21st Century Domains of Competence
Online gradebooks prominently display A's, B's, C's immediately upon student/parent login. Digital D&F reports are emailed to school staff weekly. Paper D&F reports are mailed to parents at the middle of each trimester. Athletic eligibility is dependent on grades. Honor rolls, 504 plans, parent conferences—all are grade-focused. At every turn, grades dictate the academic measure of our children.
In the face of never-ending grades, my quest to be a progressive educator who values and prioritizes learning over grades often feels like a losing battle. Grades are confounding—they distract students, parents, and teachers from creating authentic learning spaces and from having meaningful conversations about learning. We are deluding ourselves with grades...
How can we counterbalance grade delusion in the classroom? While I am still required to keep a traditional gradebook, there are a number of things I've done to de-emphasize grades while facilitating better conversations about learning:
- I write only concise and useful feedback on student papers, but no grades—grades are entered into the electronic gradebook,
- I create holistic Help Guides and Standards of Excellence that outline what high quality learning looks like in the classroom—students use these to edit and check their work,
- I let my students see that I am a lifelong learner, and most importantly,
- I strive to have one-on-one conversations about learning with my students every day… while they are actually learning.
Despite these practices, much work remains to overcome grade delusion.
If we continue to prioritize grades over learning, we delude ourselves into thinking we can create environments of intrinsic motivation and lifelong learning in our schools. Grades reinforce a system of external rewards and extrinsic motivation; they frequently disenfranchise and ultimately disempower students.
The National Academies has developed a set of guidelines that emphasize deeper learning and transferable knowledge as part of a student's 21st century skill set. These skills have been preliminarily organized into three domains of competence—cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal—as a way to help define education in lifelong terms. Our conversations within schools, among students, between teachers and parents, and across the wider community need more focus on these competencies and deeper learning.
To teach for deeper learning, the National Academies guidelines recommends that instruction follow these research-based teaching methods:
- Use multiple and varied representations of concepts and tasks
- Encourage elaboration, questioning, and explanation
- Engage learners in challenging tasks
- Teach with examples and cases
- Prime student motivation
- Use “formative” assessments
Happily, I don't see any mention of grades in that list…
To break the cycle of grade delusion, perhaps we adults can teach ourselves to ask students, "What did you learn today?" and have it stimulate rich and compelling conversations.