I’ve detailed my initial attempts at building an ungrading system in my classes on this blog. In this post, I’ll reflect on some of the results of my first semester and share some things I’ve already changed for the new semester.
In French cuisine, an amuse-bouche is a single appetizer that is a palate cleanser in a meal. It is an opportunity for the chef to set the tone, but also provide an indication of the upcoming style and content that the chef will provide.
When I read, I like to mix up the genres as I move from sci-fi to non-fiction to historical pieces. I feel like it helps my brain make sense of the content if I clean out the space and prepare for something completely different.
My initial attempt at ungrading was an amuse-bouche. I felt the need to totally break free from the assessment and evaluation systems I had in place, and try to start over again clean. There are things I wanted to try and more complex ways to address breaking free from more traditional assessment techniques.
As I talked with peers about what I was learning, I tried to make it clear that I did not have all of the answers. In this blog, I document my lessons learned as I build and break things. Hopefully, I can build them back up. This first semester was an opportunity to strip away all of the trappings of what counts in my classes and try to start over again from a clean slate.
Now that the semester has concluded and I start the process again, what did I learn?
Decentering the teacher
In my opinion, this is more about decentering the teacher in the classroom, than it is an ungrading approach. I know that the term ungrading is provocative and attracts attention. But, as I dig in and develop my system, this is all about my journey as I strive to decenter myself in learning environments.
Teaching is all about power. I teach pre-service teachers as they enter the classroom. I taught in middle grades and high school. I continue to help provide professional development for instructors from Pre-K up through higher education. One of the key facets of these initiatives is the development and consolidation of power in the learning environment.
In most of my work, I seek to examine my own identity and role in the system. I think about the broader structures and belief systems to think about who is in the classroom and who is not.
I’m inspired by bell hooks in Teaching Community (2003):
Whenever we love justice and stand on the side of justice we refuse simplistic binaries. We refuse to allow either/or thinking to cloud our judgment. We embrace the logic of both/and. We acknowledge the limits of what we know.
I know the role I’m supposed to play in the classroom. I know the system I am supposed to serve. I choose a different path. What works doesn’t work for all.
It is a lot of work
Speaking of work, developing an ungrading system in your classroom is a lot of work.
Assessment is ultimately a game. As the leader in the learning space, we dictate the rules and structure of the game. We, as educators, have some goal or reward for others to achieve and complete the challenge or quest. We use grades, certificates, future opportunities, or perhaps more intrinsic lifelong learning opportunities as a motivator in the game. At the end of the day, it is all a game.
The nice thing about not adopting an ungrading system in your classroom is that you don’t have to develop anything new. Years of formalized schooling have ingrained in our students how they do school. You have a role to play as the teacher. They have a role as students. Everyone does what they are expected to do.
By deciding you want an ungrading or alternative assessment system in your classroom, you’re deciding to not play the game. As I’ve detailed in previous posts, you’ll have a lot of people upset that you’re not playing the game. Outside of the classroom (I’d suggest not talking about ungrading in the general public for various reasons 🙂 ), you’ll have a lot of questions, complaints, and indications that you need to do school the right way. You’re messing with power systems.
Inside your classroom, it is a different situation. If you decide to develop a different game, you need to develop the rules of the game and enforce them. You need to indicate to your students why you’re deciding to use different rules and what you’re proposing. Ultimately this comes down to power…and trust…in your classroom. You need to build trust with your students that you’re doing this for their best interests.
The first time you explain this to your class…it is a trip. I felt like a total fraud. I felt like I was trying to gaslight students as I was asking that they question reality.
When I help facilitate professional development, one of the first things I do is have teachers practice using the words they’ll use in the classroom to teach a new concept. In my work in computational thinking, I have educators think through…and use…the terms they’ll use to explain pattern recognition, abstraction, decomposition, and algorithms to their students. Yes, we can learn the definitions all day long. But, how will you explain this to your Science class the first time? It is a challenge.
I also have the challenge of explaining this to students in my teacher education classes. I indicate to my students that they’re the success stories. They graduated K-12 systems. They’re in higher ed. They’ve “won.” But, there are many others who are not there. I explain that the system (or game) was set up to privilege some, not all.
For many students, this information is not taken well. Many of my students have successfully beaten the system. They spent decades earning their grades, and they are rewarded by parents and others as they work the system. Now that have beaten the system and are in my class learning how to become a part of the system…I’m telling them the system is broken. This narrative is not taken well by many students. It is best to slowly work your way into the topic.
The challenge is that developing and implementing an ungrading system in your classroom will elicit questions about the what, why, and how of learning dynamics and the pathways that lead to your room.
The path is messy
One of the selling points for an alternative assessment plan in my classroom was an opportunity to “take grades off of the table.” Taking grades off of the table means that students would not need to worry about grades, they could feel free to take risks, choose to engage in the learning, and express themselves in their field. As I suggested earlier, I began my learning with a simple ungrading system in my classes. I struggled with explaining it to them and building trust over the semester.
For some reason, I had a larger than normal number of students coming to me to provide excuses why they missed work, class, or turned in work late. I continually reminded students (sometimes the same students over and over again) that this was an ungrading system and they would determine their final grade for the class. This message didn’t get through for most students. I think they thought I was joking.
Grades in my classes, throughout the semester, were lower than normal as well. The basic flow of assessment or evaluation in my classes was as follows. Students would be given an assignment and we would agree on the criteria for the assignment. They would have a due date and an online place to submit their work. When students submitted assignments, they would be greeted by a declaration quiz where I included the criteria for the assignment, and they would self-disclose whether they met the agreed-upon criteria for the assignment.
For many students, throughout the semester, they either chose not to follow through and complete the declaration quiz or gave themselves lower scores on the criteria than I would have. This was really interesting to me. Some students were far more critical of themselves than I would have been. In a way, this could be viewed as a good thing as students were more willing to take a risk and be critical of their work process and product. I’m continuing to examine this in my future ungrading models.
What about the global pandemic?
I also need to acknowledge that this last semester (Fall 2020) was really hard. I thought and hoped that we could move back to some semblance of normal as we returned to face-to-face instruction. The reality was far from this expectation.
Many of my students were emotionally and mentally drained from the previous year and a half. Many of my colleagues were as well. As I type this post, I feel like I’m barely holding on by a thread as the new semester begins.
I hoped that an alternative assessment model in my classes would help provide grace and space for students as we worked together. I’m not sure that happened. Trying this out in a global pandemic may or may not have been wise. I’ll come back to this idea in a couple of years….hopefully.
Did students profit?
While developing and testing instructional models in my dissertation, my advisor would ask one simple question while I was writing up the results.
Did students profit?
This means did they learn? Did they grow? Did they appreciate or value the model? I believe that they did.
As I indicated earlier, the grades were down across the board in my classes, but the coronavirus and mental health was a huge factor in most of my classes.
I had many informal discussions with students throughout the semester and it lead to them questioning what counts in my classes, in our educational programs, and in their future classes. This alone was worth the experience to me. If I can have my students, future teachers problematize what is happening in their classrooms, I’ve done my job.
Students learned the content identified by course objectives. Most students passed my classes and are progressing into the next stage of the program. I turned in grades to the institution and no one (as of yet) has come to me asking about this weird “you decide on your own grades” system. Most of my teaching evaluations from the Fall semester were all good. I’ll share those in an upcoming post.
For now, I can say this first attempt at ungrading worked. I was able to decenter myself in the classroom. I opened up new questions for myself…and my students to explore.