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Saturday, January 15, 2011

And the Purpose of Grades is...?: An excerpt from Simulations and the Future of Learning

In the lead up to the release of Unschooling Rules, I will be publishing some excerpts from my previous four books in areas that I think are relevant and related. What follows is an excerpt from Simulations and the Future of Learning, a 2004 text book organized around my first-hand account of the creation of the 2002 simulation, Virtual Leader (which earned a place on the Eduventures 100 list).

Here is a reflection on grades (as an introduction to the challenge of designing the scoring system for the simulation).

The Purpose of Grades is...?

I worked at The Chewonki Foundation. For twenty five years (including the four years I was employed there), it was run by Tim Ellis, who turned Chewonki from a little summer camp into, in the words of Down East magazine, “a center of progressive environmental education, a learning institute praised as one of the best of its kind in the country.”

The staff was filled with both teachers and non-teachers. Every year, we debated about grades.

What was their purpose? Were they to motivate? Were they a disciplinarian crutch? If so, what did that say about our content and processes?

Why did students get graded and instructors did not, especially since the students’ parents were paying for their experience? What happened if a student got great grades in every class but one? What did that say about those instructors? Did grades reflect the student or the instructor?

Was the purpose of grades to rank students? If so, what was the value add of an instructor, as oppose to an evaluator? Could the same person hold both roles? Should an instructor both elevate and evaluate the level of elevation? In that case, who watches the watchman?

Should grades be diagnostic? If so, giving one grade as opposed to a suite made no sense.

Should there instead be a pass/fail method, with the goal to bring everyone up to a certain competency? If so, what about the boys that came in already above that level?

Should grades mark absolute levels of achievement? Or improvement? Or attitude? Or work ethic? Or willingness to clean up after everybody else after everybody else left?

What is the impact of the outside environment? Should a student who takes one class and has no other obligations get the same grade for the same work as a student who has five classes and an outside job?

How do you grade when people work as a team? Does everybody get the same grade? That is never fair. Or do you just discourage teamwork to avoid having to deal with the problem?

What is the need for consistency of grades between instructors? What is the process to ensure the consistency? Is an “A” in one class the same as an “A” in another?

Is it acceptable to a teacher to give all “A’s” to his or her class? Is it acceptable to give all “C’s” and “D’s?” Or should an instructor always use the bell curve for distribution?

Should a student try to optimize grades? Or learn the most? We all knew in college pre-meds or candidates for high academic scholarships that only took classes in which they were assured of getting a top mark.

We never reached a satisfactory answer to these questions. And up in Wiscasset, Maine, to this day, ten years after I left, the debate continues. As it does––or should––among those who call themselves educators, from elementary school classrooms to the virtual world of high-level soft-skill development.

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