"Going gradeless" for me is the culmination of the last 15 years of experience and research in teaching. The seeds were planted way back at my first job, teaching middle school art. I had taken over for a retiring teacher whose sole purpose in life, it seemed, was to make art not fun for her students. While I wasn't trying to follow in her footsteps, I was miserable because what I was doing wasn't working (like many first year teachers). Eventually, I had an epiphany - that if I'm not having fun, my students might not be having fun either, and that at least one of us should be! So I decided I would have fun - not frivolous fun, but MEANINGFUL and ENGAGING fun. And you know what? My students began enjoying art more and more.
Years later, I read "Walking on Water" by Derrick Jensen and it changed the way I viewed teaching. Jensen taught writing and did not grade (except for attendance). Instead, he talked about what was important to him and his students. He talked about MEANING and RISK-TAKING. It occurred to me that a grade does not encourage students to take-risks or to be creative, so I took a risk myself. I taught a college art course, Intro to Studio and told the students that I would be using the Yoda philosophy of assessment: "Do or do not. There is no try." AND THEY DID!!! They pushed themselves and their artmaking by taking risks and I'm positive this was in part due to the fact that I wasn't penalizing them for neatness or craft or other things that so many art teachers feel compelled to judge. A gradeless classroom was a safe place to experiment. I've never been prouder of a class of students.
Later I would go on to teach pre-service art teacher and I continued to experiment with idea of de-emphasizing grading, spending several years wandering around the territory of gamification, only to realize that, for me, that gamifying things, like using points instead of grades, was just a different kind of grading. I made plenty of mistakes, not least of which was being influenced by the pervasiveness of high-stakes tests. I found at times my curriculum was bending uncomfortably to meet the needs of the tests my students were required to pass and the needs of the College of Education. They made me afraid to take risks. I knew there were things that I could improve, but I didn't know or have the resources that could help me.
Now that I'm pursuing a PhD, I have time (and urgency) that allow me to seek out new paths and possibilities. I began with some of the work of Alfie Kohn and Starr Sackstein, which is where I found the term "Going Gradeless." Since discovering this approach and reading the supporting research, it's become clear to me that grades hurt creativity. Grades hurt motivation. Grades hurt collaboration. Grades hurt children. We've known this for decades, and yet testing and grading has only intensified in that time.
It's time we push back and stop treating our young people like meat. It's time we said no to grading and yes to learning. It's time to take risks. I hope you'll join me on this blog as I write about my experience "going gradeless" and I hope that you too will feel empowered to take risks in your teaching as well.
This is my story of "going gradeless" so far. Do you have a story you'd like to share?
To help empower you (and for my fellow nerds), here are a number of sources supporting "going gradeless." This may not look like a very long list, but many of the sources cover DECADES of research and THOUSANDS and THOUSANDS of articles written around the world:
I'll mostly be blogging about my experience teaching pre-service teachers about creativity and artmaking. I teach a class called Art Curriculum & Concepts for Teachers where future classroom teachers learn about visual art-integration. Among other things, I'm attempting to "Go Gradeless" while also experimenting with a hybrid in-person / online curriculum.