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You don’t have a grade yet…

October 12, 2010
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In reading Shawn’s great discussion on the value of witholding grades from students so that they will focus on learning. I’ve been thinking about this more and more. Though many schools battle this problem, I’m often convinced that my school is ground zero for this insanity. We have teachers who post grades on the wall in the 6th grade, we have teachers that love to talk about averages, standard deviations, numbers of a’s, b’s, and c’s and the highest grade on every assignment. We have honor roll, valedictorians (boys and girls, plus salutatorians), endless numbers of awards, pretty much everything you can think of that would make Alfie Kohn’s skin crawl. Fixed mindset, baby.

So I’m trying to think of a way to begin to help students see the harmful effect of constantly focusing on grades, rather than learning, and I’ve come up with the post below. I’d love any feedback you have.

Why you don’t grade unfinished art, and how this applies to you

Imagine you’re an artist…
(you don’t have to imagine, if you figured out the growth mindset, you should know you are an artist).

Now imagine you are starting with a blank canvas. Ready to begin your masterpiece.

Here you go:

What will you paint? How will you begin? So many possibilities.

Now, imagine you put your first pencil line on the canvas to begin to outline your ideas. And along comes a critic:

“Hmmpf,” he says “I can zee this is going to be—how to say—’le art de terrible. I give it a C+.”

“But I just sketched one line,” you say.

“yes, and it is le terrible,” he replies.

“But how can I improve it? I can erase it,” you say.

“You cannot erase ze horribleness. Move on!” he says.

And so you sketch some more. “Horrible, Ugh, C+, yuck! And you call this a sketch?” His criticism never seems to stop.

How long do you think you could go before you’d stop painting altogether? What if you’d always grown up with a critic evaluating your every stroke, giving you a grade for each sketch mark, every drop of paint. How do you think this would affect the art you might produce? Would it even matter if the critic said good things or bad—what if every comment sounded like “Magnifique! Superb, Bravo?” Do you know any more how to be a better artist, or what makes your work so great (or horrible)?

Something tells me you’d never get around to painting this:

At the time, Van Gogh’s techniques were so new, so unorthodox, that they flew in the face of what was proper art. Of course, Van Gogh knew this, since he’d been studying art for years.

Now imagine a different studio. Here you come and paint. You sketch, you erase, and you lay down paint, then realize you want to change it, and you do. You get feedback, but this time, it’s this person giving you feedback.

She waits for you to put more than a few pencil sketches on the canvas before saying anthing. And then she asks questions, lots of question:

“Why did you draw that there?”
“How are you using shadows?”
“What is the central focus of your piece?”
“Have you considered how negative space is shaping your work?”

And you ask questions too, craving her feedback, always given when a gentle touch.

“I think you might want to practice with using the pallete knife to outline shapes a bit more, to better emphasize the shadows.”

And so you go. Asking a question here, taking suggestion there. Painting, revising, painting some more. Until eventually you finish. And then, as most great artists realize, you never finish. Now you can understand the following quote:

Art is never finished, only abandoned. —Leonardo da Vinci

Is there any question that the artwork you finished would be better in every way, than it would be under the “guidance” of the first critic? Most importantly would your own value of the art not be immeasurably greater? Is there any question that you would be a better artist, more capable of assessing the quality of your own work?

My hypothesis is that trying to grade an unfinished piece of art, lessens the value of the art itself, and pushes the artist to try to create something that will satisfy the critic, rather than the artist himself.

In contrast, witholding judgment on the value of the art, and instead focusing on improvement and feedback around theme, technique, subject and all sorts of detail, allows the artist to explore, to make mistakes and learn, and ultimately produce more satisfying art, in the eyes of both the artist and the critic.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 13, 2010 3:15 am

    There is such a fine line between judgment and feedback when it comes to kids in the classroom. How can we give them feedback for the sake of learning rather than to get a better grade? How do we give feedback with it turning into students simply doing what the teacher wants (and only what he/she wants)?

    • October 13, 2010 3:18 am

      I think this is the key question. In fact, this whole conversation, as much as it represents a breakthrough in understanding, is really just a kid doing a correction to raise a grade. I think it requires more than just one class, or one teacher, especially in high school. I think we need community-wide support for these ideas, and we need to start in middle school.

  2. October 16, 2010 10:29 pm

    I’m having a hard time right now getting kids to focus on learning for learning’s sake. They get such mixed messages all day long that it feels like an uphill battle.

    I’m truly convinced that having kids grade themselves in my class is the right thing to do.

    I’m sincerely afraid that they will interpret it as a signal that my class is not to be taken as seriously as the others.

    That said, I continue to drive myself to give kids more and better descriptive feedback. I keep challenging myself to do so in a non-judgmental fashion.

    These conversations that we are having are of critical importance. I just wish I was having them with my coworkers too. Unfortunately, they look at me like there are lobsters crawling out of my face when I talk about getting rid of grades.

    • October 16, 2010 10:48 pm

      Tyler,
      I completely agree. Esp the part about wishing you get more coworkers on board.

      But at the same time, I think kids are pretty used to code-switching between home and school, and “this teacher wants me to make sure I dot every i,” and “this teacher insists I cross every t,” so I think they can handle moving into my classroom, where we’re trying to redefine what a grade means (if we can’t get rid of them altogether), unfortunately, I think this also makes them think that “my grading system” is just another one of those things they have to adapt to in going from class to class, rather than seeing it as a different way of looking at how to learn.

      I’m seeing more and more that descriptive feedback that helps kids to see the next step in their learning is key. This is something I definitely need to work on.

  3. August 27, 2011 8:11 am

    I think Frank makes a really good point. Especially at the beginning of the year (when some students still fear me… I know, really? Fear ME? Must be the bald spot.), any feedback feels like a judgement of their worth as a human being. The only thing I’ve found to allay this feeling of judgement is to follow up all feedback with a little bit of sweetness. It gets icky and gooey, but, hey, it works. Eventually the students figure out my feedback is designed only to fill them in on what they need to work on. By December I can (with all but a few students) rather gruffly and directly say “That’s not good enough,” when looking at their work, and they get that I’m not mad, but just alerting them to some area in need of attention.

    John mentioned overuse of sports analogies yesterday, but here’s one: on the sports field, these same students are used to very gruff and direct feedback. They even expect it. We holler pointed critiques across the field for all to hear, and they react. So comparing what we do in physics class to what we do from 4-5:30 every afternoon has some advantages.

    Tyler raises a point that worries me as well. We just went through several years of students reporting that our physics classes were “too easy.” Interestingly, the students who most vocally complained were not very good at physics by the end of the course. In fact, they were below the median. Why did they think it was “easy” if, in the end, they didn’t understand it very well? Because the workload (the enforced, collected, graded, averaged workload) was less than their other classes. I actually had a student say something like “A hard class is one where the teachers give you more work than you can possibly do several times a week.” Yet, the class she identified as being her “hardest” was the one she admitted finding the easiest to make a good grade in. So it became clear to me that what the students consider “hard” and “important” is quite complex and very often not what we think.

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