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  • Writer's pictureLidia

Focus on the learning PROCESS, Not the Product: What it means to have a gradeless classroom.

Assessment, evaluation and differentiation is always a hot topic of conversations with educators. It seems as though everyone has their specific view on what these three things are and what it looks like in their classroom and they don't like to stray from that. I have been practicing a completely gradeless classroom model for the last 2 school years and it has been very eye-opening. In some cases, educators are very hesitant to stray from what we were taught in teachers' college because of the fear of the unknown. I am here to tell you, it is not as scary as you think. Yes, I have an inquiry-based learning environment in my classroom, but even if inquiry isn't for you, I guarantee that taking some of these tips into consideration will make your life and your student's lives more enjoyable and less stressful!

Before I get into this blog, I would like to make it clear that I have some pretty strong feelings towards the word “differentiation” and what we are told it looks like.

I also want to make it clear that this doesn’t mean I don’t agree with differentiation because I do! I just think the world of education needs to update its practices and approach.

I graduated from elementary school in 2003, high school in 2007 and from university/teachers college in 2012 and the world then is way different than the world we live in now, yet we are still seeing teachers doing the same things year after year. I can confidently say that students now are VERY different and have vastly different skills then I did when I was in school, but the teaching practices and differentiation strategies we are taught as teachers are the same.

It is the year 2020, and yet we are still referencing educational resources and videos that haven’t been updated for 10+ years.

How does that make any sense at all?

When we are in teachers’ college we are taught a very basic view of assessment and differentiation. When we hear these words educators very quickly think “I do that for my students because I allow them choice in how they want to show their learning”. For example, picking to create a diorama, write a poem, create a skit, or putting together a PowerPoint presentation etc at the end of a unit of study. If you are doing this, it might be a good starting point, but if we take a step back, there is a big focus on the PRODUCT! Learning isn't about the PRODUCT. Learning, for me, is about the PROCESS and that is where I believe the differentiation in learning and assessment needs to be. Now before you say, I differentiate the process of learning and my instruction because I use centres where students have a choice and I incorporate technology, take a moment, stop and reflect. Is putting your students on a math website that gives them instant feedback while you are doing small group beneficial? Is doing repetitive center activities that students rotate through, and if you are a teacher that is on top of it you might switch out those centres weekly, helpful?

How much is this actually benefiting our students?

After exploring the world of assessment and differentiation more and experimenting with the learning process, it was very obvious the way we are taught it in teachers’ college, doesn’t work for the learners in my classroom. In an inquiry classroom, there is differentiation of PRODUCT but there is much more focus on the differentiation of PROCESS and assessment strategies.

“The process of differentiating instruction for students depends on the ongoing use of assessment to gather information about where students are in their learning and about their readiness, interests and learning preferences”. (Reach Every Student Through Differentiated Instruction)

Assessment and differentiation go far beyond centres, tech programs and a student interested in picking a way to show their learning from a list of options a teacher provides them. When we are in the classroom we need to change our mindset when it comes to assessment and differentiation.

Are you assessing the Learning Process, or are you focusing on student products?

The learning process is not only much more enduring, but it is much more empowering! When you focus on assessing and observing the process of learning and the journey your students take you can see every bump in the road. The journey you take can show way more of what you know than the finished product that takes place halfway through or at the end of a unit of study. If we focus on the process our students take when we are assessing, it helps our students become more resilient and aware of the mistakes they make and provides them with the skills they need to persevere, point out where they went wrong and LEARN FROM THEIR MISTAKES!

If I focus on the process, how do I assess that? A gradeless classroom model.

Back to the hot topic, Assessment. Before I share anything with you at all I am going to list a few questions below to get you thinking about what assessment looks like for you :

  • How often do you assess your student's work? How long does it take you to assess your students? Do you do marking on your own time at home and on weekends?

  • How long does it take you to mark student work and get it back to them?

  • Do you use a rubric when you assess your students or do you give them a grade out of a total number (e.g., 9/10) and then assign them a grade?

  • Do you use benchmark grading systems in your classroom or school? (E.g., B+/3+ always equals 78% etc.)

  • What other tools do you use in your practice that help you with assessing your students?

  • When are you assessing your student's learning? (Before, during after?)

  • What types of activities, assignments, projects etc. are you assessing?

  • How many assessments do you think you need in order to have an accurate idea of if your students understand a concept?

  • Do you need to give your students a grade on an assessment?

