The Future Without Grades

By Erin Millar, journalist and author Out with the old. (Image © Brad Holt) Imagine it’s report card day. Your child (who, for the purposes of this thought experiment, is in grade five) fishes a crumpled piece of paper out of her knapsack. But instead of containing letter grades, the paper she hands you is a chronicle of her progress on goals she set herself in consultation with her teacher.  A QR code draws your attention to one goal in particular: at the beginning of the school year she pledged to improve her leadership skills by getting more involved in her school’s community. You pull out your iPhone and scan the code. A video pops up showing your daughter reading the morning announcements over the school’s PA. FOR SOME, TODAY'S REALITY This isn’t merely a fictionalized scenario. Pat Horstead, an assistant superintendent in Surrey, B.C. described the example to me when I spoke to her this week while writing an article for the Globe and Mail about schools doing away with letter grades and numerical marking. “Having those samples of student work − video, audio of students reading aloud, different versions of writing that show progress − really helps parents know how to be involved in their child’s education,” she told me. Parents I spoke to, like Krista Wolfram, agreed. For the past two years, I’ve been investigating innovative schools for my forthcoming book The Flexible Brain. When I asked about report cards, I heard about schools all over the world that are moving away from high stakes traditional assessment that ranks and sorts students towards more fluid, personalized approaches that allow children to learn at their own pace. These innovations are in part a response to a growing belief among educators that while letter grades and numerical numbers may describe how well a student can regurgitate knowledge, they don’t capture the competencies and characteristics that students need to succeed in work and lead fulfilling lives. Moreover, getting rid of traditional letter grades has been shown to improve academic achievement. SMARTER ON PAPER One of the most interesting researchers looking into how we measure achievement is James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman began probing assessment after he studied the General Educational Development program, commonly known as the GED. The program offers high school dropouts a way to earn the equivalent to a high school diploma without having to suffer through returning to high school. The GED exam is designed to test whether a student knows everything that they ought to know before graduation. So, this line of reasoning goes, if a student can demonstrate mastery of high school material through the GED, they will be just as prepared to succeed as any traditional graduate. But that’s not the case. Heckman found that while GED holders were just as intelligent as high school graduates according to IQ tests, they didn’t enjoy the benefits of high school graduates. In fact, when he looked at measures of success like employment, income, divorce rates and drug-use, they didn’t have any advantage over dropouts who didn’t complete a GED, even though they were smarter on paper. Heckman concluded that the stuff we can measure with grades and tests (intelligence or cognitive skills) doesn’t predict later life success.  ABSURD, IRRELEVANT ASSESSMENT So what is a better way to measure the competencies that students really need to succeed? Education researchers everywhere are trying to answer that question. The OECD’s influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has started measuring students on more than just literacy and numeracy; just last week PISA released its first ever study of 15-year-olds’ performance on creative problem solving. According to the Times Education Supplement, PISA director Andreas Schleicher  says that PISA is exploring how to measure other intangibles such as whether students can make sound judgements or deal with ambiguity. Social scientist Maria Langworthy, who is in charge of designing an assessment system for a global project called New Pedagogies for Deep Learning, puts the problem this way: “Kids know the way they take exams is absurd,” she adds, “there is a growing sensibility that the way we do assessment is no longer relevant.” She sees a future assessment system that measures not only if students know stuff, but also whether they can apply it in new contexts. She anticipates that students will be much more involved in assessing their peers’ and their own work. “It’s no longer one teacher driving 30 students. It’s now students driving students.” SOURCE: Adapted by Colleen Kimmett from New Pedagogies for Deep Learning Assessment Strategy (Maria Langworthy and Peter Hill) Assessment today Next generation assessment   Assessment is top-down and generalized, driven by pressure to measure school and district-wide performance Assessment begins from the bottom-up, and is based on students' individual learning needs and goals   Students must “perform” on final tests and exams, which overemphasize multiple choice or short response questions that reward ability to memorize facts. Grades offer too little feedback too late, giving parents and students few clues about how to improve Students provide continuous feedback on tasks throughout the year. This keeps them engaged and offers instant insight on what they grasp and what they don't   Students in each cohort take the same tests at the same time. Skills that aren't amenable to pen-and-pencil tests are largely ignored Assessments are adapted for individual readiness, and interests. “Soft” skills – such as the ability to collaborate, think creatively, and solve problems - are considered   PROOF OF CONCEPT So what does that actually look like in the classroom? I put that question to English teacher Jessica Pelat, who is phasing out grades in her classes at Fraser Heights Secondary in Surrey. Pelat continually provides feedback in class and online instead of waiting for a report card to tell students how they are doing. “Nothing is ever final. These kids can always improve.” Pelat’s students maintain portfolios of their work online. “There is accountability because anyone can read it,” she says. “They can look back at their work and see their progress.” Teachers model this reporting by keeping their own learning portfolios. Pelat spends a lot of time in class discussing learning outcomes and giving constructive feedback with her students. Do parents buy in? “As soon as we explained that this change was good for student learning, they were on board. They realized we’re not just going to brush off their kid’s learning with a number.” But, not all parents are convinced. When the Calgary Board of Education announced last year that they were eliminating letter grades up until grade nine (they’ve since backpedalled and are reviewing their assessment strategy), Robert Hurdman was anxious that he wouldn’t know how his three children were doing in school. “Most parents just want an objective judgment of how their child is doing compared to where they should be at a given level,” he told me by phone. “There is an overwhelming amount of education jargon. Educators fill report cards with language that is very precise and meaningful to them, but it can be impenetrable to parents.”   The problem is that moving from a grading system that everyone understands (even if it is imperfect) to something unknown brings up all sorts of challenges. How will we know how our children compare to their peers? How will colleges and universities assess applicants?  Colleges and universities in B.C. are beginning to discuss how they may have to adjust application processes if the future holds fewer letter grades. Some institutions, like Vancouver Island University and Kwantlen Polytechnic University, are moving toward more open application processes that take student portfolios into consideration in addition to high-school marks. The B.C. Ministry of Education recently appointed Jan Unwin, previously superintendent at Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school district – which has done away with using letter grades up to Grade 7 – to explore how to streamline the transition from high school to postsecondary education. “We’re a ways away, but universities are very open to this conversation,” she says.   Erin Millar is a journalist and author with a lifelong interest in education, innovation and creativity. For nearly a decade she has written for leading Canadian and international publications including Reader’s Digest International, Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, The Times of London and others. Her work has been translated into 20 languages and published in 34 countries.

