Letter Grades are the Enemy of Authentic & Humane Learning

99% of people are fine with the letter grade system in education, but I want to change that to 90%. That would result in nearly 9000 more public K-12 schools, 3000 more private K-12 schools, and 350+ more higher education institutions moving away from letter grades in pursuit of relationships with assessment that promote more authentic and humane learning communities. To accomplish this, I’ll need to convince a few people (maybe you) that grades are counter to our most important values in education, and that there are realistic and superior alternatives. I continue to work on a book called Learning Beyond Letter Grades, which will will be one aspect of this effort. I will also be publishing a series of articles on this blog, building upon the twenty or thirty that I’ve published in the past. So, let’s get started with why I’m convinced that letter grades are such a problem.

Some like the grading system because it served their purposes well, and earning the grade opened doors for them. Even those who don’t benefit as much from the dominant grading system support it. It is familiar. They might not love it. They often have horror stories of their experiences with it, either for them or others around them. Yet, they see grades as a standard, even fundamental, part of modern education.

People struggle to imagine a world of education without grades. What happens if we don’t rank and sort students by letters (like we do milk, meat, eggs, and bonds)? How will students be motivated if they don’t have the reward of an “A” or the threat of an “F”? How will we have any level of academic rigor? At the same time, even when people see some of the limitations of letter grades, they often suggest that we have much larger and more significant problems to address in schools than to take on such a deeply rooted and accepted practice like letter grades.

The modern education system has deep letter grade roots, so any challenge to that part of the system is, by definition, radical. It is a challenge to the very roots of a dominant ecosystem. Changing it risks impairing everything connected to those roots. At least that is the fear that often prevents people from imagining or learning about alternatives.

I agree that grades are roots of the system, and that is precisely a cause for so many of our problems. We must be open to more radical efforts that establish new roots for education, roots of learning and humanity. Those roots will provide the nutrients and stability needed for a far stronger, healthier, more hopeful education system…one needed to support our individual and shared efforts in the world.

I’ve come to believe that letter grades are worth addressing, that modern grading practices, in general, represent one of the greatest cultural problems in our schools and learning communities. Grades change how we think and behave, how we interact with and treat one another, where we look and what we prioritize. They compete with the drive toward rich and authentic learning. For even the most self-directed and deeply curious students, dominant grading approaches hijack attention and priorities. Grades turn proponents of traits like the love of learning, curiosity, wonder, mystery, personal growth and formation, and experimentation into targets of mockery as pollyannic dreamers.

I grew up in the educational world of percentages, letter grades, rankings, and ratings. I did not learn about alternatives to such a system until I’d gone through elementary and middle school, high school. undergraduate University, earning two master’s degrees, and earning my doctorate. With the exception of my doctoral dissertation, every formal learning experience from five to thirty-five involved traditional grading (or sometimes rubrics and what people refer to as standard-based grading). That is thirty years of enculturation. When you are that immersed in a system for three decades, it rewires your brain. It changes how you think, speak, act, and live in significant ways. Over time, it changes you so much that you experience it and accept it as much a gravity. After all, those who refuse to accept gravity don’t stick around very long. That is the same for people who refuse to accept the life orientation of a grade-based education ecosystem.

As I deepened my research and exploration of experimental and alternative models of education, I learned about learning communities without letter grades (or closely aligned grading practices) that were rich, engaging, challenging, and achieved the goals desired by the students and the school. I tend to approach new ideas with curiosity more than skepticism. I strive to understand it from different angles and perspectives. I eventually also seek to explore the affordances and limitations of it, not in a way of casting judgement as much as to consider its practical implications, especially in terms of values that are important to me. That is what I did as I examined these grade-less learning communities.

In the case of education, long before I learned about education systems without letter grade systems, I developed a personal philosophy and set of values about education. For example, even into my earliest school experiences, I considered learning to be a central purpose of education. Learning was and continues to be a core value. Note that I didn’t say achieving the highest possible grade on tests. I valued learning, discovery, striving to develop knew knowledge and skills, seeking understanding of people, myself, and the world.

Similarly, as I went through school, I came to believe and value learning communities that nurtured positive human interactions. It wasn’t always about the future. It was about a positive present as well. Many of us spend a fourth or more of our lives in school. While most talk about school as a time to prepare for the future, it is also about creating a positive present community, a place of belonging, connections, community…a part of the human experience. This is part of what I mean when I talk about valuing a humane education ecosystem. It is a community, a place to practice and cultivate (in ourselves and others) deeply human traits like empathy, compassions, kindness, conflict resolution/management, and so much more. How we treat one another along the learning journey and our human identity are both as or more important than the desired educational destination.

I have other values about education as well, but these two are central to my awakening about the letter grade systems. When we sift grades through values like authentic learning and humane community, they don’t make it through the strainer. Grades do not celebrate or amplify authentic learning. They also do not draw us into more humane and human-centered aspects of life. Even when we try to overcome their influence in our communities, grades minimize the positive impact of our best efforts toward authentic learning community.

The best evidence in support of my claim is your lived experience. Look at the areas of your life where grades (and their derivatives) are an integrated part. Then consider parts of your life that are largely free from (or at least less dominated by) grading, ranking, and rating. Take a moment and write down adjectives to describe the differences between these two experiences. Try the exercise with a few friend and family members. The more you do this, the more you will find yourself awakening to the incredibly widespread impact and influence of the grading system.

If you are open to considering different sides of the issue, I suspect that the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon will start to take effect. That is the psychological explanation for why, after buying or shopping for a new car, you begin to notice that brand of car all over the place. In this instance, you will begin to notice the subtle and significant influence of letter grades upon our schools and world, and your own life. Like Neo in the Matrix, you will start to see the binary building blocks of the education systems that we’ve created, and if you wish, you can join in adjusting and even re-creating pockets of more authentic learning and human-centered community.

If you want an example of a higher education learning community that has never used letter grades, but instead focuses upon a deeply human and authentic approach to feedback and learner-driven study, check out Goddard College.