More than an ‘A’; Mindset and Assessment

cc licensed flickr photo shared by Sam Beebe / Ecotrust

“Put yourself in a fixed mindset. Your ability is on the line. Can you feel everyone’s eyes on you? Can you see the instructor’s face evaluating you? Feel the tension, feel your ego bristle and waver. What else are you thinking and feeling? Now put yourself in a growth mindset. You’re a novice—that’s why you’re here. You’re here to learn. The teacher is a resource for learning. Feel the tension leave you; feel your mind open up.” Carol Dweck, Mindset

Grading and assessment practices are continuously looked at in schools, and with a shift in pedagogy where many schools are moving away from the traditional “A’s and B’s” of grading, the common comment I have heard is that schools are lowering their standards. My belief is that with this change in practice, our standards are becoming higher not only for our students, but for us as educators.

In Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset”, she talks about the ‘fixed’, and more importantly, the  ‘growth’ mindset.

The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

Using the system that many of us grew up with and are very comfortable in our understanding, it is easy to say that with a ‘C’ student, the growth mindset could definitely apply.  Obviously with a grade of a  ‘C’, the student will have at least two more letter grades to jump to get to the level of “excellence”.  The big question is, what happens when they get there?  The term “lifelong learning” is thrown around continuously, but the idea that once you get to a certain grade, what is there left to do?  The thought that you can only get to an “A’ is also a fixed mindset.  It signifies an end.

The other thought is that without this traditional grading, teachers have less work.  From what I have experienced, educators do more work in a different system.  Instead of simply giving a grade, educators work on understanding each child’s unique needs and strengths, and then working with them to identify strategies on how they can continuously grow.  Through these comments, there should be a clear understanding of how each child is doing, while also helping them discover their future path.

“This growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way—in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments—everyone can change and grow through application and experience.” Carol Dweck

One of my big questions that I have in the traditional model of grading is the following; when a student receives an ‘A’ for their work, why is there a need to continue?  You have set the criteria, the student has met it, why move forward?  With the idea of this “growth”mindset, we want our students to move way further than an ‘A’.

For example, through our Identity Day project, students had the opportunity to learn and share about their own passions.  Some of the work that was shared was absolutely amazing, and every single student in the school did the project.  Here is the catch…not one project was graded.  They were all done based on passion and interest, not on a rubric.  Although seeing a student like Marley share her own thoughts on Tourette Syndrome, and how powerful an experience that was for so many, how could you only give it an ‘A’?  It is much more powerful than that.

Reading Shelley Wright’s post on her students’ Holocaust project, I was moved by the power of this experience:

Strategically placed around the exhibit were students who provided the viewers and guests with information about the portion of the exhibit they were looking at. Naturally, I have extroverts in this class for whom this is as simple as breathing.

However, I have other students who rarely say a word in class, and yet there they stood explaining a portion of the Holocaust to people and students, many whom they didn’t know. They were scared out of their minds, but did it anyway.  One of my students excitedly came up to me and exclaimed, “I talked! I talked!”  This was a huge accomplishment for her.

Now in reality, if Shelley wanted to know where her students were at in their learning, she could have simply given them some criteria, a test, and a grade.  Students would have shown that they learned the material needed, but in just reading the post, there are so many more things that the students got out of this project rather than just the opportunity to regurgitate knowledge.  Yes, they could have studied and received a high mark on the exam but if you look at how the whole process worked out, do you not think this experience will stick with them for the rest of their lives?  I am assuming that each student will be assessed on what they have done (as we still need to report) but it should be so much more than a grade.

There are some problems with the lack of grades in schools, mostly being that for our students to get into a post-secondary program, they will need them.  I am not saying it is right, but it is the reality of our system.  I actually do not know of a high school that does not give grades to a student and that decision is probably driven by post-secondary education. There are some serious questions that we need to ask, but the thing is, we do need to ask the questions.  Is there a better way to set up our students so that they not only get into university, but we give them the tools to be successful?

With students having the same access to information as we do educators, they need to do better than what we did as kids. They should do better.  It is imperative that we look at the systems that we have in place, and set them up to continuously learn and grow long past their time in school.  We owe it to our kids to look at not what worked for us, but what works for them.

“The message is: You can change your mindset.” Carol Dweck

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