The Tyranny of Testing – Is the Backlash Coming?

By Warwick Mansell, freelance education journalist Image © Jeff Pioquinto, SJ    “The system has to change. I don’t really know what the answer is, but I do know we don’t get the best out of our pupils by demoralizing or devaluing their teachers.” So began a heartfelt blog posting published in March 2014 by a young teacher who has been grappling with what seems to be England’s increasingly suffocating professional-accountability-through-student-assessment regime.  To an outsider such as me  – I am a journalist and parent whose children have yet to go through compulsory education – it seems as if English schools are in the grip of a kind of insanity. A system which has an internal logic, but begins to look more than a little crazy when you stand back.  The “system,” then, is results-driven accountability in which schools’ futures, and those of their teachers, are shaped by the performance of their students in assessments, often in a narrow range of academic subjects.  This concept will be familiar to readers elsewhere; England’s structure has similarities to that which has been used in the United States under the No Child Left Behind Act. We are certainly not alone in having a system which puts pressure on children to do well in assessments.  But the many ways in which student assessment results have become high-stakes not just for learners but for the institutions educating them still makes England’s system remarkable, and worth trying to understand.  EDUCATION BY NUMBERS England’s schools are held to account, first, through a kind of market system, with the performance of each institution’s students in externally-marked English and maths tests at age 11, then in more external exams which pupils take between the ages of 14 and 18, published in Government-overseen “league tables” which parents peruse and use when choosing schools. The schools then succeed or struggle in part according to those choices.  The achievements of pupils in these assessments are also the key measures used by inspectors who come and visit schools and then write reports on their overall quality.  Government ministers can now also order the transfer of schools to private – though non-profit – management if results are deemed not good enough. On the other hand, schools with rapidly-improving scores can see their principals given a knighthood, England’s highest honour. Performance-related pay has now been mandated on the profession, such that – in a development that the teacher with whom this blog started said was sapping his enthusiasm – teachers are often expected to justify their position by demonstrating that pupils are making constant progress when assessed.  Image © audiolucistore MY SCHOOL IS WORRIED MORE ABOUT MY GRADES THAN ABOUT ME This structure of basing how schools and teachers are judged on the performance of their students, usually in external exams, can be justified on the grounds that everybody, surely, should want pupils to achieve their best, especially in those assessments that are central to the accountability regime; English and mathematics.  The question is whether it is helping to create the kind of educational experience we might want for children. I tweeted a question about this in December, after my wife was told by a friend that her five-year-old had told her he “didn’t like learning” because of the pressure of assessment he was already encountering. In response, one parent wrote to me at length about her concerns about constant testing as experienced by her child, saying pressure built on schools to demonstrate constant progress with young pupils. In January, the charity Young Minds, which campaigns on young people’s mental health, published a survey of 2000 11 to 25 year-olds which found that more than half felt failures if they did not achieve good grades. More shockingly, perhaps, 49% agreed with the statement “my school is/was more worried about my grades than about me.” And if, as many will tell you, this regime is creating stressed-out teachers who believe they can no longer be trusted to do their jobs without worrying about what the next set of exams might bring, and that good people might leave the profession as a result, it must be worrying. LIFE IN, AND OUT, OF THE EXAM FACTORY That was certainly one of the themes of focus group meetings with teachers around England last summer, which I attended on behalf of a major science education organization. Meanwhile, in February, a prominent teacher wrote a blog saying she was leaving teaching because: “I see children channelled into becoming automatons, devoid of life and hope, sitting listlessly asking ‘just tell me what I need for the exam’ and I want to weep.”  When I posted a link to this blog on social media, this was one of the responses: “I am going too…no other job, mortgage to pay but can’t continue the lie. Crying as I read this.” Also in March, the Guardian newspaper published a report on the pressures of England’s “exam factory” schools, saying “long hours, endless [exam grade] targets, worried children” meant teachers were “quitting in droves.” The piece began with a story of a drama teacher lamenting how she could no longer put on musicals with older students because of the time demands of preparing them for tests and the fact that the drama hall was needed for exams. It is difficult to change our system, a position about which I hope to write more in my next blog. But I do wonder if a backlash is coming against at least some of the worst problems being generated by this system. If so, it is not before time. Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist, specializing in investigating the examination and testing system and its implications for teaching. His work can be found published in the Guardian and the Times Education Supplement. He is the author of Education by Numbers: The Tyranny of Testing.  

