The April Archdiocese of Philadelphia school administrators and curriculum
leaders in-service focused on Engaging the 21st Century learner and effective assessment strategies.
At this session, entitled De-Grading not Degrading, Alfie Kohn was the speaker and he emphasized how important it is to focus on the learning process rather than strictly on high scores and grades. Engaging students in the learning process and fostering life long learning are surely goals for the 21st century. In this post, I will share points from this in service and some thoughts and resources on the use of technology for alternative assessment.
According to his research, Kohn indicated that a focus on grades only can have a very negative impact on student motivation. Kohn was inspired to investigate this when, as a teacher, he noticed that a large percentage of parents were inclined to reward students and even pay them to have high grades.
Grading is a well established practice.
Why we focus on grades
1. We grade students to sort them.
2. We grade students to motivate them
3. We have control over the classroom
4. We have always done it. It is established practice.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation
There are definitely students who are motivated by having high grades. However, Kohn emphasized that these students are extrinsically motivated – not intrinsically motivated. Intrinsic motivation supports a love for learning. Extrinsic motivation does not. The focus on grades squashes intrinsic motivation. We should care HOW they are motivated. Students should be intrinsically motivated. With only extrinsic motivation in place, students lose interest in the learning itself.
Intrinsic motivation is there because students are inspired and engaged. Extrinsic motivation is there because of the reward.
As extrinsic motivators go up, intrinsic motivators go down. We want students to learn with proficiency and enthusiasm. Focusing on high grades can only do harm. We need a better way to assess students than with grading. If schools want to inspire depth of understanding, joy in learning and ability to apply they should find some other way to assess students than giving tests.
For children to do well, we have to think affirmatively about what they do. What end result would we like to see? We want them to read, we want to learn. We want them intellectually engaged. Social, behavioral and ethical goals are important. We need to keep the focus on these larger more far reaching aims.
Six Problems Caused by Focusing on Grades Instead of Learning
1. Students become less interested in learning. It is about the beliefs and desires under the surface. If we are focused on scores, we are only reaching children on a surface level. The more we focus kids on their achievement, the less well they do. Veer away from choosing competitive learning over cooperative learning. Ranking students in a classroom forms a dynamic which works against learning.
5. Negative social impact to high achieving students – Social Psychology supports that they will be less open to others because others are obstacles to their success. They may be inclined to place themselves apart from others.
6. Students won’t ask for help when they need it. The more we are about achievement, the less likely students are to ask for help when they need it. This hampers learning.
What Can Administrators Do?
- Examine your list of activities and events that focus on grades. Examples are honors awards, posting high grades,standardized tests.
- Foster programs and strategies that focus on the learning tasks as opposed to strictly the grades.
- Become interested in having graduates who want to learn instead of graduates who know facts.
- Ask yourself this question: Is my school a grade oriented school or a learning oriented school?
- Have a year of learning – No grades
- Remove grading on a bell curve. Remove the effort grade.
- Look at Alternative Assessment – See Bruner’s Law below
- Work with faculty on constructing an assessment system which counteracts the six problems caused by grading.
- Have student led learning showcases
- Get feedback from parents
- Visit schools who have made the shift from focusing on grading to focusing on learning.
- Work on designing a different environment based not in ‘what has always been done’ but what we want for children
What can Parents do?
- Talk with your children about what they are learning and the learning process
- Don’t focus on report cards and grades
- Ask schools for examples of how they focus on learning as opposed to grading
- Think about your long term goals for your children (Research shows that 80% of parents surveyed want the following types of things for their children( To be – caring, generous, moral, happy, lifelong learners, problem solvers)
Everyone loses when education becomes a competitive sport.
I am not interested in kids knowing but rather in having them want to know
Positive reinforcement can backfire. Kids who are told ‘good job’ are less kind to their peers. They do the act for the reward instead of how they made the other person feel. Rewards or punishments are things we do TO children. Instead we should work WITH children so that they understand their role and the impact on others. This helps them to understand how to make a difference.
Rewards are a means to an end. With rewards in place for grades students see the positive reinforcement or reward as the goal as opposed to the result or process.
“Some of the best teachers never give tests. A. They set up learning tasks for active learning, getting ongoing feedback. B. Tests don’t provide useful information about the learning process but rather how well students
BGUTI – Better get used to it. – The only reason to give grades in high school.
If you want to inspire depth of understanding, joy in learning and ability to apply – Find some other way to assess students than giving tests.
We need to do what is best for the learner not the comfort of the teacher. We have to move quickly as the world is quickly changing. The learner should be in the center of all we do. Mary Rochford, Superintendent of Schools, Archdiocese of Philadelphia
We want kids to regard success and failure as information, not as reward and punishment. – Jerome Bruner
What Can Technology do?
In my work with technology in education I have seen that strategies that effectively use technology for learning are ones that also engage. Technology supports alternative assessment. A wealth of alternative assessment strategies abound and many use incorporate technology infused strategies for both teachers and students. These can be easily at our fingertips with the click of a mouse. Exploring and selecting assessment incorporating the latest of technologies can engage and inspire students. I list some resources below. What are your favorites? What might you add?
Using Web-Based Tools for Alternative Assessment
Alternative Assessment Primer – Using Technology
Ted Sizer – Coalition of Essential Schools
Creating Schools We Need – Discovery Blog – Chris Lehman
Digital Portfolios and 21st Century Assessment – Sheryl Nussbaum Beach
Constructivist TIP - Jerome Bruner
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic
Resources – Alfie Kohn
Related Articles – By Alfie Kohn
Video and Audio -Free downloads too – By Alfie Kohn