By Bev Schellenberg
A revolution is underway in our classrooms. No one’s walking around with pithy statements on picket signs; no one’s blasting headlines across newspapers. But the reality is our school system is undergoing a monumental transition, and you may not even know it.
How come I know? As a teacher in both the elementary and high school public system for the past 15 years, as a university student currently enrolled in post-graduate education courses, and as a parent with children currently in grades five and eight, I’ve seen the signs from both sides of the educational fence, and they are encouraging.
Here’s the bottom line: marks are not what’s important in the classroom anymore. Learning is.
Remember the scene in the movie A Christmas Story, in which nine-year old Ralphie writes about the Red Ryder BB rifle that he wants, and his teacher hands back his assignment with a big red C+ on the top? Or all those times in grade school when you either worked hard for the A, or alternatively, sat in the back and realized a C was the best you were going to do? Those days are likely coming to a close.
It started years ago, at least in British Columbia. A new letter grade joined the ranks of A through F: I, for “Incomplete.” From that point on, teachers could not assign a D or F unless they had first assigned an I and given the student a chance to fix things.
More letters followed. Now, when a student receives the first of three required reports in a semester, the only grade required by the BC Ministry of Education isn’t really a grade at all: It’s either G (for “Good”), S (for “Satisfactory”) or N (for “Not Satisfactory”). In the first reporting period, how he or she works is more important than a mark.
That means that, as a high school teacher, I’m now able to assign struggling students an I, where before they would have received an F. Granted, it also means I have to give them time to complete missed assignments. On occasion, I’ve even sat with grade 12 English students as they completed missing work after the semester had technically come to a close. But it was worth it: most passed, thereby dodging the repeat-the-class and summer-school bullets. And, speaking as their teacher, they were competent students who deserved to pass; they just needed a little more time.
What does this mean for learning? Imagine if you went to a yoga class, and, each time you attempted a pose, the instructor handed you a piece of paper with a big D on it. Would you keep trying to do your best? According to research, those motivated by “success orientation” would try harder; everyone else, motivated by “failure avoidance,” would resign themselves to that D, or work hard enough to achieve the bare minimum – if, that is, they kept attending at all. The focus for most of the wanna-be-Gumbies in the class would become the grade itself rather than learning the poses.
In the new model, teachers are now more like coaches, providing ongoing assessment. It’s only at the end, when you leave the yoga class, that they give you a final mark measuring what you were able to learn.
I’ve witnessed the old system, personally as an A student in school who immediately dumped much of what I’d learned diligently each year so I could achieve more A’s the following year. Then, as a teacher, I saw a pattern in my own classes, particularly in grades 10-12. Regardless of whether they were a C- or an A, students would want to know what they had to do to achieve a higher grade, but very few were interested in focusing on actually learning the skills. I wanted to be their teacher, though, not their judge. Maybe that was because I’d had a good model; when I was a kid, my piano teacher, Miss Hick, had enabled me to master each musical skill in my own time. Luckily for me she never gave grades, or I would likely have gotten all A’s without ever learning to play the piano with any degree of skill.
Granted, it’s still early in the semester, but thanks to this new method of assessment, I have an English 11 class filled with 23 boys and seven girls who, after a month of learning, are still engaged and wanting more. They don’t ask what mark they have, as students did last year. Instead, they’re focused on strengthening their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. They’re learning how to assess their own work, and what to do to become stronger in each area. Students who would once have sat passively in the back during class discussion realize they need to speak out to show improvement in their speaking. And they do. In one debate, a student who’d been silent in initial class conversations became a lead expert and strong contributor: after evaluating his initial silences, he chose to contribute. A mark for his initial silence would likely have shut him down for the entire term, as it did for many students in the old system. Instead, he’s decided to speak up.
In Making Classroom Assessment Work, author and educator Anne Davies explains the motives behind the change this way: “Three students are taking a course in how to pack a parachute. Student Number One initially scored very high, but his scores have dropped as the end of the course approaches. Student Number Two’s evaluations are erratic. Sometimes he does very well and sometimes he doesn’t. The teacher has a hard time predicting from day to day how he will do. Student Number Three did very poorly for the first two thirds of the course, but has lately figured out how to successfully and consistently pack a parachute. Which of these students would you want to pack your parachute? Number One? Number Two? Number Three?
“Most people would choose Number Three. The problem is that Number Three did not pass the course. When his marks were tallied and averaged, they weren’t high enough. Number One and Number Two did pass.”
With the new system of marking, the plan is that the students who do well will be those who master the material. If it takes them a while to understand, they’ll be given the chance to learn without fear of bad marks slowing them along that path to success. While it’s taken a while for the research to reach the classroom, the results are cheering: marks are on their way out the educational door, and learning is marching in.