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The Day I Abolished Grading

CJ Westerberg, January 21, 2015 8:52 AM


Ed. Note: Back by popular demand. A classic gem. Thanks for retweets from below and most of all for @joebower  . . .  C.J. Westerberg
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The Day I Abolished Grading

"You mean we did this all for nothing!?!?"

by Joe Bower

I can remember the day I decided to abolish grading. It was November 2006. The night before I had read Alfie Kohn's article The Costs of Overemphasizing Achievement and it had been the pedagogical pill I had been looking to cure my ailments for grading.

I showed up the next day to teach my grade 8 students with something in mind. That year I taught two classes of about 30 students each language arts and science. I had been integrating the classes a little, and so they had days before handed in an essay on the particle model of matter days before. As far as they knew, I should have been grading their papers, but I was about to blow their minds.

At the time, I was ready to be a statistic that reinforced the fact that at least half of all teachers quit inside their first 5 years on the job. After about a 6-8 month period of severe disenfranchisement from the teaching profession,
I had finally found a breath of fresh air.

I walked into class and announced to my students that I had decided not to grade their essays. I was beaming with excitement.

They were not.

Suddenly, the air beneath my wings had disappeared. My excitement was lost on them... I was disheartened.

But what happened next both appalled and enlightened me. I stood there at the front of the class and heard what sounded like all 30 of them yell in unison:

You mean we did this all for nothing!?!?

Initially I felt like I had been kicked in the groin with a golf shoe.

But then I felt like the Grinch... you know... when his heart grew three sizes that day!

Their disgust was all the proof I needed to tell me I was on to something. They had done all this because they expected a grade... and they figured
I had better keep my end of the bargain! They didn't care about the particle model of matter. They didn't give two hoots about their essays, sentence structure or paragraphing. There was no love for learning. It was a game that I was perpetuating - and I was done perpetuating it.

"There was no love for learning.
It was a game that I was perpetuating - and I was done perpetuating it. . ."

I remember laughing to myself thinking... holy shit! Is this all a facade? Why are we here? I had to slap myself before these existential questions went too far.

I spent the next few months sharing, explaining, detailing and showing my students how I came to all this. A few brainiacs didn't agree. Some thought
I was nuts. Most cared. All listened.

I took a risk that day. My course outline had suddenly become null and void. My students had become my formative assessment guinea pigs. So how did I survive? Well, at that time, I can't even tell you that I was all the well read on the subject of real learning, formative assessment or abolishing grading.
I was pretty inexperienced and more than a little indulgent.

I didn't survive because of me. I survived because people trusted me. My administration, students and their parents trusted me. I was afforded enough room to work that I could become the educator I kind of thought I might maybe someday become.

As an educator, it was the day I reinvented how I taught and my students learned.

It was good.


Previously posted The Daily Riff August 2010
Bower's background from his blog, for the love of learning:

"I am not the same teacher I used to be. When I started, I was very focused on power and control. I assigned loads of homework, dished out huge penalties for late assignments, assigned punishments for rule breaking behavior and averaged my marks to get a final grade. I did some of these things because I was trained to do so in university. However, most of these teaching strategies were being done mindlessly, and like a lot of teachers, I was simply teaching the way I was taught.

This kind of teaching made me miserable, and to be honest, some of my students weren't that happy either. In November 2004, I began my journey towards uprooting some of the most deeply rooted myths that continue to distract people from a love for learning."

 And from his bio:
"I am Joe Bower and I teach in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. I wish to challenge 'traditional' schooling while exploring more progressive forms of education. I intend on using this blog to uproot some of the most deeply rooted myths that continue to distract people from a love for learning. And I am going to have fun doing it!"

Related The Daily Riff:

The Unintended Consequences of Grading Effort by Joe Bower

Being Pegged, Late Bloomers and Effort by C.J. Westerberg

How U.S. Education is Failing our Kids (by how teaching incremental effort brings incremental results)  featuring Eric Ries video

Editor's Note:  The logical next question is "How does one assess students if there are no grades?"  Joe Bower answers this question in a related post, "Grading Without Grading",
which explains how and why students should be involved with their own assessments. 

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  • Michael Wagner

    Jon- I tried to do something similar but found a palpable backlash from the students, parents and administration. It is really hard to "unprogram" a lifetime of indoctrination. Sometimes I think I would like to go back (in the middle ages) to when students pay teachers directly - it would create accountability on both ends.

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The secret message communicated to most young people today by the society around them is that they are not needed, that the society will run itself quite nicely until they - at some distant point in the future - will take over the reigns. Yet the fact is that the society is not running itself nicely... because the rest of us need all the energy, brains, imagination and talent that young people can bring to bear down on our difficulties. For society to attempt to solve its desperate problems without the full participation of even very young people is imbecile.
Alvin Toffler
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