Replacing Grading with Conversations

My Twitter page shows that I’ve been spending a lot of time commenting on student work in our grade eight blogosphere. Perhaps “commenting” is not the best word to describe what I’m doing. I’m trying to engage students in conversations about the topics they’re researching. This is not just about giving feedback. That would only reinforce in my students the notion that their blog entries are final pronouncements on a given topic, that each entry is conclusive and definitive, written to be commented upon and evaluated by the teacher. I want them to understand that every entry that they post is only one of many steps in their journey as researchers. In other words, I want them to see their blogs and their entries as organic entities, as attempts to engage with ideas, as evidence of growth and development. It’s about maintaining conversations, not ending them by saying “Well done!” or “Good job!”

So, while I do post comments, I want them to show that I see the students as independent researchers, as individuals who need to know that their work has value not because it will generate a grade but because it keeps me glued to my laptop screen at 10:30pm on a Tuesday night. I read because I’m learning, not because I have a gradebook to fill.

Needless to say, in order to have these conversations, I needed to abandon my teacherly voice in favour of a more conversational, expressive, and readerly voice of a participant. I think I succeed most of the time but I’m still at a point where I have to carefully analyze my responses to student work before I press that “post comment” button. They still tend to be evaluative, of the “teacher knows best” variety. They still tend to end student engagement. “This deserves a B+,” they seem to say, “now let’s move on to another assignment.”

Recently, I’ve been commenting on the work that my students are doing on human rights. I gave them the freedom to pick any topic within this context and encouraged to find some aspect of it that they want to engage with as researchers. Some are still looking for that perfect fit, but some have already posted a number of entries. I’ve been trying to nurture the voices that I see around me in the class blogosphere by starting and maintaining conversations about student research. Here are some of my attempts:

Dawn,
I am really looking forward to learning more about child soldiers from your research. I’ve always been interested in this topic but never really had the time or the opportunity to do serious research.

The video is excellent – I’m glad that we got YouTube unblocked and that it is possible to post videos on this blog.

What a great way to start your project – with a poem! I think the repetition of this line – “Lies and hatred obscure all truth” – is very effective. This is what the whole problem of child soldiers really boils down to – brainwashing. I’ll be visiting your blog regularly – inspiring stuff!

Then, in response to Dawn’s subsequent entry:

In my comment to your previous entry, I wrote that I was really looking forward to learning more about child soldiers from your research. I feel that I am learning. You are very good at combining facts and statistics with your own personal thoughts. Your writing is personal and informative, thoughtful and engaging.

I find this topic very sad but I am glad that you chose to research this issue. Forcing children to fight in a war and to kill is a reprehensible act. It is wrong on so many levels. Is anything being done to stop it? Have there been any attempts, either in Sierra Leone or other African countries and Western nations, to introduce laws to protect children and punish those who recruit and use them as soldiers? Perhaps the region where this is happening is too unstable to do anything about it. Are any other countries doing anything to stop this?

Also, you should probably take a look at this: Declaration of the Rights of the Child It might be helpful to you in your research.

This probably does not read like anything out of the ordinary but, to me, it represents a long period of learning to engage with students as a learner and a participant and not a teacher who has read it all and knows everything the students can possibly come up with. I’ve had to learn this and it is still a challenge.

It’s a challenge because becoming a participant and divesting myself of that teacherly voice means that I need to gradually move away from formal evaluation. I want to. I am interested in reading my students’ work, sitting down with them individually and talking about their progress. I don’t want to be the only arbiter of their progress. They need to be part of the process too. In fact, since it is their work, they should be given a chance to talk about it, not as an artifact to be evaluated but as evidence of engagement. I want them to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is my goal?
  • What have I learned?
  • Where do I want to go next?
  • Are there any gaps in my knowledge?

Assigning a grade is not going to help them in this process, primarily because grades are final and tend to stop progress. Once we attach them to student work, they indicate what has been accomplished, not what can still be done. They do not measure potential.

So, instead of assigning grades, even progress grades, I want to experiment with my own take on instructional conversations (and here). I’ve devised a Personal Progress Chart (work in progress) that I’ll be testing over the next few weeks.

Personal Progress Chart

I want my students to realize that learning is not about making your work conform to some standard imposed by the teacher. Learning is about creating your own standards and adjusting them based on your goals. Learning is about setting your own goals and monitoring your own progress. It is about having conversations with yourself and others. So, instead of imposing, I want to ask: What do you want to accomplish? What do you think is good? What would make you feel proud? I want to promote a process of questioning and I want to do it through dialogue.

If I give my students a list of my own criteria or a rubric then I’m essentially asking them to listen and conform. They may have the freedom to do their own research but if all their work is expected to conform to a rubric imposed by the teacher then they are still just trying to reach some goal that may have very little to do with who they are and what they’re interested in. So, instead of giving my students a list of criteria, I want to talk with them individually and get them to develop their own. I want them to use the progress chart to think about where they are, where they see themselves going, and how they think they can get there. I want them to use this chart to ask themselves questions about their own work and their own work habits. I want to use the chart as an opportunity to talk about their work, one-on-one. I’m tired of having conversations about grades. I want to start talking about ideas that they care about. I’m hoping that this guide will help.

