Student Voice and the Gradeless Class

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Introduction

All too often, adults tend to make decisions on behalf of learners. Adults write the standards, set graduation requirements, and adults set the parameters by which learners are assessed. When all is said and done, we have to step back and ask:

Whose education is it?

The gradeless movement is growing. And again, it is adults who are making the decision on behalf of their learners. Teachers Going Gradeless has highlighted many of these adult voices. If we believe learning should be student-centered, then at some point we need to include the voices of those who are impacted the most by these decisions.

In this roundtable post, I've invited five students who have been enrolled in gradeless classrooms. They will provide their perspective on going gradeless.

Our panel includes the following:

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Evan

Evan is a tenth grade student from Skippack, Pennsylvania, who has recently been introduced to the Gradeless classroom through his English teacher. He has taken the idea of Gradelessness and run with it. Evan is involved in multiple clubs designed to help other students in school. Evan’s main interests in school are social studies, anatomy, and psychology. Outside of school, Evan enjoys playing basketball and spending time with friends.

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Ellie

Ellie is a ninth-grade student and was introduced to the gradeless classroom through her English teacher. Ellie is a hard-working student and is involved with the drama program at her school, along with several other theater groups, and she is involved with an art school outside of class. Ellie has a variety of hobbies including writing stories, drawing, and learning everything she can.

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Bennett

Bennett is a former Montessori student who is currently in ninth grade at a project-based, self-directed high school. His main interests are writing, speech, and debate; and he participates in his school’s speech and debate team. He in Wisconsin and, when he’s not doing academics, enjoys biking and spending time outside.

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Shayda

Shayda is a tenth-grade student from California and was introduced to the gradeless system through her English teacher. She’s very determined and puts her all into everything she does. Her main interests include writing, dancing/cheering, and psychology. Outside of school, she’s a head captain of her Pom team and spends her free time hanging out with her friends.

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Hailey

Hailey is a soon to be junior originally from California. Her first introduction to a gradeless system was through her English teacher in sophomore year. She has been a part of competitive show choir for six years and is very interested in the arts. Aside from other sports like volleyball and dance, she maintains a rigorous course load and performs well.

What was your first impression when your teacher said there would be no grades in the class?

Evan:  I was skeptical at first. It seemed to me that it was simply a way for my teacher to have a lighter workload, and I told him that at the beginning of the year. Throughout my schooling career, grades were always a given. You did your work, handed it in, and got a grade for it, without ever talking to your teacher about the work that you did. When I heard that this staple in education would be removed this year, I honestly felt as if I was being put at a disadvantage from students in other classes, causing me to go into the year with a very negative attitude.

Ellie:  At first, I was not a fan. I am, admittedly so, an overachiever. Grades are the bar by which I normally set how I go about completing a project. In all honesty, having no grades frightened me at first. My teacher was taking away the base limit that I had used to build my work ethic. As the year went on, I was introduced to the idea that sometimes school taught us things that we might never use, such as presenting. This hit home at first, me adoring school and learning. However, as I was able to work on principles that are of better use to me, such as working with others. I did learn to like the gradeless class as I was able to learn a different set of skills than I could in any of my core classes.

Bennett: I’ve honestly never experienced anything else. As a younger student, I was never introduced to grades in a Montessori classroom. In 7th and 8th grade we used grades a little, mostly as a way to introduce people to the concept that most of them would have in high school, but even then, the predominant culture was that they were just a snapshot, if you will, of a limited set of knowledge at a certain moment, not an overarching judgment of character. Moving to my current gradeless high school wasn’t too much of a transition.

Shayda: I was so excited to finally not have to worry about tests and how they could either raise my grade or be very detrimental. I was also ecstatic because it would be the one class where I could really breathe and take my time learning the subject and actually properly apply it. I’ve loved the idea of going gradeless and actually focusing on learning the material because a lot of teachers just follow their teacher manual and never really pay attention to each individual student. It felt great to finally step away from the stress of doing the work perfectly the first time or to fail in the first week because I had forgotten something, if you get what I’m saying.

Hailey: I think I can say on behalf of most students in high school, a gradeless system sounds very intriguing. As we all know, grades can be difficult while trying to keep them at the desired level. In an environment where we can feel more free to learn and explore, the class suddenly had a new exciting look it. When I first heard about this in my own classroom, I immediately was looking forward to what the future would hold. I soon realized how the new system affected me in countless ways outside of the classroom as well.  

Share one of your favorite things about being in a gradeless class.

Evan: A gradeless classroom gives something that almost no other classroom can provide, and that is feedback. Through feedback you can learn not only what you did wrong, but also how to improve and better yourself. It can act as a grade, but with more meaning. While grades can seem more effective and easier for the teacher, in order for the teacher to actually TEACH, and show their students how to improve, feedback is needed.

Ellie:  One of my favorite things that a gradeless classroom provides is a new learning base. I have been able to learn how to work with others, although I have a tendency to ignore that lesson. I have been able to rate my own work, and figure out if I am truly doing my best work. I have a teacher who can better the quality of my work ethic, not just the quality of my work.