No Internet? Just Use Cell Phones

The Learning 203S0 Summit focuses on the future of high school education, a future that will be influenced by the wider landscape of education issues; from informal to formal education, primary to post-secondary. In this Learning 2030 Blog entry explore how mobile technology is making a difference in Ugandan school systems. Image © mejymejy by Geoffrey Ssembajjwe, Learning 2030 Blog Contributor Access to information can transform lives and livelihoods. This is particularly true in places where access to information is hindered by economic, geographic, or social barriers.  Today, the rapidly growing reach of cell phones and other modern communications technologies holds tremendous potential to overcome some of these obstacles. A school system that runs on cell phones Creatively and innovatively including teachers, parents, pupils, local leaders and local education authorities in school governance can go a long way in creating schools where children actually learn.  It is widely acknowledged that good quality schools can only be created through inclusion of all stakeholders in school governance. But, how you can effectively include all the stakeholders in the governance of schools without burdening the system? An effective (and cheap) solution that allows for participatory school governance as well as improved school administrative systems and educational programming in developing nations is mobile technology.   Image © kiwanja Showing up with SMS One area where this could prove especially vital is in monitoring school attendance for both students and teachers. At any given time, 27% of Ugandan youth are not in school, and a lack of follow-up on students who are missing classes by teachers and school administrators does little to encourage attendance.  High rates of teacher absenteeisum (20-30% in some districts) costs the Ugandan government the equivalent of $30 million (USD) annually for services that are not delivered. Attendence can be easily managed using mobile phone-based technology by all stakeholders and leads to greater accountability in the system. And that's it’s just one segment in the school administrative system which can effectively incorporate such technology. The list of uses for mobile phone technology is practically endless and can prove important in changing school systems for the better with minimal resources, especially in areas that don’t have reliable access to phone lines and the Internet through traditional means.  Simply creating a pathway for information between the schools system and parents will give parents and the wider community the ability to become more involved in what is happening locally in education. Using this novel system for communication and organization can transform schools in the developing world by 2030. Geoffrey Ssembajjwe works for Plan International in Uganda setting up school administrative systems and educational programming that use only mobile phones.

