No Grades, No Grades
At the beginning of this school year as we were about to kick off our Academy 21 prototype, we asked Matt Dunne, Manager of U.S. Community Affairs at Google and one of our thought partners in this project, to speak with all of our district staff. It was a thought-provoking talk, and what was most enlightening was the revelation that the digital immigrants who still comprise the majority of our staff, parents, and community think in a fundamentally different way than our students about knowledge. Most in the room thought that our devices and our brains were the locus of knowledge and self identified as curators of that knowledge. Only a few could grasp Matt’s assertion that our children and our students now think in search and that our devices and brains are tools to access the cloud. Ironically, our technology staff probably struggled the hardest to grasp this reality.
When we began our design process for the Academy 21 prototype, we knew that any sustainable innovation or transformation would require us to put learning at the center of everything and that all of our existing structures and processes would have to become flexible and exist in service to that learning. As you know, our outdated industrial model is built to support practitioners, not end-users. If those practitioners see their role as curators of knowledge, not activators of learning, we have some serious work ahead.
For the last several years, we in the FCSU have envisioned moving from a system that supports teaching to one that supports learning. Until this year, we continued to define the what (the curriculum and assessments) as well as the how (the pace through learning and the ways learning would occur) FOR our students. By fixing or attempting to standardize these, we continued to perpetuate a teaching-focused model. This approach is flawed, and we have made a concerted effort to break this pattern. We’ve recognized that continuing to put energy into fixing the very elements that should be flexible recreates that which we’ve always done: the status quo. When you fix the curriculum and the learning path, you fix the learning.
What Academy 21 has taught us is that the competencies – what we want students to demonstrate and do – should be the constant. These competencies should be fixed and standardized across our system. This approach allows learning to be at the center for the student learners and the adult learners. It allows learning to reflect the needs of the individual and the communities in which they live and learn. The creation of competencies serves as the foundation. This establishes a learning continuum that becomes the basis for moving students along the learning path based on readiness, interest, and proficiency; not based on age, seat time, completion, or grade point average.
Learning occurs when students’ passions and interests are ignited, when the knowledge of content and skills is relevant. It occurs when there is a reason to extend and apply the learning to solve real problems in service to authentic situations. Learning doesn’t occur because a student scores a “3” on an assessment or receives an “A” on an assignment. Learning occurs in the space that is created between a question, puzzling out the answer, and coming up with more questions. What happens next? What is done with the information learned? That is learning. Our system needs to focus more on learning as a disposition or practice: an application of thinking, creativity, and problem solving using content, knowledge, and skills as a vehicle. In such a system, learning is the outcome and grades become irrelevant.
Academy 21 is a prototype to test out this approach to learning. By fixing the competencies, we make flexible the path. Using this approach, we can test out how to support teachers to move from content masters and disseminators of information to activators of learning. We can test out how to support students to move through our system based on learning and demonstration of learning. The l l ens is placed on the skills and dispositions that support learning and the emphasis is on becoming a master LEARNER, not a master teacher or a master student.
We say this as context for the no grades, no grades discussion. If we agree that time is an artificial construct in terms of learning, that best next practice requires a move away from all time-based structures, and that market forces increasingly demand this shift as we intentionally move the discussion from cost to value, there is no choice. Time disappears as a variable if our design puts learning at the center. Age cohorts disappear, although learner cohorts remain. And grades as a measure of compliance disappear, as well. A learner can demonstrate evidence of learning or not. Perhaps we should say not yet. Thus, no grades, no grades is not so much a directive, but an outcome in our model.
Back to learning at the center. I think we have done a good job messaging this in the abstract, and who can disagree with the idea? It just makes sense. The kids grasp the paradigmatic implications instantly. The teachers will in time, and this is one instance where structural change must drive cultural change. (If we waited to change the culture before implementing, we might never get there.)
Surprisingly, the greatest push back has come from parents who are convinced that the only path to college is traditional high school, AP courses, and staying clear of Career and Technical Education (CTE), perhaps because they themselves received this message and became schoolified as they moved through a traditional system where they passed through grades and grades were one essential component to college acceptance. The College Board has done an incredibly effective job of solidifying this message, but who are the beneficiaries of this thinking? Certainly not kids. Of course, it is motivated by self interest, and the College Board stands to lose the most if the system shifts to truly support multiple pathways and personal learning. Every learner becomes nontraditional in the future.
As a fascinating twist on this, we have also come to understand that the traditional high school model favors the affluent and that our Academy 21 model levels the field. It doesn’t take from the affluent; these kids are not getting less, as it is not a zero sum game. The non-affluent are simply getting the same opportunities, and this has proven to be disturbing to those parents who no longer see their children being advantaged in the system. The socioeconomics of the discussion are fascinating.
In Vermont, we have realized that this college entrance conversation has to be examined in public or our efforts will continue to be undermined. Toward that end, we are assembling all of the independent colleges, the Vermont State College system, and the University of Vermont in a dialogue aimed at understanding how the admission system currently works, how it could work, and how we help colleges to prepare for the students now headed their way. One of the arguments we received when we abandoned exam weeks was that, by not having exams, we were disadvantaging students who would be required to take exams in college. We also heard that memorization was a critical skill in college success. There are many assumptions that are held and, in turn, hold us back. We can’t learn that which we believe we already know. Our greatest challenge in the no grades, no grades conversation is to call out our own assumptions and work to build a shared understanding, while fearlessly moving forward. If we wait until the community is ready, change will never happen. We will continue to batch students by age and grade students based on compliance, and nothing will change. We won’t settle for that. Our students deserve more and we can do better.
Co-written with Bob Rosane – Superintendent of schools for the Franklin Central Supervisory Union and member of the Academy 21 design team.