themselves based on where they need to improve. As teachers our role is to support students by giving feedback, and to help them to self-evaluate through the learning process.
As always, because I'm always learning, this is a work in progress.
Rick McCleary also wrote a previous guest post on The Agenda's blog: "Teaching and Twitter."