This is, of course, work in progress. Any thoughts and suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

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12 Responses to Replacing Grading with Conversations

  1. Stephen Downes April 26, 2007 at 10:13 am #

    I can’t say for sure, but it appears from this post that all the goals are learning goals.

    While that is to be expected, I suppose, from a school, I’m wondering why the goals can’t be more open-ended.

    Personally, instead of seeing a student set a goal to ‘learn about public policy’ I’d rather see them set a goal to ‘change public policy’.

    Instead of ‘learn how an engine works’ I rather see ‘rebuild an engine’.

    The point is, learning is intended to help us do things. There’s a time when we can see learning as an end in itself but most learning is intended to help us accomplish our goals.

    If the students’ goals are in fact open ended, then you can ignore this remark (or see it as support for the policy). :)

  2. Konrad Glogowski April 26, 2007 at 10:56 pm #

    Thanks for the comment, Stephen!

    Yes, I agree. All goals are learning goals. Yes, they can be more open-ended but what I’m struggling with now is that the students are so used to the existing transactional system that, generally speaking, they are more interested in grades than in accomplishing their goals. Or, to put it differently, they equate goals with grades. This is what we’ve done to them!

    I’ve noticed that having conversations with them about their work helps them see themselves as individuals with ideas and opinions, as people who can explore and contribute, and that often helps them forget grades.
    So, to answer your question, the goals gradually become more open-ended. The students begin by researching human rights abuses, for example, and then turn to me and say, “I want to explore what can be done to help.” Then, they eventually ask “What can I do to help? What can I do to stop this?”

    So, it starts with learning about the status quo and then, if things go well, the interest shifts to how to change the status quo.
    I find that it’s a process, maybe because they’re quite young (13-14), maybe because they’ve spent too much time in a system that promotes rote learning and where everything boils down to four carefully defined “levels of achievement.”

  3. Parag Shah April 28, 2007 at 3:48 am #

    Your blog posts are in the same spirit of what yu advocate “deep reflection”, and “conversational learning”.

    I too have been struggling with many of the things you speak about, and this is not with teaching school children, but a graduate Java programming course. I want the students to move away from the grade and syllabus oriented approach to one where they explore programming, experiment, converse with peers and mentors, and then come up with their own perspectives about writing good code.

    I am trying to set up a system, where the entire course is done in a series of conversations (through classroom chats, Skype, blogs, and wikis), and actual project deliverables. I am also thinking of using the Agile development technique of “daily standup meetings”, where everyone gets together every morning and states what they did (learnt) yesterday and what’s on their plate today. It also serves as a good “quick problem solving” technique, where if someone has a problem, others can give them quick pointers.

    I also believe the online medium of blogs can help the students engage in conversations with peers, mentors and other experts from academics as well as the industry.

    I am very optimistic about the potential of this method of learning, but am facing a bit of a wall with the grade oriented attitude.

    Hopefully, when I explain this methodology and try it out sext semester, they might be able to experience the benefits.

    I like your personal progress chart a lot. Can I experiment with it for my course?

    Your thoughts are well worth understanding for any educatonal institute who wants to prepare their students for the future, and help develop minds that are creative, and innovative. Perhaps even individuals will benefit tremendously from these concepts, because it will help them create a self learning process.

    Thanks
    Parag

  4. Emma April 28, 2007 at 8:29 am #

    Like Parag, I also teach at University level – both under & post graduate. We’ve not yet got to the stage of just blogs/ wikis/ VoIP etc, for recording work, though I’d like to get to that stage. I like Parag’s idea of Agile meetings.
    Like Parag, I like your chart – it’s similar to one that we get project students to fill in, though we’ve not aspects like “gaps in my knowledge” – and “resources I used”. However, looking at your form, I can see that they’d be very useful.

  5. Andrew Pass April 28, 2007 at 2:40 pm #

    Konrad,

    I always like to ask the “so what” question. So, why should you care if you’ve learend this information? How is this information going to influence, or impact, your life both today and in the future?

  6. Konrad Glogowski April 30, 2007 at 8:32 pm #

    Parag and Emma,

    Thanks for the feedback. Parag, feel free to experiment with the chart. I would love to find out how effective it is in your educational setting. Do keep me posted!

    I know that the shift from the “the grade and syllabus oriented approach” to one that is more exploratory and conversational is not easy, regardless of the age group you’re teaching. Unfortunately, most students (whether in grade eight or a post-graduate course) are motivated by that grade or certificate they will receive at the end of the process. Consequently, they tend to see education and learning as a process that ends when the course ends or when the grade is assigned. Conversations, on the other hand, tend to continue and morph into other conversations. They give rise to ideas, solutions, etc. I have not yet figured out how to make that shift with my students. The chart seems to be a step in the right direction but I still need to test this approach. It’s not easy to convince the students that we really shouldn’t be focusing on the product when the journey itself is the best thing to be done.

