To grade or not to grade in Primary and Middle School

 In Primary School

Author: Angela Mitra

Einstein once said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Can we measure success if we don’t assign it a grade? Grades are seen as a measure and validation of academic achievement, time management skills and the ability to complete tasks. One could argue that these are great skills for students when they later join the workforce and which they will also have to demonstrate later on in their schooling. However, we also need to cater for those students who don’t develop these skills at an early age and that cannot retain, reproduce and demonstrate their knowledge in the dictated format and time or communicate and solve problems effectively because they fear failure.

It is not wrong that academic achievement, time management skills and completing tasks will continue to be of importance, but agile companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Barclays are much more objective and results driven. Problem solving, teamwork, design thinking and resilience are key drivers in obtaining results. Modern companies embrace and accept failure with about 40% of innovation projects failing.

We need to move away from the culture of students completing learning goals, demonstrating the skills they have learned for the assessment and giving the answers in the specified marking scheme format as we run the risk of squashing creativity, demotivating students or purely activating their extrinsic motivation. More worrying, however, is that a grade often signals the end of a learning process and what was learned is frequently forgotten almost as quickly as the time it took to take the test.

Grades create unnecessary anxiety and worry about performance and have the potential to take away the pleasure and excitement one can get from learning as well as the courage to take risks for fear of failure. How often do we hear “Will this be on the test? Is this graded?” Our focus, as teachers, should be to encourage individual growth not to encourage a trend towards avoiding intellectual challenges and a ‘one model fits all’ but this requires major change and finding the necessary balance between reaching every student and ensuring emotional and social opportunities and support.

A grade does not necessarily tell us whether a student has actually understood the content of what was taught or whether they can apply that knowledge and understanding in real world scenarios. Would it not be more meaningful to provide a child with a narrative that highlights accomplishments, areas of growth and further examples of application of the knowledge and understanding they are developing? The most valuable part of any assignment that students receive from a teacher is the feedback. Rubrics are common place now and should be designed to balance hard and soft skills. Furthermore, students must be given feedback about their strengths and next learning steps in a timely and supportive manner as well as future opportunities to develop their next learning goals.

It is easy to assess what a student has learned but we should also be interested in what the student hasn’t yet mastered. We also need to ask ourselves whether the curriculum being assessed is relevant for the 21st century and based on real world concepts, challenges and developments; otherwise we are not really measuring what is important for our students´ futures. merely having a wealth of knowledge will not help students compete against machines but essential and future oriented skills such as teamwork, resilience, independent and critical thinking, integrity, communication, creativity and confidence will. As knowledge becomes more and more ubiquitous, these are and will be the new hard skills required for the future job market.

To not assign grades is not a decision that can be taken lightly as our markers for success in the current educational systems and pathways are very much based on grades, but we need to find a way to take the focus away from just learning for the test or labelling a child because they don’t conform to the current systems.

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