Are Grades a Dying Breed of Student Assessment?

by Andy Chandler Grevatt, Learning 2030 Contributor Image © Jeff Pioquinto, SJ   “Weighing the cow doesn’t make it fatter.”  –various origins It’s typical for the high school students of today to experience regular testing. Sometimes as often as a one hour test in every six hours of teaching.  Additionally, there may even be a ‘revision lesson’ in preparation for the test. This equates to about 20% of learning time used for revision and testing.  Now add this into the mix: in England, the country where I work, from the moment that pupils start high school, they are being prepared to pass the terminal exams five years later.  The government compares schools based on how many C grades or above the pupils achieve on these exams. The response from the school is to focus on “intervention;” getting pupils from a D grade to a C grade at the expense of those on the border of other grades.  Employers now see a C grade as a “pass,” but with little knowledge or understanding of what a student with a C grade knows, understands or can do.  In fact, many teachers don’t really know what any particular grade means beyond the fact that the pupil can answer more exam questions correctly.  Image © audiolucistore   What’s really in a grade? As a teacher, I have been part of that treadmill. In reality I know that, despite the constraints of policy, teachers have much nobler ambitions for their pupils’ education. However, when push comes to shove, as a teacher, you are judged by the grades that your students achieve in terminal examinations.  You are under pressure from your students and their parents, and pushed by your bosses to ensure those students achieve the best grade possible. Beyond the almighty “A”  Becoming a researcher has allowed me to take a step back from all this to consider alternative models for assessment. I have seen excellent use of models of progression in science education to assess students. But, I have also seen poor practice where pupils are just drilled for exams; taught what is on the upcoming test and nothing more.  “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – Albert Einstein So what do I think would be a better system of assessment: Based on reading and research, my current thinking is that: A school’s assessment framework should focus on a range of quality and skills that represent the values and aims of the whole school. Then it can be applied to individual subjects. Assessment should be part of everyday classroom practice. Both teacher and pupil need understand what successful outcomes look like. All assessments should be student-focussed. Effective feedback is essential to pupils’ progression and both teachers and pupils need to develop a common language to give and respond. Any assessment activity must focus on improving what a pupil knows, understands or can do. Teachers have to be assessment-literate. They need to understand the purposes of assessment and to have a model that suits their subject. Grades should not feature as part of the education in the school, instead reports should be based on what pupils know, understand and can do, along with clear targets for progression. Assessments should focus on authentic activities that can be assessed against clear outcomes.  Students should keep portfolios that demonstrate their developing knowledge, understanding and skills for each subject. These should form the basis of assessment and feedback. If examinations for qualifications must still exist, the students should have only a short preparation time. If the school curriculum and assessment framework have been well designed, students will already have the deep knowledge, understanding and skills required. Having said all this, assessment models will still have constraints. The cultural expectations of parents, teachers and pupils, the examination and qualification systems of the country, the values of the school, are just some examples. Could the schools of 2030 really be test and examination free? Andy Chandler-Grevatt is a Teaching Fellow in Education at the University of Sussex. He has written or co-written more than 25 books and curriculum guides to help science teachers in the UK assess their students' deeper understanding of their subjects.

