I can remember my first day of creative writing as a freshman at Clemson University. For such an entry-level class, I felt so anxious. I should have been worried about the chemistry or biology class, but no I was worried about writing. It felt so much more abstract, and then on top of that my work was going to be picked apart and graded.
To my surprise, the professor said she would not be giving any grades on any of our writing. I was floored. How can this be? At that moment, I could feel some weight lifted and the anxiety ease. All of a sudden the pressure to write for a grade was gone. There was a caveat though; she still had to submit a grade to the University at the end of the semester. So she told us all we would assign a grade to ourselves. We had to argue for our grade in the form of a persuasive paper based on how well we improved throughout the semester. As long as we provided a legitimate argument with supporting information, we would get the grade we proposed. What a cool way to approach grading. By removing the pressure of grading, the professor gave us the freedom to explore writing with a focus on improvement. I’ll admit, I was pretty grade focused. I knew I wanted to argue for an A, which I did, and the professor accepted my argument. While I still had the thought of grades in my head, I was not as motivated or concerned about it. I could write more freely. I can honestly say I have never encountered another class like this in terms of grading structure.
As I read “The Case Against Grades” by Alfie Kohn, I kept coming back to my experience as a freshman in creative writing. He says, “What matters is whether a given practice is in the best interest of the student”. At least for me, changing the typical practice of grading allowed me to write without additional pressure. I would still receive feedback from the professor, but a value was not assigned. This qualitative assessment described by Kohn offers an alternative to numerical grades. Embracing a more democratic classroom as Kohn describes can be done. I experienced it first hand and 12 years later still remember the positive impact it had on me.
I am finding a common theme across many of these talks. Our children and youth set an example for learning. They are unique, curious, and active learners if provided with the right conditions. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley” describes what learning could be like if we leveraged the diverse talents they possess vs. pushing conformity across a narrow field of study.
While we are not Finland, we can certainly learn from a system that has a vastly lower drop out rate. They must be doing something to foster a unique learning environment where children thrive and enjoy learning. And the result is they want to keep going and finish, not drop out. Finland sees teaching as an esteemed profession, doesn’t require standardized test, and offers individualized learning, but it’s the embracement of play that I see immense opportunity.
Play can be an outlet for fun and exercise, but can also be an avenue to discovery and sparking curiosity, which we need in American classrooms. Play lets children learn in a more natural way. If classroom environments where a place for play then maybe kids wouldn’t be so eager to go to recess. It would be learning through play that kept them engaged. I think this is where the value we place on teachers comes in. Ensuring that teachers have access to resources, continuing education, and are properly supported will help further alternative ways to learn through play in the classroom.
I also found many takeaways from Robinson’s talk including his proverb like messages about learning. The ones below I personally found to be powerful. What were your takeaways?
“Curiosity is the engine to achievement”
“No learning means no education”
“Human life is inherently creative”
“Education is not a mechanical system it’s a human one”
As I watch my 8-month-old son learn to crawl, the notion that learning is about persistent, self-love, failure, and triumph resonates with me. Michael Wesch, provided a perspective that embraces the idea that learning doesn’t happen in one moment nor does it end once you succeed. Everyday, my son tries to get on all fours, unsuccessfully. One leg keeps getting stuck, just like Wesch’s son George kept falling on the last stair step. This failure doesn’t stop them from trying though. So why is it in academia we become so paralyzed by the fear of failure vs. celebrating the process of learning?
I have thought about this many times in my academic career. I think the consequences of not succeeding on the first try and being stuck with a bad grade are partly to blame. So while an “A” may mean mastery, it doesn’t mean that the learning experience sparked passion, curiosity, or deepened the exploration.
This notion that learning is based on a grade has lessened as I have continued into my graduate education, and especially now as a PhD student. My success has become about the development of my ideas and research, not a letter grade. As I progress through academic milestones, it drives me to learn more, not stop and find something new to study. My success is no longer based solely on a grade, but on scholarly contributions. In the article, “Twitter and Blogs are Not Just Add-ons to Academic Research” Tim Hitchcock said, “The best and most successful academics are the ones who are so caught up in the importance of their work, so caught up in their simple passion for a subject, that they publicize it with every breadth.” That passion for learning and sharing seems to get overshadowed by grades in many academic settings. And while grades aren’t going anywhere, we could benefit from incorporating the fearless learning style of children and the passion of researchers into more facets of academic learning.