Bennett: Like Evan said, feedback is an amazing part of a gradeless classroom. When we’re not focusing on numbers, we can focus on feedback. Particularly at my school, where ‘retries’ are allowed and where students strive to achieve the highest possible level for every piece of work—even if that means doing it outside of the class where it was originally conceived—I see feedback and the improvement cycle meaning a lot more than it does in a graded environment.

Shayda: I like how Evan worded it because that’s really how it is. Being able to discuss my work with my peers and teacher helped me to go back and realize, “You know, maybe I can move this over there,” or “Maybe I can replace this with that.” It also—like what Ellie was talking about—really did help me be more comfortable socializing with my peers about my work and how I can do better.

Hailey:  Going along with what Ellie said, a gradeless classroom gives new experiences which help foster different ways of thinking/learning. Personally, the best part of going gradeless was how I could take the new ways of thinking and apply it to other parts of my life. For example, I would find myself noticing hidden symbols or foreshadowing in a movie while I was watching. Never did I think I would take analytical skills from an English classroom and use them on my own with non-school related activities.

What challenges have you faced in a gradeless classroom?

Evan:  The biggest challenge that I faced when entering a gradeless classroom, was how to improve. I had always used grades as a way to gauge my strengths and weaknesses, but without grades, I could not do that. Instead, I had to use feedback. I had to learn how to take other’s criticism and praise, and turn it into better work. This was a major transition for me as I had never done it before. This led to me struggling in the first few marking periods in my class, but towards the end, I got the hang of it.

Ellie: The biggest challenge in a gradeless classroom is that the teacher is able to work on the individual, so we actually have to work on the problems we face. I, for example, have trouble working with others. Having the reputation of being one of the smarter kids in my grade, many times I have been put in the position of doing the project by myself. Since starting in this class, I have struggled with sharing the workload. Facing this is the greatest challenge for me.

Bennett: Gradeless takes more effort from everyone. Teachers need to put in the effort to give feedback, of course, but what’s often overlooked is that just taking in and analyzing that feedback is new for a lot of students. The level of feedback I’ve received at my gradeless school is amazing, but it can be a challenge to make use of all that feedback. Rather than doing one ‘draft’ of a project, we end up doing many versions before we get one that we and our teachers are satisfied with.

Shayda: I totally agree with what Bennett is saying. Doing many drafts was very frustrating because we’re so used to doing only one or two drafts for our projects/essays that we never take the time to ACTUALLY go back and change sentences and add more information to help us make more sense. I loved all the feedback I got though; it really did help me advance my writing and speaking/listening skills a lot more, even if it did get annoying and frustrating seeing how many steps it took to get one simple thing done.

Hailey: One of the biggest challenges in a gradeless learning space is acquiring the skill sets needed in order to thrive with less instruction. A frequently used phrase from my English teacher is, “That’s a good question; figure it out.” She was not going to be there to baby us throughout the course, and we all found that out pretty quickly. This was slightly frustrating at first, but I like a challenge. Having to navigate on my own pushed me further than I thought, and I had the privilege of learning more about myself and how much I am capable of.

How has a gradeless environment helped you achieve your goals?

Evan: Going into this school year, my goal for myself was to become a better writer, which I told my teacher. Through a gradeless classroom, I was able to achieve this. For everyone of my writing pieces, and there were lots, I acquired feedback from both my peers and my teacher. This helped me see where my writing was lacking through different lenses than my own. I was able to use this feedback to improve my writing. An added bonus was learning how to communicate with my peers through feedback in a way that was beneficial to both of us.

Ellie: So far, I myself have been the obstacle in the way of achieving my goal. I have not been able to drop my control of the projects I am a part of. I am the only one with my hyper attitude towards school and projects which causes me to believe that no one else can bring a leadership role to the group. Not that their ideas are not used, in fact, I try to rely heavily on said ideas. I simply mean that no one seems to take control and help organize the group.

Nonetheless, I have learned to cooperate with others, and I have learned to release my control on certain areas of the projects, something I was not able to do at all before.

Bennett: In my self-directed school, I was able to drop a couple of projects during the month of November, missing out on a few of the opportunities for fulfilling graduation requirements (that I knew I could finish at another time), instead focusing on writing a novel, which was a great experience for me and wouldn’t have been possible if the teachers had insisted on keeping control. Instead, they let me make my own decisions, and I think I’m better off for it.  

Shayda: I have finally been able to take any sentence I write and find a better way to say it or word it. That was one of my biggest concerns and setbacks this year; I wasn’t able to find any way to change, in my mind, my perfect sentence. I actually needed the help of my peers and teacher to really get it and see my mistakes. I do believe that if it was a regular, graded class, it would’ve been brushed off and been given an “A” because I do write higher quality sentences. However, I also do agree with what Ellie is saying about being the only enthusiastic person about school. It was very challenging and has led me to be an unnecessary leader of all my groups and projects for this gradeless class. There was no need for a leader because everyone had to bring in ideas, which was very weird and odd to get used to, but I did.

