In doing so, the school cited the work of Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition. The CBC interviewed Kohn regarding the actions by the school and he commented: “There’s a difference between what psychologists call intrinsic motivation to learn, which is where kids are excited about the learning itself, and extrinsic motivation, which is where they do something to get a goodie — a trophy, a pat on the head, a dollar, a grade.”
Now don't get me wrong, I totally agree that teachers, students and parents can become too fixated on the "mark" and not on the learning. I also agree that marks are all too often used as extrinsic motivation both for students - "work hard and you will get an 'A'." And for teachers who feel obliged to "teach to the test" to ensure that their students perform well on high stakes Provincial assessments or other external standardized testing. Having said that, the stated alternative that students should only receive "feedback", not grades, is either a bit simplistic or perhaps misleading.
Like most parents, I am tired of receiving reports that say little beyond either a shopping list of skills ("Can count to 1 million by 6s" - check!), or vague descriptions ("Your child [cut and paste name here] is a delight to teach and works well with her/his peers"). Marks have even less value (can you actually tell me that you actually know the difference between an 82 and an 84 in English?) and are usually generated in a linear (although often random) series of assessments whose sole purpose seems to be to come up with a number. And, as a teacher and administrator myself, I have been just as guilty of either generating a raft of questionable reports, or signing them! If not reports then, what about feedback?
Years ago, I was reviewing quite a well-established school in Toronto. Every Tuesday at lunch, all of the high school teachers ate together in a classroom and reviewed the "at-risk" students in a particular grade (First week of the month - Grade 9; second week - Grade 10; etc.). I eagerly grabbed a sandwich and settled in to hear the discussions. Unfortunately what they amounted to was - Teacher, "John Smith is falling behind because he is not completing his work." Principal, "Call his parents and tell them if he doesn't work harder, he will fail". "Next!" Feedback at its finest! Now this is an extreme case and probably had more to do with the school covering itself than with developing a success plan for individual students. But often, feedback is just a gentler version of the same process. As educators, we tend to give feedback in order to turn responsibility for learning back over to the student. Whether it is an anecdotal comment, a criterion-referenced assessment, or a detailed rubric, ultimately is just tells the child - "Here's what you did wrong, do it right next time."
This is report writing/reading season. At my school, the teachers and tutors are busily constructing an accurate picture of the current level of achievement for each of the students in their care. Will there be marks on these reports? No. Will there be feedback as to how they can improve or what they might try next? For sure. However, the most important comments on our student reports will be how they are faring against the goals that we have set together in their Individual Education Plans (IEPs); where they stand compared to the expectations for their age and stage on the Provincial Learning Outcomes (PLOs); and, where they are in the continuum of learning that will help them to chart their course to further success.
Educators know that this is the way to go, so why do we still get bogged down in checklists and marks? One reason is that we are not producing reports for either our students or ourselves. In actual fact, our obsession with this kind of data is based upon the needs of the "next" level education that our students aspire to. It is much easier to base admissions on SSAT/PSAT/SAT scores; or, grade point averages; or, number of AP/IB credits; or, any other system that reduces the individual to a number, and replaces the human being with a data point than it is to subjectively look at each applicant and assess whether or not she or he might be a good fit in our school/college/university.
Learning is a continuum. In the current system, letter and percentage grades are a debased currency. They no longer accurately reflect ability or even performance, but rather have been market-driven to drift up to meet artificially inflated admissions standards somewhere else. Feedback is a valuable part of the learning process, but on its own it is limited in what it can do to actually measure performance, identify challenges, and help to construct a path to achievement. Students and parents and educators need milestones along the way to ensure that they are on the right track, are progressing at pace and are moving towards the desired ends. Assessment is a key part of this process but we should never confuse "assessment of learning" (marks) with "assessment for learning" (benchmarks). The former fills report cards. The latter informs the learning process. Which is really more valuable?
Years ago I was taking a Special Education course at night being offered by one of the local Faculties of Education. On my first assignment I got a B+. As a keener (and also driven by marks!) I went up to the instructor and asked what I could have done to get an "A". Her response was: "When a student writes an "A" paper, it really jumps out at you. Yours just didn't jump out!"
Thanks for the feedback, next time I will hand in a pop-up book!