I work at Saint Ann’s School, where grades are not allowed, but I used to work at a highly structured all-boys boarding school with what I would call an uber-grading culture.
Not only were students graded in each of their classes twelve times a year, but they were also given “effort grades” on everything from their academic classes to dorm life and sports. These two combined to place the student in one of five groups that would determine their freedoms and privileges at school – everything from required breakfast and study hall down to when they could visit town or even go home for the weekend.
The school believed firmly that this was a very explicit and fair way to control boys and get them “on track.” After all, all they had to do was put in more effort, and the marks would surely rise. The sad truth is lots of guys were bottom group guys, term after term, and this became a part of the language used to describe students.
Though I loved and respected my colleagues (and many of those students), I perceived a systemic lacking in the intellectual culture and treatment of young people.
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I grew up with grades, and did mostly fine with them. I’m convinced that they shut down my dreams of being a poet (more on this another time), but I found academic success anyway. Typically, if I did my homework and paid attention in class I could earn A’s and B’s, and that didn’t even involve taking notes, studying, or even doing the English or History readings most of the time!
Steve Miranda wrote a nice post recently about complete contracts and why they’re rarely used, except in school, of course. Complete contracts indicate precisely what must be done, so the rest is omitted. The simple fact is grades define “good enough,” and if I could earn B’s without even reading the books, and if I would rather spend my time biking, singing, playing piano, or tinkering with speakers and electronics, than why would I ever read those books? I got my B. That was good enough for me.
This is the behavior I observed in the “middle group” at that boarding school, and it’s the kind of thing that drives me crazy. My relationship to everything I listed above (and more) was very different from my relationship to most school subjects, but it was there, on my own time, guided by my own instincts, that I had grown the most.
Can school be more like that?
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People are always fascinated by Saint Ann’s. How can a school work without grades? How do the kids go to college? How do their parents know how their doing? How do the kids know? I get these questions, especially the second one, all the time, but trust me. Kids do go to college, and it does work. In fact, Saint Ann’s is not so different from a more typical school, despite our love of the quirky, funky, odd, and eccentric.
Saint Ann’s is not the intellectual utopia it might seem, but based on my experience, I’d say we’re getting a lot of things right on the fundamental level.
By extending great autonomy and flexibility to the faculty, the school puts faith in the intellectual capacity of its teachers and their ability to inspire action and growth in their students. By placing arts on equal footing, the school points towards a larger view of intelligence and potential.
The school believes in the almost sacred value of children, and that grading them or using grades to derive authority would be demeaning to the potential within them. By eschewing grades and almost any strict sense of propriety in favor of passionate intellectual pursuits, the school has made plain that earning good grades and learning are not tied well together.
I could be equally critical on the small-scale, but for the foundations of a school, I’d say this is a great place to start.