Photo By Craig F. Walker / The Denver Post

What is my mark? How do I know how I’m doing if I don’t have a mark?

Grading is a fundamental challenge of schooling. It’s held out as both carrot and stick. We measure what’s easily quantifiable and reduce it to a number, where the substance of what was supposedly learned is nowhere to be seen.

The sorting hat mechanism of grades, meant to separate those who “can” from those who “can’t” is full of false assumptions, the greatest being that the numbers alone tell us something about a person’s future potential or success.

Typically, all students are given the same material and test to see who performs the best. I suppose this is based on the notion all students are the same, or at least could be the same if they just tried as hard as the ones who get the best marks. Easy to compare. We compare against the same standard sameness.

If we don’t evaluate everyone against the same standard, how will we know how not the same they are?

Effort. Perseverance. Organization. Accountability. Responsibility. Those are the qualities of good students. How students engage with the content and how they demonstrate their learning and understanding, for the sake of efficiency, has traditionally been, the same.

If I was producing widgets in a factory, I would want to test periodically to ensure quality. Those that did not meet the quality standards would be discarded. Here my goal is to produce the same thing. I get that with things.

Humans aren’t things.

Is our goal to produce “same” humans? School-birthed, standardized citizens, graded for their social value? We give them all the same content, same test, and discover they are indeed different, and blame it on the individuals for not all doing the same thing so they could have somehow gotten the same results. Strange thinking.

If it isn’t the lack of same effort and we have proven to ourselves that each is indeed unique, wouldn’t it make sense that we approach this whole what to learn, how to learn it, and how to see what was learned and how it could be used, differently?

And what is the human impact of asking young people to daily follow the will and plan of others? To have them wondering Am I doing this right? How will I be judged? What will people think of me if/when I don’t perform to their expectations? There is a cost to raising our young people in these kinds of environments. Ask them. They will tell you the personal and mental cost.

Creating a competitive system with a quota for opportunity (one top student, limited scholarships) says to the majority: You are not enough; You should have worked harder. Many have long given up hope of being among the select “starred” students and sit, de-spirited of self, physically present but absent in mind and soul, says George Sefa Dei, silently counting the days until their release.

How do we break out of this marking and grading narrative, a narrative that embodies the grade as one’s social worth and value and ultimately, identity? We hear the labels: “A” student, “C” student, as if the grade is one’s worth, a kind of mental epi-genetic modification, markers told to them that become the brain’s self talk: I am no good at math, I can’t write, I’m the smartest at pre-calculus, I’m good at doing things when it’s outlined for me, or I’m pretty average.

We are in a cultural renaissance as we shift from command and control systems, to enabling systems. Systems requiring managing are increasingly being handed off to AI and robotization.

We need self-seekers. Collaborators. Creators. We need individuals confident in who they are and their abilities to seek out opportunities and possibilities.

We need leaders who can thrive in ambiguity and paradox and see the possibilities that can’t be reduced to a single number or letter grade.

What’s my mark? You’re going to have to create your mark on the world by finding ways you can contribute. You will know how you are doing when you do things that matter.

professional learner, university instructor

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