British Columbia Teachers currently find themselves in a contract struggle with the Provincial government and as a result are in Phase 1 job action. Part of the job action is not producing report cards, with the exception of Grade 12 students that require marks for graduation, scholarship or post-secondary admission. Why is this relevant? Well it has led to a philosophical debate on the value of report cards. Are marks necessary for teaching?
Every teacher has developed an assignment or activity only to be asked, ‘Is this for marks?’ That common refrain is maddening at times as the implication is that an assignment or activity only has value if marks are attached. As teachers we are guilty of perpetuating this phenomena as we use marks as a motivator and bargaining chip to get students to complete assignments. So this begs the question, are students driven by marks or learning? If marks were removed from the educational landscape would this allow true learning to take place? Think about the level of anxiety a student faces when they know they have to take a poor report card for their parents to see. On the contrary you have the elation a student feels when they bring home straight A’s.
With a shift towards personalized learning and individualized curriculum must come a reevaluation on the role marks play in education. You don’t need a report card to tell you you can ride a bike. Riding the bike becomes the goal and you know when you have achieved it when the training wheels come off. Why then do we insist on putting a letter grade on everything to label the level of ‘learning’ a student has achieved. It has been proven that the most influential practice a teacher can engage in is meaningful feedback on assignments. Nothing moves the learning of a student forward more than feedback from a teacher. Once a mark or letter grade is attached to an assignment the feedback becomes meaningless (I have my friend and colleague Jacob to thank for this fact). The student sees the assignment as completed once a mark is attached but sees the assignment as a work in progress if only feedback is given. So why do we insist on bell-curving students along an arbitrary grid of expertise? Shouldn’t mastery of the content be the goal for every student, without exception? This requires the educational policy makers and curriculum specialists to peel back the layers of minutia and arrive at the essence of what is required of all students. What is the ultimate goal of education? Is factual knowledge a requirement in a time where any and all information is only seconds away?
Teachers and students would both feel liberated if the requirement for marks no longer existed. Remove the arbitrary timeline of terms and semesters and allow learning to become an organic process where understanding is the goal and not the thirst for marks.