Ungrading, my take

A yardstick, being thrown into a recycle bin.

Grading is currently discussed by several bloggers, e.g. here, here and here. My take is unprofessional but by a pupil of the 60s. I wonder why simple pass/fail results should not suffice in most cases.

Except for vanity ranking, the biggest role of grading is probably: to counterbalance a failed subject with a passed subject. This creates a lot of misdirected efforts and stress — but it allows education politics to duck out some important questions:

1. How much early and radical specialization on a few focussed subjects is desirable today? Schools just let it happen, and pupils and parents are happy to dismiss the failed subjects. And what criteria should be used to make the choice: preferences (or — heaven forbid — styles) ? Nope, just ‘ability’, measured by the questionable proxy of grades.

2. On the other hand, there seems to be still some concern for breadth, or ‘general’ knowledge and understanding — which I appreciate. For once, some important skills are often fostered by distant topics rather than just the narrow frame at hand. Moreover, experts of one discipline should be able to talk and listen to some expert of another field, not just try to sit somewhere in between. Do these benefits still occur, perhaps to a lesser extent, if the subject is failed? I cannot believe that. So, how many diverse subjects should minimally be passed, and how much should the disliked stuff be enforced? Again, the answer is escaped.

3. According to Stephen Downes, education should help the student to “become the kind of person they want”1). IMHO this also means to help them that they don’t waste time and energy with work that they thoroughly and consistently fail. Instead, there is the chance that the student themselves readjusts his or her wish about what they want to become. Perhaps a work life sitting all day behind texts and information or agonizing over decisions, is not exactly what they imagined? Or if the student’s wish was just to be a rich person without much effort, and now they see that this also entails cultivating recklessness and unsocial skills, which is not what they really want, either? Then a radical and timely reorientation might be a blessing, even though the idea of ‘drop-out’ seems to be a taboo in some cultures, especially where one has to pay a lot for education. So: what extent of mastery is minimally needed unless a failure must suggest a reorientation? By counterbalancing the passed and failed subjects, this decision can be ducked out, too.

All this ducking out, ultimately, relates to the unanswered question of what knowledge, skills and understanding are still necessary in the age of googling and AI, which I addressed in my recent post Distant associations. Spoiler: I did not duck out.

Note1) Cannot find the reference, closest match is here.

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3 Responses to Ungrading, my take

  1. jennymackness says:

    HI Matthias – thanks for this post. A couple of thoughts have come immediately to mind.

    1. My experience is that students (maybe most students) want grades. They want to know how they compare to others in their cohort and beyond. A pass doesn’t allow them to judge this.

    2. My experience is also that grades can be motivating, i.e. extrinsically motivating and of course we can argue about whether we should encourage extrinsic motivation or promote intrinsic motivation.

    As with everything else, I would see grading as context dependent. There will be times when it is appropriate, and times when it is not. It’s not either/or ? As you say – ultimately, it all relates to the unanswered question of what knowledge, skills and understanding are still necessary in the age of googling and AI.


  2. x28 says:

    Thank you Jenny for your practitioner judgment which I value very much. Who knows, maybe if I were a pupil today I would also take grades more seriously than we did 50 years ago.


  3. jennymackness says:

    I have to say that I am not a fan of extrinsic motivation in all instances, but I have seen it work, even in very young children, and it has always been a puzzle to me as to how to promote the value of intrinsic motivation. It has also been a puzzle to me as to what extent there should be competition in education. It seems to me there is no one answer to these issues. They are all context dependent and there probably needs to be a balance between intrinsic/extrinsic motivation, competition/no competition, grading/ungrading. Education in general seems very loathe to go down the both/and route 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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