Skills and learning strategies matter. They matter because they provide the tools for communication, expression, and learning across the disciplines. Each discipline offers its own unique set of tools, while many tools are shared across the disciplines. Grammar and spelling may be most strongly associated with Language Arts, however, they are used in every subject area. Inquiry and observation may be most closely associated with the sciences, but they are used across the curriculum. One of the things that distinguishes a process/project oriented curriculum from a traditional curriculum is that skills and learning strategies are not simply studied and learned for their own sake; they are learned in the context of use, when their power and purpose is understood and refined. Frequent, meaningful application of skills and strategies across the disciplines results in a greater understanding of basic skills and learning strategies.
First, number and letter grades are overly simplistic. Pegging a child and his/her work into one of five slots tells you very little about that person. Grades don’t tell you about the child’s individual work, his or her unique challenges, styles of learning, and achievements. Some of the most important qualities of a person’s learning cannot be measured by a qualitative system.
Second, when grades are given as an extrinsic reward for performance, students are less likely to choose to learn for their own reasons. Quickly, teachers and parents will hear students evaluating work assigned and completed based on grades received rather than potential for learning, interest, or enjoyment. In addition, extrinsic rewards place the assignment of value outside the student’s evaluation and reflection.
Finally, no matter what system they are based on, grades inevitably invite you to rank students against each other. This contradicts our beliefs about the value of people and the purpose of learning. Children are not in a race with each other in which there are winners and losers.
Instead of grading students, we encourage students to challenge themselves, to find something that is important to them, to evaluate their work, to experiment and to consider new ways of accomplishing similar work in the future. We communicate these processes with parents and students through narratives, work samples, rubrics, and checklists designed to illustrate the quality of a student’s work. These authentic assessment tools are widely used throughout the United States in public and private school settings. For the past twenty years most schools and universities have tried to incorporate even some of these authentic assessment tools because educators understand they offer a more complete picture of student achievement than is available through traditional grading systems.
*As Margaret Donaldson has observed in her article, The Desire to Learn:
The traditional way of encouraging children to want to learn the things that we want to teach is by giving rewards for success: prizes, privileges, gold stars. Two grave risks attend this practice. The first is obvious to common sense, the second much less so.
The obvious risk to the children who do not get the stars, for this is just one way of defining them as failures. The other risk is to all the children, winners and and losers alike. There is now a substantial amount of evidence pointing to the conclusions that if an activity is rewarded by some extrinsic prize or token something quite external to the activity itself then that activity is less likely to be engaged in later in a free and voluntary manner when the rewards are absent, and it is less likely to be enjoyed.
Teachers will not assign nightly homework in grades K-2. Students in Grades 3 -5 will self-assign homework in their reading and writing workshops. At specific points in the curriculum, teachers and students will extend learning in school with home projects. Our math curriculum provides Home Links that connect to the daily class work. These Home Links are meant to reinforce concepts taught in school and to extend the application of math to the students’ world outside of school. Students in grades 3-5 are expected to complete this daily math homework. Extended projects in the Upper Elementary grades will require some work at home.
Academically, children will be prepared to use the skills and learning strategies they have learned and practiced throughout their school experience. When children deeply understand these skills and strategies because they have been given the opportunity to employ them frequently and in meaningful applications, they are able to transfer this learning to other learning situations. In short, students have the tools to conduct learning in traditional paper/ pencil format as well as extended workshop and project environments. Often, children who move from strong, progressive schools to traditional schools feel that they are moving from challenging, interesting work to “easy”, close-ended work experiences that they are able to complete quickly and successfully.