  • When you hand back work that has been assessed, how do your students react? (E.g., Jump for joy, hide their papers, run around asking all their friends how they did on the task)

Now that you have done some self-reflection, what if I told you that the only time my students ever see a letter grade is when they get their report cards? And that is only because we have to assign a letter grade on provincial report cards.

You might think I am totally, 100% insane but hear me out. When I finally made the switch to being gradeless in my classroom it made me and my students less stressed AND made assessment and feedback on learning more consistent rather than only having it after the fact.

Assessment is made up of 3 components:

1. Conversations

2. Observations

3. Products

If we go back to differentiation and what that means... notice how PRODUCTS only takes up 1/3 of the triangulation of assessment and data? 2/3 of the triangle are comprised of the PROCESS. This is the part that so many educators are missing!

So with that in mind, can you see why I opted for a gradeless model yet?

I will admit that this does lend itself very well to an inquiry-based learning environment, because observations, reflections and anecdotal notes are necessary. BUT anyone can do it. My sister, who is also a teacher, does not practice full inquiry, yet she still adopts a gradeless system. When you become invested in the process your students take during learning, you are able to create a more inclusive environment for assessment. We just need to change our Mindset!

What do I do if I'm not giving them grades?

The answer to this question might be obvious but... Observations, Conversations and of course Feedback, feedback, feedback. That is what it comes down to. The more feedback you give a student while they are learning, the better. Rather than giving your students checkmarks for all the correct answers, they get on a quiz or test, and writing "B+, great job!" give them DESCRIPTIVE FEEDBACK WHILE THEY LEARN. During the PROCESS!

How do I do that exactly? I use a variety of different organizers during the day, depending on what we are doing, to help me organize any feedback I have during conversations and observations I have with my students. I use:

- Observations checklists

- Met, almost met, not met lists and comments

- Anecdotal notes

- Student self-reflections

- Peer to Peer reflections

- Learning Process Rubrics

I give my students real-time feedback and I share all my organizers and notes with them so they know exactly how they are doing, where they are struggling and what they need to do in order to continue on their learning journey. Before you say "That's great, but parents want marks" I'm confident when I say they will come around to the idea. Every form of feedback I share with my students, I upload and share it with their parents. Students and parents are used to having a test sent home with a grade on it, so I get it, it will take them time to see the value in being gradeless. However, with the amount of feedback and reflections I provide my students and parents with, I have rarely had parents sending me a message or calling and saying "Hello Teacher, how is my child doing?"

Parents don't want 1000 papers with grades on them, they want to know how their child is doing in school, where they are struggling and what they can do to help or practice at home. Sure some might want their children to get an A in your class, but providing students and parents with consistent descriptive feedback will not leave them surprised when they get their report cards. If anything, students and parents will have a better idea of how the learning is progressing, thus making sure there aren't any surprises on the report card.

But what do you do for the students come report card time? 

Before any reporting period, I do a conference with my students where we look at all the ongoing feedback that was collected in that reporting period. During that conference, we look at the learning goals we set (as a class or individually) and students reflect on what they have achieved, what they have learned and where they hope to go on their learning journey. We use whichever form or checklist or rubric the student prefers and them the student tells me which grade they SHOULD see on their report card. That is generally what I end up writing on the report card as well. 

I know that you might think that a student is just going to say "I deserve an A" but they really don't think that way.

Self-reflection is a powerful thing and students are very aware of what they have achieved and what they need to work on. Ultimately I have a final say in which letter grade I give the student but in general, students are often spot on with where they are in their learning path.

I know that the idea of going gradeless is scary, it might even be scarier than adopting inquiry, but having a gradeless system gives your students more confidence in their learning, it gives them more say in what the assessment looks like and how/who will conduct it and will help them show their understanding in ways that support them as learners. In turn, providing choice and assessment/evaluation through reflection and feedback, it will give educators the opportunity to see our student's understanding of the process.

Over time, you and your students will become more confident in this form of assessment. Your students will know and understand how checklists, expectations, feedback, rubrics and reflections work, thus learning how to differentiate on their own in a more meaningful and authentic way. As you embark on this gradeless model journey, I have compiled a collection of organizers I like to use in my classroom with my students. It is a great starting point for educators to explore the formats that have been successfully used by other educators.

My Observations product is available on Teachers Pay Teachers for purchase and download. The product can be printed for teachers who prefer pen and paper, but it can also be used on Google Slides as well as on iPad for teachers who like to use a digital "pen and paper" formatting. Instructions on how to download and access are included in the resource.

All our learners have strengths and weaknesses and through effective differentiation, assessment and feedback we can provide a learning environment that is responsive, respectful and inclusive.

- Lidia

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