Two major education topics have been in the news a lot recently: Surrey School District is expanding on its pilot to eliminate letter grades, and in light of the recent PISA results showing decreasing performance in math scores for Canadian students, there are calls to “go back to basics” with math instruction. Now instead of initiating lively, critical discussions, these topics seem to have sparked passionate, but reactionary comments and I am disheartened by it because many of these comments lack reason.
The two main arguments against eliminating grades focus on motivational aspects of grades and their communicative value. Suggesting that grades are motivating, simply isn’t true, beyond that beyond those very few, highly successful students who are similarly highly motivated anyway. In the same way, motivating underachieving and struggling students with a C- or a Fail, doesn’t work either. I understand that parents want to know how how their students are “doing,” in school, but without the letter grades, the conversation can move toward the specifics of what students are demonstrating in terms of competencies, concepts and content knowledge–arguably a much richer conversation than with letter grades.
All too often, public reaction to education issues is founded in the mindset that if it was good enough enough for me, then it’s good enough for today’s students. This kind of thinking is driving is driving the call for back-to-basics math instruction. What this fails to recognize is that change in inevitable. Society changes, educational theory changes and educational practise changes in response to both. While the pendulum may have swung too far in some cases, focussing solely on memorization and algorithms endangers students’ ability to learn and practise real-world logic and problem solving skills. It would seem that, as in most things, a balanced approach is best.
Reading about educational topics in the popular media is always disheartening because the voices of reason are often drowned out by those who are quick to respond and slow to think; however, I think it’s important to engage in these spaces nonetheless in order that those are not the only voices heard.