We’re staring at an opportunity. Will we take it?
Last week I read a post shared by Diane Ravitch on her blog. In her post, Ravitch reprinted a letter written in response to growing media coverage of calls for increased testing to assess the reported growing “learning gap” resulting from the reliance on remote learning during the pandemic. You can read the entire post here .
Dear Friends and Colleagues:
I am writing today about the children of this pandemic. After a lifetime of working among the young, I feel compelled to address the concerns that are being expressed by so many of my peers about the deficits the children will demonstrate when they finally return to school. My goodness, what a disconcerting thing to be concerned about in the face of a pandemic which is affecting millions of people around the country and the world. It speaks to one of my biggest fears for the children when they return. In our determination to “catch them up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God. We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone! They simply do not apply.
When the children return to school, they will have returned with a new history that we will need to help them identify and make sense of. When the children return to school, we will need to listen to them. Let their stories be told. They have endured a year that has no parallel in modern times. There is no assessment that applies to who they are or what they have learned. Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death. Our job is to welcome them back and help them write that history…
Teresa Thayer Snyder, former superintendent Voorheesville district in upstate New York.
This letter went viral in no time. It was posted on Facebook, shared and reposted countless times. Contrast it with a headline that appeared recently in EdWeek, “Should Schools Be Giving So Many Failing Grades This year?”
This Year? This year? What about ANY year?
As Teresa points out about kids trying to cope with the pandemic… “Remember, their brains did not go into hibernation during this year. Their brains may not have been focused on traditional school material, but they did not stop either. Their brains may have been focused on where their next meal is coming from, or how to care for a younger sibling, or how to deal with missing grandma, or how it feels to have to surrender a beloved pet, or how to deal with death.”
Is this the only year that many kids wonder where their next meal is coming from? Is this the first/only year they’ve had to care for a younger sibling? Is this the only year that they’ve had to deal with a missing grandma or losing a beloved pet? If grades aren’t appropriate in the year of the pandemic, why are they any more appropriate in other years?
What do we know about the origins of grading in the U.S.?
The first record of grading reaches back to 1785 when the President of Yale University implemented a four level system of labeling the learning of Yale students. Grades didn’t make their way into the public school system until much later. When they did, they also relied on a system of ratings that mirrored that of Yale. I was surprised to learn that the practice of grading and using letters to denote the level of learning became popular as the enrollment of public schools grew dramatically in the 1930’s and 40’s. The use was primarily one of adult convenience – i.e., the efficiency of recording letter/number grades instead of individual narratives for each child that emphasized the kind of standardization that served the growing need for equally trained workers.
What grading wasn’t and still isn’t…
At no time during the last two centuries has grading been used to measure actual student learning, unless one considers the recall of largely unrelated information to be learning. While we have moved from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy to a tech based economy, the practice and the form of grading have remained largely unchanged and continue to serve adult needs – i.e., facilitation of grouping decisions, standardized transcripts, easier admissions screening, etc. The irony of this history is that, as we have become increasingly aware of the intensely personal nature of learning, we have continued to use (and frequently lament) the continued use of a system first introduced in 1785 while, at the same time, we are becoming increasingly distrustful of the integrity and usefulness of the system.
Why is grading still used?
Why do we have a continued commitment to a practice that seems to have little to recommend it beyond the maintenance of something that we’ve experienced as students and that we inherited with little apparent option as we entered teaching.
The answer is simple and the remedy complex. Change is hard. There are significant forces which we have developed to protect us from the uncertainty of change. We gravitate to and seek to maintain the familiar.
Change is hard for us when it conflicts with our beliefs. But how are our beliefs formed, maintained or even strengthened?
Recent studies have revealed that our beliefs are formed, maintained and strengthened by bias. Brian McLaren, Jacqui Lewis and Richard Rohr explore this in their podcast “Why Can’t We See”. It’s a discussion of the role of bias in the way we both see the world and react to it. It turns out that change is hard for all of us to the extent that such change bangs head on into a belief that we hold… and many of our beliefs are, in fact, a bias or are a result of bias. Bias, is a non-reflective belief – i.e., non-reflective in the sense that it is a belief held or formed prior to examination.
Here are a few of the biases that are formative in our beliefs about our response to grading. This list offers a look at several of the 13 biases that the podcast hosts cite as formative in our observations and actions. This is NOT about grading per se but about the way we respond to ideas that challenge our beliefs about grading and the role grading plays in our professional lives.
Confirmation bias: The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.
Complexity bias: The human brain prefers a simple lie to a complex truth.
Community bias: The human brain finds it very hard for you to see something your group doesn’t want you to see. In other words, we put tribe over truth.
Competency bias: Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average. As a result, we are incompetent at knowing how incompetent or competent we really are.
Conspiracy bias: When we feel shame, we are especially vulnerable to stories that cast us as victims of an evil conspiracy by some enemy or other. In other words, our brains like stories in which we’re either the hero or the victim but never the villain.
Comfort, or complacency, or convenience bias: Our brains welcome data that allows us to relax and be happy, and our brains reject data that requires us to adjust, work, or inconvenience ourselves.
As you reflect on these biases, I’d encourage you to recall your introduction to grading. For most of us this began sometime around age 5 or so and was directly related to how our parents reacted to the first report of our performance as students.
“Richie is doing really well. He’s actually a bit ahead of most of his classmates”… parent swells with pride, Richie gets praise (maybe even a quarter). Richie and his parents begin their love affair with competency bias. Fast forward to entering the teaching profession. Richie get a grade book. He may or may not have gotten much instruction in its use unless you were in my school where I was told… “Fill up the little boxes with numbers. Parents can’t/won’t argue with averages calculated with lots of numbers.” By now the other biases are kicking in big time. For most of us who continued we developed (or we hoped we did) a reputation of competency. Whatever we were doing, there was only risk involved in doing something different. Why risk my reputation as a competent teacher by challenging the practices of the community?
Why, in the face of the most emotional and disruptive times we have experienced in our lives, do we persist in needing to give students grades? In her letter, Teresa Thayer Snyder offers…
In our determination to “catch them (the students) up,” I fear that we will lose who they are and what they have learned during this unprecedented era. What on earth are we trying to catch them up on? The models no longer apply, the benchmarks are no longer valid, the trend analyses have been interrupted. We must not forget that those arbitrary measures were established by people, not ordained by God (Italics mine).We can make those invalid measures as obsolete as a crank up telephone!
When we are in a comfortable place it’s not hard to see how our biases work to keep us there. There is little to be comfortable about as we struggle with helping our kids, our families, our friends navigate a path through the COVID world.
As we explore what we have learned in this terrible pandemic, we might ask the following questions. What policies, practices, procedures have proven counterproductive during the pandemic? Are they also problematic in the pre-and post-pandemic time?
For our purposes in this essay, consider the following…
Consider the possibility of eliminating grades in your classes, in your department or in your buildings. Which of the biases listed above have you awoken? What would you need in order to move beyond limitations imposed by that bias?
Cartoon courtesy of Gary Larson, FarSide Gallery