I am a recent convert – or mostly convert – to the Growth Mindset philosophy advocated by Carol Dweck and others. For a long time, I fell for the myth that embracing a “Growth Mindset” meant simply rewarding effort and completely ignoring achievement. I associated the entire concept with participation trophies: if we just tell every kid how special they are for showing up, they’ll all feel good about themselves and become Nobel Prize winners.
Those conceptions, of course, are wrong.
Growth Mindset is something most teachers probably implicitly believe in, even though we may not have had words for it – or at least not these particular words for it. At the high school level, if you’ve ever found yourself frustrated by “grade grubbing” – students who just want to know how to get those last few points to earn an A or desperately need you to bump them up to an 85 so they can make honor roll again – then you’ve found yourself pondering at least something about Growth Mindset. Why can’t my students focus on learning instead of just the grades they get?
Growth Mindset focuses on the idea that learning and intelligence are a process and that we are not “fixed” in our abilities. However, most of the way modern schools are set up is focused on a fixed mentality – students, parents and even teachers talk about students as being “good at math,” “an art kid,” on the Honor Roll, in Honor Society or, well, not. More importantly, we make and report these evaluations in a manner that reinforces the idea that our knowledge and our abilities are fixed: grades.
Grades: numbers that tell me who you are. Supposedly.
The real challenge for teachers is: are we putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to these issues? We hate students who are only present – physically or mentally – to get their grade, but most of the time, grades are the only way we communicate with students about their performance and their abilities. We use grades to motivate, to punish, to evaluate, to label… and then we complain when our students only care about grades.
So here’s your first and most powerful step to making your classroom and your students more growth-oriented:
STOP TALKING ABOUT GRADES.
No more “an A student will…” language all over your assignments.
No more “some of you are really getting good grades in this class” lectures after a bad test.
No more “if you want to pass the exam” rationale for an assignment or workload.
No more “Johnny really should have a 95 in my class…” conferences.
No more point-for-point rubrics. (We’ll come back to it…)
The more I’ve read about growth, grades, achievement, student motivation, you name it, the more I’ve become convinced that grades – and especially the grading systems we use in our classrooms – are the antithesis of quality learning. How many times per day do our students check the online grading updates available them courtesy of modern technology? How frequently do we hear students tell us about the grades they “need” in order to reach some end goal, while completing missing the point that if they want the grade they “need” to know the material better?
It’s on us to short-circuit the cycle, not feed it.
But how? Removing grades and rubrics and mandatory testing are not a reality for most teachers today, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t change our relationship with them in our classroom and in front of our students.
I started unintentionally a few years ago, when I refused to let my students start conversations by talking about their grade. When they’d say, “this test grade is really killing my quarter…,” I’d say, “I don’t really care about your test grade or your quarterly grade… but let’s talk about why your grade is low or what you need to know.” When they’d say, “I need an 89 to stay eligible,” I’d say, “It’s not really my job to make you eligible.”
This expanded over time when I realized what I was doing and why I was doing it. I still believe in rubrics, generally, because I believe in setting at least some transparent standard for students, but my rubrics became more and more bare-bones. “10 points for content: demonstrates mastery of key concepts and terms.” No more details needed there, especially no delineation between a 7/10 and an 8/10, and definitely no crisp figure, “uses at least three key terms.”
So today, I try my very best to stay away from grades and points. The grade is just a measure of right here, right now… but it’s not what I care about.
“How many points is this going to be worth?” 1000. Moving on. Let’s talk about how you’re going to get it done and what hurdles you’re going to face.
“What’s the penalty for not actually coloring it?” Death. Your job is to do the work, know the material, learn something.
“Why did I lose that point?” Not answering that. Come talk to me about the entire assignment, not that point.
Changing how I talked about grades began to change how I felt about grades… and, at least a little bit, how my students perceived their grades in my classroom.
We all have assignment requirements and standards to check off – things that we cannot control. We can control, however, how those requirements enter the space of classes. Start small. Start with yourself: your words and your actions. Don’t even announce it or make a big deal of it when it happens. Just, stop talking about grades … and start talking about the work.