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.

The Case for More Wonder & Awe in Life, Learning, & Education

While attending a conference in Las Vegas many years ago, a friend gave me a free ticket to a Cirque du Soleil show called La Reve (the dream). It was a mesmerizing, beautiful, musical, display of artistry and physical precision. I witnessed constant and flawless movement that invited me into this magical dreamscape. I walked away from the show silent and stunned. I remember the feeling of awe and wonder at the fact that people could perform such a complex, beautiful, dangerous show night after night. How is it possible to achieve that level of excellence and precision, I wondered? Those two hours provided me with a heightened sense of possibility, but also greater humility. My standard for excellence was deepened by this experience.

I’d like to say that this experience catapulted me to new levels of excellence in my own life. It didn’t. I persisted with many of my mediocre way of doing many things in my life, but I was less comfortable with them. Seeing such excellence made it easier for me to see where excellence lacked. Now came the true challenge. Was I willing to make the changes and commitments necessary to achieve that level of excellence in some domain of my life? That might seem like a question with an easy answer, but mediocrity pays moderately well. It is the norm in education, work, and life. It is sometimes safer too.

This experience led me on an exploration of the psychology and philosophy of wonder and awe that continues. I’ve decided to make this area of inquiry an even greater emphasis in my thinking this year, with particular interest in the implications of wonder and awe upon our personal learning journeys and nurturing more deeply humane and self-empowering learning communities.

The writing and research on awe and wonder rarely finds its way into conversations about learning and education, but the more that I learn, the more I realize that this body of research brings immense insight and value to such work and discussion. How can we leverage this relatively new and growing body of research about awe and wonder to create richer, better, engaging, memorable and lasting, meaningful learning experiences? Consider just a few valuable insights.

One study indicated increased acts of generosity and a decreased sense of entitlement in a game after having an experience of awe.

Another study showed that experiencing wonder (the noun) about math can lead to greater wonder (the verb…a sort of curiosity and motivation to learn more).

There is further research about the role of awe in healing from past and present social and emotional experiences in life.

There is also research to indicate that shared experiences of awe can lead to greater openness to and acceptance of people who are different from us in some way.

Then there are centuries of texts that describe the role of wonder and awe in personal transformations, some that seem to occur suddenly, but others that develop over a lifetime.

This is a growing theme for study, and the body of research will likely double in the upcoming years. It is the perfect time to explore the literature, begin our own personal experiments with awe and wonder, and join the conversation about awe and wonder as fundamental building blocks for rich, lasting, and engaging learning.

Educators: We are not Heroes as Much as We are Guides and Allies for the Heroes

Each January I notice the increase in two types of articles and social media messages from educators. One is the common lists of reflections and goals. We reflect on the past year. What went well? What was memorable? What did we accomplish? What trends emerged and what happened with them? What can we expect for the new year? What goals does one hope to achieve?

Then there is a second type of article and message. It isn’t unique to this time of year, but it is more prevalent. As people reflect on what they accomplished in the last year and what they want to accomplish in the future, that naturally sparks questions and reflections about one’s purpose, meaning, value, and role in the field of education. What is my role? Have I accomplished anything worthwhile? Am I making a difference?

Perhaps that is why I find this longstanding quote getting shared and re-shared three times a year: the beginning of the school year, the end of the school year, and the end of December through early January.

“A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove. But the world may be different, because I was important in the life of a boy.” – Forest Witcraft

Most of the time today, the word “boy” from the original source is replaced the the word “child” and the source is referenced as “anonymous.” Only it wasn’t anonymous. It comes from a 1950 article in the publication, Scouting. If you want the original context of the quote, the article is worth the one to two minutes that it takes to read it.

This quote resonates with many educators. Since teaching isn’t the highest paid profession, the quote resonates with the reason that many choose to go into the field of education. It also reminds people that their work is noble, and important. It is important for each child and for the world in which that child will grow and live.

“…because I was important in the life of a child.” This part of the quote, without the original article, is something that leaves me on edge. What does it mean to be important in the life of a child? In the 1950 article, the author explains what he means. He is writing from the context of being a scoutmaster, organizing Scout Troops, nurturing a sense of community, and serving as a guide on what the he considers a noble path for children.

Only, there are many other messages in social media that take this part of the quote, or some derivation, making the primary focus about being important, being a hero to the students, being loved and valued by the students. I’ve never been comfortable with this language, as it risks diverting attention away from the students.

I saw another teacher’s online profile that included being “a daily hero to children in my classroom.” This statement gets to the essence of my concern about the “being important in the life of a child” discourse in education. I celebrate and support educators grounding their work in a compelling reason, a sense of purpose. It makes sense to care that our work matters, that we are indeed making a difference in the lives of other people. Where this risks going awry is when such a discourse makes it more about us and less about the students. It isn’t about our importance as much is it is about their importance…and that is what makes our work important.

