Pointslessness: An Experiment in Teenage Psychology
But, in a system with no points, what were they getting away with? It quickly became a very surreal post-modern classroom. Students began to engage with the readings after they were supposed to be read.
In this, one teacher’s vain attempt at public education without grades, a class of students are given the opportunity to engage with learning for the sake of learning and nothing else. Grading was not entirely avoided, but it was eschewed for as long as possible: 90% of the total course time was void of all grading rhetoric. A final grade (A-F) was given, which was determined by a final project whose rubric was designed by the students with facilitation from the instructor.
I know that I can’t be a life-long, full-time, classroom teacher. Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching, but it just tears me apart.
I obsess. I work myself into tizzies built upon fits punctuated by conniptions. Mostly over the simple question: “Are they learning what they need to learn to be successful people?” A teacher’s mind wildly oscillates between feeling like an effective life-changer and a dejected baby sitter.
So, in the never-ending quest to help students actually learn, I tried my most radical experiment yet: an almost absolute moratorium on any kind of numerical or letter grading. I say almost because at the end of the semester a final project was assigned, which determined their final letter grade, because I’m not allowed to just give “pass” or “fail.”
It was something else.
The kids showed up like they were playing against Ohio State in the championship game. They discussed. They fought. They laughed. They were perplexed. It was awesome. They had the freedom to put my class on the back burner when other classes ramped up the work load, but never once did I feel that the class was playing me for a fool.
It was school like I’ve never seen it before. They were never worried about scores, so they just talked to me about interesting stuff. Here’s a quote:
I felt really great about not getting graded. It was a lot easier to focus on learning (and enjoying it) while not having to worry about pleasing the teacher to get a grade. When we did stuff that we liked and wrote about it, we could write what we actually felt and not have to answer the questions in some prompt. I really liked it.
Some of you are burning a little bit reading this. You’re thinking: “Yeah, well that works for your hippy liberal bioethics class, but what about something of import, like Anatomy, or Statistics?”
To answer, I don’t know. Upon reading my students’ final projects, something strange has come up. They all sort of learned the same things. If I had created a list of standards for this course — which I did, albeit nebulously — most of what they wrote about would have been on that list.
How did this happen? Feedback. They wrote, and I wrote more. They asked, and we had conversations. I taught about commas and Kevorkian, they asked about genetics and uncontacted peoples.
The day-to-day looked like this: I promised to only bring up things that were interesting. I had to trust the natural world to bring up the important stuff. Here’s the list of things we read, but don’t judge the course on this list. Imagine the conversations that were created by weaving these pieces of media into one coherent narrative.
Each day we would discuss the readings, movies, or whatever. At first this was difficult, I had a hard time letting go of comprehension quizzes and short little did-you-do-it zingers. These are vestiges of a disgusting toy economy. The students didn’t know what to do either. I could tell the students who hadn’t read the material felt like they were getting away with something.
But, in a system with no points, what were they getting away with? It quickly became a very surreal, post-modern classroom. Students began to engage with the readings after they were supposed to be read. Many students who were traditional slackers in English class would choose to read after our class discussions. It turns out, that they really don’t know how to read for comprehension.
We read and watched a lot. I showed some pretty risque things, we talked about some pretty amazing stuff. For instance, we spent 90 minutes yelling at each other about whether Jay-Z should have been aborted. This came from a reading from the original Freakonomics book; wherein it was discussed that abortion is a seemingly legit way to control births of less than scrupulous people. Jay-Z either is or isn’t this type of person, depending on who you ask, and what period of his life you consider; discussion ensued.
As the class came to an end, we realized that we had to decide what grades people were going to get.
I toyed with just giving everyone an A, but, well, I’m not looking to get fired. So, instead we had many long conversations about what letter grades mean. Most students were furiously engaged with this, and we came to the conclusion that the letter grades should relate how well you could connect all of our ethical readings.
The final project was born: Successfully connect everything we’ve talked about with a new source of your choice. Cornally will be the judge of “successful” because he’s paid to make judgement calls, and he’s ostensibly a professional educator, ostensibly, mind you.
The projects were taken seriously, and the products were for the most part well done. Continuing with the abortion thread, a student who was nominally pro-choice chose to attempt to prove that abortion was wrong. This student chose to embed a serious attempt at philosophy. He read up on Descartes, epistemology, and basic philosophy before attempting to prove a few things. It’s an exercise, not a diatribe, and I think he did well especially given his real opinion is much more centric.
However, some of the students regressed. They became worried about what grade they were going to get instead of their ethical argument. I talked most of them out of it, but a few were by far too addicted.
- The students somehow managed to learn the big ideas without ever being graded on them.
- The kids who didn’t do the readings found out what it means to actually lose out philosophically rather than just economically. Things changed for the better over time with them.
- I have never felt so much stress in my life. Especially when an angry parent demanded to know her student’s grade part way through, it took more than a few emails to explain what was going on.
- A few of the final projects were truly awful. What does that mean? I’m not sure, but I can for sure say that students who produced these projects were more engaged in class than their product indicated. Man, grading sucks.
- Teaching content they didn’t care about was hard. I tried to give a lecture on genetics that was really unmotivated. I had to wait until we were talking about what goes wrong with cystic fibrosis before they would care about RNA and stuff. Lesson learned, Cornally.
- A few students said it was the most important class they have ever taken. Hell yeah. If you can’t get up for that, you don’t understand teaching.
- Teenagers still have an unbelievable natural curiosity. I think the most important result of this experiment is that the fear that this curiosity is killed sometime during primary school is false. It’s dormant, but given freedom, they can quickly dust things off.
Conclusion: Feedback Matters
When the students produced something, I attmepted to remove the “school” from it. I looked at it through a lens asking the question “why would anyone care to read this on the Internet?” I responded with directed and standards-based feedback. While I tried to avoid the inevitable Good-Jorb-Homestring, they sometimes happened.
What the students cared about most was that my comments were split into three groups:
- Writing Mechanics
- Clarity of Argument (augmented Claim-Warrant-Impact)
- Scientific evidence for argument (this of course had sub standards, like inheritance, neurology…)
A number was never attached. Students got specific feedback about how they were writing, presenting, and making arguments for or against ethical positions. The lack of numerical delineation forced students to read the feedback and actually ask themselves the only question I care about:
Where am I, and how can I get better?