    So, I decided to be patient. I decided to give them opportunities to reflect on what they’re doing. I want them to ask questions. I want them to see themselves as learners in control of their progress and their own learning. I think that is a very important first step – I want my students to see that being engaged in a conversation with their classmates and their teacher (or anyone else out there, for that matter) is much more interesting than handing something in to be graded. It’s a process, though, I know it will take some time. All I can do now is to empower them by showing them how much they can accomplish as independent researchers.

    Andrew,

    Yes, I love that question and I always tell my students that their blog entries should answer that question. So what if you just found a great resource on human rights abuses, for example? What are you going to do with it? How has it helped you understand the issue? Has it enriched you in any way?

    In regards to this project, I decided to wait until the students have accumulated some body of research. Then, I want them to ask “So What?” How has all this changed me? Has it? If so, how? How am I different now as opposed to a few months ago when I first sat down in Mr.Glogowski’s classroom?

    Another question I want them to ask is: “Now that I have all this information, what do I do next?” I want all this knowledge to lead to action and social involvement. Otherwise, who needs inert facts? I want them to realize that learning can empower them to effect change.

  7. clay burell May 2, 2007 at 11:38 pm #

    Konrad,
    Your comment, “I’m tired of having conversations about grades. I want to start talking about ideas that they care about. I’m hoping that this guide will help,” rings so true. And this institution we work in makes making that shift very difficult for me.

    I’ve been waging my own campaign to eliminate the words “teacher” and “student” from my grade 9 classrooms, and the “learners” mostly got it (a few can’t stop being “students,” though).

    But the thing that makes it difficult to stop being “teacher” is the grading tradition.

    I’ll be curious to see this experiment unfold. Right now I’m experimenting with students self-assessing. Yes, they’re using a rubric, but I’ve urged them to change that rubric according to their own judgment, individually, if they see fit.

    I’m still struggling with how to assess free student writing on their blogs. I hate the very notion, but have to do it. Worse yet, I find that linking this writing with grades is one of the strongest ways to motivate them. They’re as addicted to being traditional students as we are to being traditional teachers. At this point, after much experimentation with the whole weblog-writing-in-the-language-arts-classroom idea, the best I’ve come up with is to assess one weekly writing per learner on the basis (loosely) of the 6 + 1 Traits. Subject matter is their choice entirely (they’re young writers, after all, not young journalists writing on assignment). But 10% of each grade is their self-assessment/reflection on why they chose the idea, the title, the graphics, and on their sentence style, voice, word choice, etc. Still, that moment of conjuring a number to attach to each piece comes, and I have to do it. But at least we talk about who we are as writers and readers much more.

    I just wanted to say, anyway, that I only discovered your weblog today via Scott Schwister (he mentioned us in the same sentence), and am immensely happy I did. Keep up the good quest.

  8. Parag Shah May 8, 2007 at 4:18 am #

    Emma and Konrad,

    I will post the results of my experiments with using VOIP, blogs, and wikis, for teaching the Java course, once it starts. I am looking forward to this experiment, but am a bit apprehensive because it’s success also depends deeply on how well students can move away from the grade oriented approach (or maybe how well I can motivate them to move away from it).

    Clay,
    I agree, grading makes it extremely difficult to introduce such innovative (and useful) practices. I would like to entire class to learn by doing and discussing, where I am a facilitator to the projects and conversations. But this mode makes it almost impossible to grade the students in any objective manner. However, I am planning to experiment with a concept.

    Every student can earn 100% grades, either by the virtue of capability or by hard work. The grades are given for project work and participation in the online community. Every good and well phrased question, comment, earns some grades. Every post earns some grades, and so does project work. However mediocre level work does not earn any grades. Students can keep on posting, commenting, asking, and programming, but they start earning grades once their works crosses a certain threshold. Each good quality contribution earns them some marks, and they can keep on contributing till they reach 100%. My job as the facilitator will be help them on their way to start producing good quality work. This way hard work can be rewarded as much as “born with talent”, and students will actually earn grades for helping their classmates with their problems and participating.

    This is by no means a foolproof approach. I am sure there are a lot of holes. I am hoping I will be able to plug the holes once I start getting feedback, after the course begins.


    Regards
    Parag

  9. Marilyn June 26, 2007 at 6:03 pm #

    Hello Konrad

    I am studying to be a teacher at the elementary school level (K-7) in Vancouver, BC. My education focus is on the arts and technology and how those can be implemented in class rooms. I have had the opportunity to take a few education classes at Simon Fraser University that are education and technology based.

    I’ve just discovered your blog and am excited reading about your thoughts on education. What are your thoughts on WebQuests?

    I haven’t read through all your posts yet, so it is possible that you may have addressed this already.

    Thank you for your time.

    Marilyn

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