Hailey: A gradeless environment has greatly helped me achieve my goals, not just academically, but everywhere else, too. I have learned how life experiences can help me learn so much more than a textbook, and I can actually master different skills. It has taught me how to think deeper, and therefore mature into a thoughtful person. Beyond this, I have become excited about learning and growing. It provided me with motivation and a great urge to get out there for more experiences. I want to explore! I achieved more things this year because of a gradeless classroom than I have in the rest of my schooling journey.

What misconceptions do people have about gradelessness?

Evan: Many people believe that gradelessness is “an easy way out.” They think that because there are no grades, they don’t need to try in the class. Many times, people have the thought, “It’s not graded, so I don’t have to do it.” This couldn’t be more wrong. The work that you do in a gradeless classroom is the most important part because it shows growth. Like Bennet said, gradeless classrooms offer rich and meaningful feedback, but that can only be achieved if the work is done.

Ellie: I think the same misconceptions that I had at first: that because there are no grades, there is nothing to tell the students if they are doing well. I also believe that parents are not fond of this system because they cannot tell how “well” their child is doing, and so it seems like it is harder for them to help their child in said class. Gradeless classes as a whole can seem a bit chaotic and unorganized.

Bennett: I think what Ellie says is essentially correct: the main misconception is that no grades means no feedback, when really, the feedback is richer and more meaningful in an environment where it doesn’t need to be distilled down to one number. When grades are removed, the emphasis on real feedback is, in fact, made even more important, not removed by lack of a number.

Shayda: I totally agree with both Bennett and Ellie, and to add on, gradelessness can be conceived as, “I don’t have to really do the work now because it won’t be as important to my grade,” when actually, it’s basically ALL of your grade. The workload isn’t the grade; it’s the actual quality of it that constitutes it. That’s what we, as students, had to grasp. Our work had to actually be done and couldn’t be faked with adjective overloaded sentences and SparkNotes quotes/themes. We had to actually do the work and every worksheet that came with it to really bring it all together and focus on the main subject at hand.

Hailey: Some might assume a gradeless classroom has no structure, and therefore is not beneficial or useful. However, this actually promotes engaged learning and plenty of cooperation. It is hard enough operating in a class with few instructions on your own, let alone with a group, too. At first, my parents did not understand the concept at all. It sounded confusing, and they were not sure of how the whole thing would work. Backing up what Shayda said, we do not have a large amount of assignments—in fact there are fewer—but the execution of them is what matters. Despite the initial reaction of apprehensiveness, people need to trust how helpful the whole system is.

What advice do you have for teachers who are considering going gradeless?

Evan: Be open to feedback from your students. As gradelessness runs on feedback, it is fitting to allow your students to give you feedback on the way you teach the class. While in the beginning of the year students may not be caught on to the idea of gradelessness, as the year progresses, they will begin to form their own opinions on how the class could be better, and it is important to listen to those opinions. Since gradelessness is much more personalized than a traditional school model, it is necessary to listen to your students’ opinions.

Ellie: When or if you go gradeless in your class, take the time to know your students. If you can teach them other skills by taking grades away, like working as a group, they can take that with them for the rest of their lives. In order to do this, however, you need to know what the student in question needs. That requires learning about them by observation. My teacher, as an example, could plainly see my eagerness to learn and my collaboration problem, so he was able to help me work on that throughout the school year. He took the time to figure that out about me, and I think I am all the better because of it.

Bennett: If you go gradeless, you’re not going to be operating a factory-school model anymore. You’ll be taking a huge step towards truly individualized, person-by-person learning, and though many of us, myself included, believe that model is better for students, it’s a lot more work. You do need to get to know your students, as Ellie said, but you’ll also need to spend time giving feedback rather than just a grade, and according to my teachers, that takes longer. It’s a huge shift, and it can be really scary, but remember who you’re doing it for: the students.

Shayda: Going gradeless will be a very difficult and time-consuming task, however, you will feel more accomplished as a teacher doing so. It takes time to really get to know your students and see how they absorb information, just like how Ellie was stating. It really does bring about individuality and sparks up different thoughts and ideas you’ve probably never heard of. As Bennett was saying, it’s a lot of work. You’re going to have to put in a lot of time and effort to understand your students and find the best way for everybody to understand, something that isn’t too easy or too difficult. You have to find the perfect middle ground, which I understand won’t be EXACTLY 100% perfect the first time, but you’ll get the hang of it. I’m telling you, going gradeless will really help train your students to be prepared for the real world and help us become leaders. You’ve got this !

Hailey: If I could give advice to teachers who are considering going gradeless, the number one thing I would say is to constantly check and make sure everyone is on the same page right from the beginning. Make sure they know the purpose of the assignment and what they are trying to achieve and then give plenty of feedback. When students feel lost in group, it is easy for them to lose inspiration quickly. They want to feel caught up and to understand the objective.