Last week, I worked with a 13 year old student, Sarah*, who started the lesson by telling me how badly she was doing in her English class. She wasn’t a writer, she said, “not like the kids who are just good at it.” The ones whose work the teacher always holds up. Those are the ones who are “naturally good at writing.”
Then, she spent the next 30 minutes writing me 5 paragraphs about Animal Farm that was nuanced, detailed, and well written. Animal Farm is one of the more complex and important texts in our canon, and she – too young to remember the Cold War – understood the allegory and the connections to the USSR and Stalin.
So, how did this happen? How did a student who can write a book report about a difficult book off the top of her head begin to think that she was a bad writer?
The most common way to evaluate and communicate learning is with a grade. A number or a letter, circled at the top of the page. Different countries have different systems, but they’re all fundamentally similar in their purpose and effect.
Sarah’s discussion with me last week was triggered by a grade she had received that day – 26/50. She hadn’t received her work back – no comments, no rubric, no explanation. She couldn’t even tell me if she had done better on the reading or the writing portion of the test. Just a number – 26 – and a knowledge of who had gotten a higher or a lower grade than she did. There’s nothing to work with there, no place to start identifying strengths and weakness or next steps.
Some teachers do it better than others – they have learning goals and rubrics, a breakdown of where the grades come from, suggestions for how to do better written underneath. That’s great, but at the end of the day, there is still a number written on the top of that essay, and, given the culture of competition and ranking that happens in classroom, very few 12 and 13 year olds have the willpower to look beyond a low number to the gains and improvements they might have made. When there is pressure to get As, and you’ve just gotten a B-, it’s hard to celebrate that you’ve improved from the C+ you got on the last one.
What happens when we take that number off, and focus on those learning goals and skills? Remove the fixation on that number and the student is much more likely to be able to focus on qualitative feedback – what worked, what they can work on next time.
Qualitative feedback – even using that exact same rubric we might have used for the grading – is much more effective in helping students to focus on their skills, to highlight what should be repeated in future work and give suggestions for change.
As a teacher, when I stop grading, I don’t lose the ability to communicate about my students’ abilities or understand their skills and needs. The only thing I lose, without a number at the top of the paper, is the ability to rank them. They don’t need to be ranked. They need time and space to practice, and I need the freedom and flexibility to be able to focus on their ideas and work.
When you’ve got that time and focus, the students are much more likely to end up with the skills and confidence they need to achieve highly on their exams when the time comes.
Sarah is a great writer. She has worked hard, taken feedback seriously, and improved her skills. She is smart, has great ideas, and communicates them well, but the fact that it took her some time to learn and practice a few specific graded skills led her to believe that she couldn’t make her ideas worth reading, and that’s the exact opposite of the purpose of school.
Read more here about how I give that feedback in real time.
Sarah genuinely believes that she was not born with the talent to write, and that there is nothing she can do about that now.
But writing is hard for everyone.
It is hard for everyone! Everybody has to work hard, learn new skills, have direct, intentional instruction, use models and examples, and practice. Nobody sits down and writes a masterpiece out of thin air because they’re just so naturally talented. Teaching kids that those thin-air masterpieces are normal, and that they don’t have the talent for it, is damaging.
It is, of course, true that some people are better at it than others, and it is true that some people learn it faster. For some, it appears that they aren’t doing any hard work, churning out A+ essays and stories like it’s nothing. Talent does exist.
But when we focus on that talent as an innate thing that some people are born with, we teach students that knowledge and skills are static. We know that’s not true – we know that brains, especially in youth, are elastic and changeable, that practice and work can build new neurons, and that our intelligence has more to do with our environment and mindset than our DNA. We know we can get better at things.
Instead, focus on the mindset and the work that led to the success. Celebrate improvement. Highlight steps that students take to get better. Praise hard work and perseverance. Let the invisible work become visible.
Imagine if Sarah had seen how much work the kids with 48/50 had had to do – she wouldn’t have felt bad about the fact that she was working on it too. Imagine if, instead of holding up all the papers that had gotten As, the teacher held up all the papers that had improved, even a little, since the last assignment. What if, instead of focusing only on finished pieces like they sprung fully formed from the writer’s head, the teacher highlighted the process, all the little pieces of work that go into a finished project?
Would Sarah have learned then that some kids are just ‘good at’ writing, and that she alone was struggling with paragraphs and sentences at home?
Competition Instead of Community
When classrooms foster competition as a way to motivate achievement, it can have a real negative impact on learning. We do it with the best intentions, hoping that the desire to be the best will encourage students to work harder and learn more, but that only works the first time – before anybody has lost.
Sarah is in 5ieme (grade 7 in the US, Year 8 in UK) – the very beginning of a new curriculum cycle. That means that they are learning brand new skills that they will continue to practice for the next two years. Writing analysis instead of comprehension, writing formal literary essays, reading harder and more complex books, writing exam style questions with strict time limits – these are all brand new skills, and it makes sense that it will take time to get good at them.
Adding an element of competition – David is the best writer, Susan got the highest grade – on top of brand new skills that students aren’t yet confident with only serves to instill in some of them that if they haven’t learned it quickly, they’re not as good as the others.
Time to practice and improve is built into the curriculum, but school cultures often still force this urgency and competition onto students anyway. Sarah didn’t learn these skills as fast as some of the others, saw their essays held up as the best, and internalized that she probably wasn’t as smart as them.
There is a time and a place for competition and ranking – a safe learning environment full of new skills, room to practice, and a growth mindset isn’t one of them.
Sarah sees finished essays celebrated in the classroom, and she thinks maybe she’s the only one who’s struggling at home, erasing paragraphs, fixing mistakes, getting frustrated. She’s doing all that hard work in isolation, and then feeling shame when she doesn’t get the grade she wanted.
Isolation, shame – not great motivators for learning.
Take away the competition, and create an environment where the students are working together, supporting each other, and seeing each other’s struggles, and the isolation and shame both disappear.
Read more here about creating a writing community.
That’s why I don’t use grades. Grades do not work to build a growth mindset. They do not work to build and develop confidence. They do not work to create a focus on skills. They do not work to create a learning community.
Sarah is a smart student, with some writing talent, support at home, and no language barriers or learning difficulties, and because of the culture created by grades, she is still at risk of falling through the cracks and losing all of her motivation before she even hits high school.
Imagine how many more smart kids with great ideas give up before they had a chance to get good at it.
*Names have been changed