Why Go Gradeless In Maths?

Productive struggle occurs when a learner is given a task slightly beyond their abilities. Suffice to say, I am productively struggling right now. I jumped into the learning pit a few months ago and have been struggling to climb out ever since. I have been hoping that, like the wonderful Joy Kirr did for our self-reporting in English, someone would swoop in and save the day. But there has been no silver bullet to quickly and easily solve this problem.

I’ve been searching far and wide for something that possibly just does not exist…. Yet! At the end of this semester, I would like students in our composite year 6/7 class to self-report a grade based on evidence of learning they have collected in a Maths portfolio. Surely others have tried to minimise the demotivating influence of grades and design a student self-reporting scaffold in Maths in Australia? But my many polite inquiries have produced nought. I have discovered a ton of information that has challenged my practice and helped shape my thinking, but no one to collaborate with or learn from in an Australian Curriculum context. So it’s time to go it alone and do my best.

“I’m Sorry, You’re Doing What?”

There is no research evidence that suggests a gradeless classroom will produce better outcomes for students. There is, however, plenty of evidence to support the underlying pillars of a gradeless classroom. There has been much written about the benefits of productive feedback, developing intrinsic motivation, increased student voice, ownership of learning, self-assessment and self-grading, Project Based Learning (PBL), growth mindset, slow thinking etc. You need only look at the work (video links) of John Hattie, Guy Claxton, Martin WestwellCarol DweckAlfie Kohn and others to find extensive support for these ideas. Not surprisingly, there is also little to no evidence that current grading practices produce better outcomes for students either.

This year I deliberately set out to get lost. Over the course of this year, I’ve forced myself to rethink everything I thought I knew about teaching in a bid to improve outcomes for all students. I’ve stopped teaching English skills (reading; writing; speaking; grammar; spelling) in isolation from each other. I started empowering students to take ownership of their learning. We discovered how to truly collaborate and succeed individually by learning inter-connectively. We now reflect purposely on our learning. We have embraced community and contribution. We have also drifted off course at times. Succeeded and failed in equal measures. But, with the patient support of my beautiful wife, and the encouragement of work colleagues and my new found online Personal Learning Network (PLN) of educators, many of whom practice gradeless teaching, I honestly believe that we are building something that is good for kids. All kids. I’m trying to become the type of teacher I wish for my young son when he begins his school journey.

I want to make our school and classroom somewhere that kids are desperate to get into, not get away from. According to Hattie, the best predictor of health, wealth and happiness in adult life is not student achievement in school, it is the number of years of schooling. Keeping the love of learning, the spark, the sense of wonder alive in students as they near the end of their primary school journey, is hugely important to me. Perhaps our true measure of success should be how much students love their schools when it is time to leave.

I’m not advocating that others follow my example and completely stop grading, far from it. I’m lost, remember? Teachers I have discussed my gradeless journey with have been and should be, sceptical. I was too six months ago. But now I am steadfast in my belief that not only can we do better for kids, we must. I was asked recently at a partnership teaching moderation day how I ended up ditching grades for growth?

I made an off the cuff comment to the teachers at my table about doing more quality PD via Twitter in six months than I’ve done in the past 10 years combined. But I’m not joking. The Twitterverse has completely reshaped my entire teaching practice.

I unintentionally started upon my gradeless journey when I stumbled across Towards a Future of Growth Not Grades by Arthur Chiaravalli. I was actually searching for resources for student self-grading and self-reporting based on John Hattie’s visible learning effect sizes. Arthur’s writing is pretty compelling. If like me, you are searching for the seemingly unattainable healthy work/life balance, a good place to start might be Explode These Feedback Myths and Get Your Life Back. Arthur led to the always generous Aaron Blackwelder. Which led to Monte Syrie’s Edutopia post: An Uncomfortable Truth About Grading Practices and his controversial give ’em all an “A” Project 180. I found Gary Chu who promptly taught our class how to collaborate. Joy Kirr. Patty McGee. Mark Sonnemann. The list goes on and is growing daily.

A George Couros quote says “isolation is a choice educators make”. I work at a really small school, which is great. But I am the only male teacher on staff and have no one else at my grade level to collaborate with. I was beginning to feel isolated and locked into a program that was pretty good for most kids, but I felt could and needed to be great for all kids. So if you aren’t already on Twitter, what are you waiting for? You don’t need 1000 Twitter followers, you just need to find 20 great ones.

I remember reading early on that people should be wary of Twitter PLN’s because the relationships tend to be superficial and often become echo chambers. Either those people are doing it wrong, or I have been extraordinarily fortunate because the quality of sharing, discussion, and support I have found online has been amazing. Monte Syrie, a Washington State teacher, took time out of his summer break to record an AMA (Ask Me Anything) with our class. Students connected with his story and he generously reciprocated (here and here). Mary Wade from Utah shares her practice prolifically on her blog and wrote about choosing Courage Over Fear on the back of a student blog post. I’m really excited to be collaborating on a potential project with Mark Sonnemann, Principal of Holy Name Catholic School in Kingston, Canada. We hope to connect our school communities via a global citizenship project that we hope will lead to powerful learning that celebrates connectedness. I can look around our classroom and actually see the influence these educators have had on our learners. That’s pretty cool.

