Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Grades as a Discussion

Well first semester ended well, with the kids in algebra 1 doing well on the common assessment we use for our final exam and the honors pre-calculus kids doing well on their take-home exam.  More important to me, however, was the week leading up to the exams.  The conversations I had with the algebra 1 kids as they worked through the review materials and with the honors pre-calculus kids as they completed the take-home exercises were some of the best of the semester.  The quality of the questions, the responsiveness to feedback, the desire to really understand the material...all of it was amazing.  And, of course, it got me thinking: what can I do to get these conversations to happen earlier next semester, or even better, to get them to happen throughout the semester?

My answer arrived relatively quickly, as it was really just a matter of putting together some things that had been rolling around in my head.  I have been following the Facebook page "Teachers Throwing Out Grades" for a while now, and while intrigued by the concept I was hesitant to attempt it for the selfish reason of being leery of the unknown.  There weren't any guides for how to implement a gradeless classroom, not to mention the fact that my school, like most, requires that grades be given both during and at the end of the semester.  

Also, Rick Wormeli visited my school in early August, so instead of going gradeless for first semester, I opted to try standards-based grading in my algebra 1 classes instead.  And while the algebra 1 kids were definitely more aware of the skills they were being asked to learn, there was still a disconnect between knowing what was expected and really taking ownership of meeting the expectations.  The chase they were participating in was a chase for a grade.  They understood that working toward mastery of the material was the means to that end, but the "good grade" was still the end goal.  Not exactly what I had in mind, and certainly not in the true spirit of standards-based grading.  So, despite the fact that I had been emphasizing standards and not grades throughout the semester, there was clearly some work to be done.

At the beginning of the semester break, I read Starr Sackstein's new book, "Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades World."  You can see why the title was attractive to me.  The book is full of practical ideas and suggestions, based primarily on the author's personal experience.  The over-riding theme of the book - or at least what I gleaned from it - was that going gradeless involves getting the kids involved in the process of determining their grade, making assessment a semester-long discussion through which the students are asked to constantly reflect on the progress they are making.  This discussion can include short electronic surveys, longer written reflections, and face-to-face discussions, among other things, and should always focus on the progress the students are making on meeting the standards.  Yes, grades are still reported during and at the end of the semester.  But rather than the grades being about the averages of a bunch of numbers, they are the result of a mutual conclusion of how well the student understands the content of the course.

Put simply, it's Harkness meets assessment.  Harkness is about learning through discussions that are centered around carefully-crafted questions.  Going gradeless is about assessment through discussions that are centered around well-articulated standards.

So next semester, I'm diving in.  I have no doubts that there will be bumps along the road.  But the more I think about it, the more "right" it seems.  I have asked the kids to do the work of learning by having discussions with me and with one another.  It only makes sense that assessing that learning should follow the same course.


  1. Bravo! Looking forward to hearing how this progresses.

  2. Great news Jonothon. How is your administration with this? Mine would not be happy. Too many phone calls.

  3. Hi Jonothon,

    I've been a fan and followed your Harkness journey for a couple years now with envy. I, a new teacher-transfer-from-the-corporate-world still haven't mustered the courage to make the switch to Harkness for my inner-city Boston Algebra 1 students, but I'd like to. You mentioned the possibility of maybe sharing your stuff in a workshop sometime. As a precursor to that, would you be willing to share your Algebra 1 problem sets that you worked up for Algebra 1 this year?

    Dave Foster (