I don’t want a teacher to be a hero for my children each day, as much as I want someone who will invite my children to discover what it means for them to be a hero in the world. I recognize that “hero” is used in different ways. Some use it to mean “role model”, and that certainly makes sense for a teacher. In a more traditional sense, a hero is “someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself” (Joseph Campbell). In this sense, it seems to me that the rich meaning in the teaching profession is less about being a hero, and more about pointing students to the heroic life. Or, as Christopher Reeve described it, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” The incredible honor of guiding students as they consider the path of the hero…that is the rich meaning of being an educator. It is not about being a hero as much as it is about being an ally and/or guide for heroes in the making, the students.

Teachers do important work. At their best, they are incredible guides, mentors, coaches, and even models. They are masterful designers of learning experiences and cultivators of learning communities. If people want to define that as a hero, then they will not get any opposition from me. Only, I caution myself and anyone who identifies as an educator to remind ourselves that, more than being a hero to the students, we exist to support the true heroes (or people on the path to the heroic life), the students. To be an ally and guide as a student embraces and persists with such a call, that is one of the most heroic things that I can imagine for a teacher.

Ultimately, if people protest my concern and line of thinking on this subject, I’ll finally concede. After all, a “hero” in my childhood said it this way:

“When I was very young, most of my childhood heroes wore capes, flew through the air, or picked up buildings with one arm. They were spectacular and got a lot of attention. But as I grew, my heroes changed, so that now I can honestly say that anyone who does anything to help a child is a hero to me.” – Fred Rogers

Three Words for 2019: Wonder, Gratitude, and Results

Since 2013, I’ve set aside New Year’s resolutions. Instead, I’ve gone with something that I found in a Chris Brogan blog post, where he suggested choosing 3 words for the year. The idea is to pick words that represent what you want to consistently work on over the next 365 days. The words do not align with specific goals, but instead embody the mindset that I want to cultivate. It leaves room for pivots and surprises, but still helps me focus.

For example, in 2015, I chose the word “author” as one of my three. As the year progressed, that word took over my thinking so much that it led to writing and publishing 7 books in less than 4 years (the 7th is with the publisher and ready to release soon). Choosing that word helped me shift from the mindset of an aspiring author to someone who finds it hard to imagine a day without writing and making some sort of progress toward the next book.

Even in years when I don’t remind myself of the three words often, they pester, prod, and prompt until they begin to show up in my life and work.

Here are the words that I’ve used in the past:

2013 – flourish, bless, befriend

2014 – fearless, awaken, Rogers (as in Mr. Rogers), and Epic Win (Yes, I broke the three word rule that year.)

2015 – author, impact, family

2016 – write, design, launch

2017 – curiosity, creation, compassion

2018 – experiments, prototypes, quests

What about 2019? I’m going with wonder, gratitude, and results.

Wonder – This is a word that intrigued me in 2018 as I studied the psychology and philosophy of wonder and awe. I also experimented with the role of wonder in my life, as will show up in my forthcoming book, 12 Quests. Now I’m ready to lean into this theme for 2019.

Amid my reading, I became intrigued by the two sides of this word. There is wonder in the sense of experiencing a moment of awe. Then there is wonder, often prompted by the former, of questioning, inquiring…thinking deeply about something. In that sense, this is also about being curious, exploring beneath the surface.

Gratitude – This is also a theme that will show up in my 12 Quests project. I’m fascinated by the science of the word and I already experience immense gratitude in my own life. What happens when I take that to the next level?

Results – I chose this word for many reasons. My current role demands that I be focused on specific results. The job is not about me. It is about the mission. At the same time, I’m clearly in the middle of Erik Erikson’s developmental stage of stagnation versus generativity. It is not enough to say that I have a particular position, that I’ve published a certain number of books, or obtained some measure of recognition. As cliche as it might sound, I want to make a real and measurable difference in the areas where I’m called to invest my time, thought, and effort this year. I have plans to finish up a couple more books in 2019, but publishing isn’t the goal. I want to write and publish books that people seek, value, and that benefits them in significant ways. My goal isn’t to be a leader of an organization. I want to be part of a mission and movement that is having an important and measurable impact in people’s lives, and in the world. If being a leader is part of doing that, then I embrace it, as I did recently with the career shift.

I’m looking forward to 2019. I see so many promising possibilities, meaning-rich challenges, and emerging opportunities. I look forward embracing them with a focus on wonder, gratitude, and mission-minded results.