7 Beliefs About Grades for a Growth Mindset

I had a great time learning from other educators yesterday at #edcampldrma. Among the breakouts was a well-attended session on going gradeless. Most of the conversation was about implementation of innovative grading practices and standards-based grading, but it got me thinking about where my former district started when it went through the tough process of culture change – because that's essentially what has to happen.

We read books about grading, books about change, and, of course, Mindset. We started with what we believed about learning and grading to establish a foundation that we could all build upon. That's where the messy part started. Making district policy that threw out practices as American as baseball and jazz got a lot of push back, which is why we had to unpack the arguments of our adversaries while presenting our own.

Looking for Purpose

Grades are a powerful way to motivate your students, right? Perhaps it can promote compliance, but we have to question what we want kids to be motivated to do. Motivation to learn is not the same as the will to stay out of trouble. There is a missing piece that reminds me of the five monkeys experiment. Here's a minute and a half explanation (please reflect on it, take it in).

Are you a monkey about grades?

If you think it's time to rethink grading, understanding your specific beliefs about grading is a great place to start.

standards based grading

1. Everyone can learn.

"It worked for those kids. It's not my problem if these others can't get it the way we do it."

Fixed Mindset: We are born with a certain level of intelligence.
Growth Mindset: We are born with many intelligences to be discovered and developed over a lifetime.

Building relationships with students is a non-negotiable when it comes to successful learning. Teachers who know their students not only believe that they can learn, they can speak to the kinds of conditions under which their students thrive.

A fixed mindset may confuse a slower learner for one that can't learn, while a growth mindset does not believe in the latter and makes time for whatever pace the learner needs.  

2. People learn at different rates and at different times.

"It's unfair to the students who get it right the first time." Who said? 

Fixed Mindset: The curriculum dictates a schedule that will be followed whether you learn it or not.
Growth Mindset: Mastery can be demonstrated at anytime within a reasonable timeframe or to accommodate learners with extenuating circumstances. 

This is not a rule I've ever read. It may exist in a reassessment policy somewhere, but I guarantee you that such a place is not making much progress or working with a diverse population, one that reflects the challenges we're preparing our youth to overcome.

Reassessment can be hard on teachers if they believe that their reporting deadlines are a higher priority than facilitating learning. I've let kids reassess on something several weeks after report cards were issued. A change of grade form only takes 30 seconds. 

"They'll want to reassess everything. They won't study because why should they?" I can say with confidence that a teacher with a wide open reassessment policy has never said this. Like any policy, fine tuning is required, especially to make it work for individual professionals. 

Growth mindset teachers say things like, "Sure, you can reassess once we've reviewed your results and you complete an action plan that details which standards you'll complete that require more practice." 

In other words, just because the grading cycle is over, doesn't mean the development of the knowledge skills should be, too. 

3. Grades communicate student achievement.

Fixed Mindset: The kids get zeroes – again and again – but I keep giving zeroes because it's what we've always done and it works.
Growth Mindset: Grades summarize student achievement relative to the coursework, which is based on a common curriculum. It's hard (sometimes impossible) to report achievement without evidence. 

Grades don't manage behavior. You may think so, but consider the amount of repeat offenders you encounter under that assumption.

4. Accuracy is vital to reporting grades.

Fixed Mindset: If you want to boost your grade, do some extra credit. 
Growth Mindset: Taking points off for late work or adding points for extra credit takes away from the grade assigned for achievement on an assessment.  

To give an achievement score at the end, the criteria must be clear from the beginning. Both standards-based grading has helped me report more accurate grades. 

The two implications to standards-based grading are (1) Using most recent evidence and  (2) Grades must be relative to standards.

Using the most recent evidence to report achievement relative to standards tells the stakeholders the story of achievement that averaging a bunch of (sometimes unrelated) scores to slap a letter on a kid's academic record. 

"You don't have to be mean."

Inflating and deflating grades are out, too. This ties to the second implication listed above. That means, no more extra credit points or taking points off for late work. 

If we want our students to develop a growth mindset, we need to give them a chance and let go of using fixed measures to coerce compliance.

5. Feedback – not arbitrary grades – is an inroad to achievement.

Fixed Mindset: Making comments on all of those essays will take forever. And they don't read them.
Growth Mindset: Actionable feedback, not scores, shows learners where and how they need to improve. 

This one is simple. When students see a number, it consumes their attention. When they see only comments, the focus on what they need to do to improve. When they see both, the number takes all. Ken O'Connor talks about this in his workshops and presentations, and I've lived it as a classroom teacher. 

6. Zeros do not work.

Fixed Mindset: It's what we've always done.
Growth Mindset: Work assigned is work to be completed as part of a set of evidence that informs a teacher on the achievement level to be reported on transcripts.

They don't. Sure, no one wants a zero, so we do our work. But it also implies that you can still get credit without doing all of the work. Try that for college and career readiness. 

Don't forget the five monkeys experiment. Don't do it because it was done to you. 

7. Grades, when they are accurate, promote confidence in the learning process.    

Fixed Mindset: Grades group and rank kids to decide who gets what.
Growth Mindset: When learners know their achievement as it relates to what it needs to be, they gain confidence when the path feels plausible.

We like to know if we're good at something or not. Grades tell students their strengths and weaknesses. 

I'm thinking we gain a lot of our confidence from receiving feedback on our progress from someone we trust and achieving a higher level than when we do well out of the gate. I believe this because it's we are emotional beings. When we struggle and succeed, it sticks. We can only know our struggles of we have something to compare.

No one ever said maintaining a growth mindset was easy, but you get better at it if you try.