Thinking about starting a school from scratch is a scary and exciting idea. I’ve had many conversations with friends and colleagues that involve dreaming about our ideal school. Reading the book and screening the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed (Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith) had a profound impact on how I think about school. It’s amazing that while the needs of our world have changed, the structure of school has not changed much over the last 100 years. Separating subjects to be taught in silos, having students in a class for x amount of time for x amount of days, and organizing grade levels by age are all primarily organizational structures, rather than learning structures. Of course, I believe that schools need organizational structures. I also believe that we could improve in creating structures that allow students access to what they need, when they need it while giving them the opportunity to create, develop collaborative skills, and pursue passions.
There are two ways that the term “grade” is used in school. One way is to identify a cohort based on a learner’s birthday. A child that is 8 years old spends their day with other 8 year old students. The expectation is that all of these students are to be proficient on the same set of standards by the end of the year based on their birthday. Another use of the term “grade” is to give rank or value to student work as well a overall performance in a subject. What would school look like if it was gradeless? Since we are dreaming of a school from scratch, this is what I think of first. A “gradeless” learning environment.
In this environment, learners would move through content and skills as they demonstrate proficiency, like a competency based model, where time is a variable. Of course, I would want learners to be able to spend time with age alike peers- AND it would be great for them to collaborate with older and younger learners depending on the learning experience. It wouldn’t be an either/or, but an AND. Gradeless in terms of age could be more of a concept or mindset than anything else. A system could still organize students by age, but personalize the experience. For example, not all 3rd grade learners would be interacting with the same content at the same time for the same amount of time as their age alike peers in any given academic year. Many schools and districts are working on ways to personalized learning like this through blended structures.
What does a grade (rank or value) mean? What does it tell students about their level of understanding and what they are able to do with their learning? I looked through one of my third grade report cards and was actually surprised to see that a report card today doesn’t look a whole lot different. I received several different grade marks for standards within different subjects and “citizenship” grades. The report cards (past and present) don’t say much about what learning looks like. That is probably why most of time spent in conferences is focused on talking about individual learner habits, goals, celebrations, and areas of growth. I believe that students should know what they are learning, why they are learning, and be able to describe their level of understanding based on a rubric (standards referenced/standards based). As learners move to high school grading becomes more high stakes because of college implications. Many systems that utilize standards based grading still use an equation to get to a letter grade because of this. So ultimately grades, are still used as a way to sort and filter students that may or may not be successful in post-secondary school. I earned a D+ in my last very last undergraduate course. I knew that I already had everything that I needed to graduate and the majority of the class grade was attendance and participation. I knew that in the “real world” my future employer would probably not ask me to bring my college transcript to an interview. In other words, that D+ would have no impact on my future success.
If I were to start a school from scratch, the mindset would be “gradeless.” Students would co-create with teachers their personalized path, moving at the appropriate pace, determining together what success looks like and how it will be demonstrated. Students and teachers would design and create together. Passions would come alive at this school. School would be the primary place to not just consume, but create. Learning would be treated like the continuum that it is- and all along the way, students would be archiving their learning through a blog or website. By the time they graduate, they would have an entire body of evidence to share with universities and employers, showing the impact of their learning with much more meaning than a report card.
There are probably 101 reasons why this wouldn’t work, yet it’s worthwhile to consider- to imagine what parts of our dream school experience we could actually bring to life!