Like anything, grading less or going completely gradeless is not for everyone. Teachers who rely on rewards, coercion, compliance and fear will likely continue to use grades and reports as a leverage to control or punish student behaviour. These teachers are the stakeholders who would be most uncomfortable with and have the most to lose from a gradeless approach.

Teachers who build strong relationships, have high expectations for students, provide opportunities for productive feedback, create positive classroom culture, and aim to empower students are the ones with so much to gain from exploring a life without grades. And they needn’t tear their current practice apart as I have to begin their journey of discovery, but could perhaps instead ask:

What am I already doing well that I could build upon?

That is how I came to be at this point in time, about 13 weeks out from the end of the most hectic, messy, frustrating, and rewarding year I’ve had in my 12 years of teaching. While John Hattie doesn’t advocate for gradeless learning, he does speak about teachers as Agents For Change and Setting Learning Intentions and Success Criteria which resonated with me in the videos below:

If you have low expectations, you will be incredibly successful.

– John Hattie


Valuing Slow Thinking and Feedback Over Grades In Maths

I found going gradeless in English, the Arts, Humanities etc to be pretty straightforward. These subjects, in my mind at least, seem to lend themselves to a feedback focus over grading. They are complex and subjective subjects with cross-curricular links that make grading a headache at the best of times. But aren’t Maths answers always either right or wrong? Surely Maths is so objective that it lends itself to grading far more easily than other subjects?

The reason I’ve found the process of developing a self-reporting scaffold so difficult is because it forces me to lay bare the mixture of factors that I value in order to reach a particular grade. If I can’t easily and clearly define how I arrive at a Maths grade, how in the world can I expect students to? I wonder how other teachers in my situation would go if they had to explicitly lay out their expectations and success criteria for grading? Wouldn’t that make for interesting conversation at a school wide level? At a recent PD moderation day, we spent significant time (and money!) trying to define the difference between an A-E achievement against annotated work samples. We are hung up on trying to measure learning rather than agreeing upon and sharing what drives it. Searching for consistency where perhaps consistency doesn’t actually exist.

What I’ve reflected on about my past practice is that mostly, I just need to get out of the way.  I realised that when I chatted with students about their learning, I did most of the talking. When they were confused, I did most of the talking. When we shared thinking, I did most of the talking. I’ve been guilty of pushing through content too fast for many students resulting in little more than a surface level of understanding. The feedback I was providing usually came in the form of right/wrong answers or scores. We need to slow our thinking and assess what we really value from the curriculum, and I need to quit talking so much and start listening more!

I keep coming back to one question: What do I want students to achieve in Maths?

I want to eliminate the learn and burn mentality and replace it with slow, deep thinking and increased understanding. I want all students in our class to become more confident, skilled, creative, resilient and flexible in their thinking. I want to meet students where they are with their learning and be able to provide productive feedback that drives individual learning forward beyond percentages and scores. I want to develop and maintain a culture where mistakes are valued and used as opportunities to learn. I want students to see the value in collaboration and take opportunities to “share the wealth” of knowledge that exists within our class. I want students to enjoy Maths and see themselves as Mathematicians!

So I’ve decided that our self-reporting scaffold will simply revolve around asking students how will you show me you can do this?

In order to escape the clutches of the learning pit, to overcome the productive struggle, the learner must ask questions of the concept before they can construct a solution. My solution to going gradeless in Maths has been several months in the making, but here are the questions I hope to be able to address.

Can students really be trusted with self-reporting a Maths grade?

How do we provide enough opportunities for students to collect evidence of achievement?

What constitutes reasonable evidence of learning? Formative? Summative? Oral? Video?

How do we help students discern A-E letter grades against the Australian Curriculum in order to make an on balance judgement?

How can we report on skills developed from the General Capabilities?

What role, if any, does depth of knowledge play in this? Growth? Learning skills?

What happens if students over or under grade themselves?


Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.     

Henry David Thoreau

So while I might still be lost right now, I am also far closer to finding the answers I seek. Maybe you should get lost too…

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2 thoughts on “Why Go Gradeless In Maths?

  1. Great post, Abe! I am mutually grateful for your influence on my professional growth/learning–influence that will carry over to my students when I’m back in the classroom, too. Twitter is my favorite source of #diyPD!
    I love how you are modeling to your students the very risk-taking that you expect from them in this very vulnerable and learning-rich venture! That is a benefit they will surely carry with them for many years to come.
    As for connecting with other teachers in Australia doing a self-reporting scaffold in math, you might try reaching out to Edna Sackson if you haven’t already done so. Best of luck, and looking forward to watching you and your students unfold the answers to the questions you listed.

    1. Thanks, Mary, I appreciate you taking the time to stop by and read. I’ve checked out Edna Sackson’s work as per your recommendation, very interesting. Another interesting tip I got was the Sandridge School in Victoria (http://www.sandridge.vic.edu.au/) which I hope to check out as it mirrors much of what I’m trying to do in the classroom. I’ve struggled with the gradeless Maths scaffold but in reality, what and how we learn really hasn’t changed that much, the why certainly has. I’ve been hung up on justifying the report grade at the end of the semester rather than creating powerful but practical opportunities for students to show their learning and growth. As Monte would say, we will do, reflect, and then do better when we know better.

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