Question Everything, Think Outside The 011000100110111101111000

Image © saschapohflepp by Mike Maccarone, Learning 2030 Contributor As teachers (of science, in my case) we encourage our students to wonder (and wander) through school, through life, with a curiosity about how it all works. From the seen to the unseen, the intuitive to the head-scratching.   We aim to equip students with tools they can use to answer their own questions: make observations, collect data, develop a hypothesis, design new ways to test ideas, compare results with others.   We also challenge students to question common sense, to find innovative ways to solve problems, and to think 'outside the box'. But, are we practicing what we preach?    Skill vs. content In the age of digital information and social networking, where facts and equations are literally a click away, the need for memorizing content is far less important than it once was.   A traditional science classroom, where content lies at the center of teaching, learning, and assessment, is no longer enough.   Skills must be at the heart of the classroom and content the delivery system for those skills.   If we turn the curriculum inside out, students are more likely to think scientifically – with consideration, intent, and evidence – rather than merely remember facts.   Scientific literacy can then be more about global citizenship, giving our future leaders, voters, and activists alike the insight and intuition to think scientifically.  An outdated system Kingdom/Phylum/Class/Order/Family/Genus/Species   Red/Orange/Yellow/Green/Blue/Indigo/Violet   I can still recite them, though if you challenged me to explain the difference between Class and Order I might flee (or at least pretend to receive a phone call and check my smart-phone for the answer). Why do we still teach this way? Why are we holding on to these classification systems, these boxes?  For one thing, it's easier to test. I can ask a student to write facts in order, mark her paper, grade it, and tell if she is good or bad or just alright at 'science'. A lazy example, perhaps, but assessment has become a major player in educational reform. Without data, how can we know if we're doing anything right? Data can be a dangerous thing if we collect it improperly. Is it fair to use multiple choice questions and math problems to determine whether our students are thinking analytically? In order to truly reshape how we teach, we need to focus on how we assess. Measuring skills and growth does not have to be a numerical process. Educational data does not have to be quantitative to the extent that public schools might like and teachers' unions might loathe.   There is certainly value in assessment, especially in providing feedback to students. If we can shift our focus from easily gathered, shallow data, we can redirect our efforts towards giving students meaningful feedback that helps them improve their understanding of science and their approach to learning, regardless of where they may fall on the academic spectrum.   In order to shift the focus of schools from content to skills, we need to consider what we are asking our teachers to do and what support they need.   We also need to agree to measure student success in a more meaningful way.  Thinking outside the 011000100110111101111000* But what if we take it one step further?   What if we begin to think of science the way a scientist, and not a test-writer, would - accessing and encouraging all of the different connections to the concept we are studying when it fits best in the classroom, and not when it shows up in Chapter 12. If skills rather than content are brought into focus, if assessment is about feedback and growth rather than facts and percentages, and if sparking curiosity in students is the real nature of a science classroom, how can educators begin to think differently about what and how to teach?   For one, we should acknowledge that the lines between physics, chemistry and biology are blurry – if they exist anymore at all – and that without building in Earth and space studies, engineering and sustainability practice, and technology and its impact into our schools, we will be doing an injustice to the next generation.   For teachers this is can be an uncomfortable idea: I am trained in physics and though I have some background in other areas of science, I couldn't begin to teach a biology class effectively without help. Collaboration is certainly key in developing new, enriching, and exciting cross-curricular ways to innovate the classroom.   Image © CERDEC Students don't think in boxes unless we tell them to If these students can study the physics of a battery in connection to a circuit, explain the chemical process behind alkaline batteries, and use this as an analogy to understand the role of the central nervous system, develop an appreciation for batteries as a means of storing energy using sustainable resources, and design a system that implements a battery as a power source – well, why wait?   Why take four or five years and four or five teachers to connect the dots?   Students are ready to make connections, to be creative, to apply their knowledge to new ideas. Their lines haven't already been drawn.   We can do much, much better than boxes if we work together as teachers, within and between our schools, if we utilize technology as a global network of collaboration and resources. If we question our methods and practice what we preach.       Learning 2030 Forum Peer Advisor Mike Maccarone is the Science Curriculum Specialist (Upper School) for Avenues: The World School in New York City *“box” in binary language

The High School of 2030 MUST Be Built From the Ground Up

  by Dr. Guy Claxton, Learning 2030 Advisor I may have missed something, but I believe that the necessary starting point for thinking about the school of the future can’t be to tinker 'away from' what we have. We need a clear vision of what young people want (and need) outside of school, in order to be able to flourish in the 21st century, and to move toward that.  Then the whole apparatus of books, timetables, buildings, teachers and exams is up for debate.  The true test of a good education It seems blindingly obvious to me that the 'valuable residues' left behind in young minds after all those years in school is not certified knowledge, but the skill and confidence to cope well when ready-made knowledge is absent or insufficient.  To paraphrase the great psychologist Jean Piaget, students need to become experts at knowing what to do when they don't know what to do. In other words, they need to love learning, and be darn good at it. Not the kind of learning that's involved in preparing for tests, rather the kind that needs curiosity, perseverance, imagination, conviviality and self-awareness.  Out with the old… School's bite-sized approach to knowledge is old hat. Carving learning up into little bits that have right answers, which can be 'delivered' in an hour and tested 'objectively' develop exactly the wrong skills for life in the 21st century.  Kids need to develop the mindset of courageous, ingenious explorers, not the ability to parrot back dead facts on demand.  They need to be able to think for themselves, think on their feet, ask good questions, challenge what they are told, imagine new possibilities and make good friends.  (Image ©moodboardphotography) What we really need to do for the learners of 2030 It’s not about 'getting more kids to college.' It’s about figuring out how to develop minds that are strong and supple enough to thrive in a tricky and turbulent world; and how to develop spirits that love to turn that real-world intelligence on to projects that are personally satisfying and socially worthwhile.  That, as far as I can see, is the only game in town. Anything less is just wallpapering over the cracks. Professor Guy Claxton is Research Director at the Centre for Real-World Learning, University of Winchester and is an Advisor for Waterloo Global Science Initiative's upcoming Equinox Summit: Learning 2030.