Thursday, September 8, 2016

Giving every student an A on the first day

I spent a large chunk of last spring and the summer designing my new Grand Challenge Design course, and one of the sizable thought-sinks was figuring out grading.  I had zillions of rubrics I could design from, but after watching this video by Benjamin Zander, I just couldn't get it out of my head.  Skip the first 30 seconds of fluff.  If you don't have time for the whole thing, watch at least the first 5 minutes.

My college partner-in-crime, Marco, recommended it to me along with other course feedback.  Zander is a well-known conductor and music teacher out in Boston who speaks about possibilities.  His TED talk looks at the change in worldview between the approaches of:

  • "Only 3% of people like classical music.  If only we can increase that to 4%."  vs.
  • "Everybody likes classical music!  They just don't know it yet!"

The energy with that kind of thinking is contagious.  That's why his idea to give every student an A, then teach the student to become an A student, had a fascinating logic to it.  By getting the grade out of the way immediately, students could stop operating in the extrinsic / comparator mode and have nothing left but learning to seek.  The expectations do not go down in this environment -- they actually go up for everyone.  They have to if everyone is actually an A student.

As I kept thinking about it, this approach is not that uncommon.  I am given a paycheck every two weeks with the same amount regardless of the quality of my work.  When I do good work, I am encouraged to keep doing it.  When I do bad work, my peers and admin help me clean things up and make it good.  The expectation is that I do great work, and so when things falter, I get help, not a pay decrease.  If things are working correctly, except for occasional bumps in the road, I will be earning the money I have already been promised.  Even 2000 years ago Jesus started grading with this kind of system, handing out unquestioned grace first and then fixing people up from that point forward, so the idea has been around for a long time.  Despite this, it is just SO different than school has ever operated.

I have never been afraid of change or trying out crazy things, and I went into this plan feeling pretty good.  When I told the students, they were a bit skeptical, but I convinced them that all they had to do was write me a letter (that I would of course have to consider acceptable), and they would have an A for the quarter that I would absolutely not revert.  I did make it clear that, if needed, I would ask for extra time, call parents, etc. as extrinsic tools to support learning, and that if a student completely gave up I would ask him or her to drop the course.  Despite these minor caveats, after laying out the plan for them, I was feeling pretty vulnerable.

It wasn't until the second night after school started that I had a hard time falling asleep.  WHAT HAD I DONE?!?  What would other teachers and administrators say?  What would parents say?  What if students took advantage and didn't push themselves to learn and grow?  Is this the kind of thing that gets people banished to the no-friends corner for being too far out there?  I value my peers and work with an amazing group of teachers, and yet I never felt confident enough to discuss my plan with them before I just publically committed to it in front of my students.  What was I thinking?  Was I thinking?

Since the plan is now in motion, and there isn't much I can do to stop it for the next 2 months until the quarter ends, I'm going to do my best to capture the ups and down on the blog.  Today, I introduced the letter-writing assignment, the one where students date the letter at the end of the year and start with "Mr. Pethan, I deserve an A because...".  I asked them to write as much as they needed to in order to help me understand who they are and who they want to become.  I will use the letters to figure out how to best teach each person so they grow and learn and develop into that amazing person they write about.  I will also use the letters right away to find every student their own mentor for the year, a mix of awesome people that I know locally and around the country (possibly world) from college and other experiences.  Even though students are self-selecting into teams that will develop different parts of the course right now, I will use the letters to redirect and shuffle those groups to better help them reach their long-term goals.

My plan is to make sure that every student in my class DESERVES the A they received.  The fact that they knew they got it on day 1 is irrelevant.  If students all learn many meaningful skills and can tell that powerful story of transformation, nobody will question their grade.  Deep down, I know I went forward with this plan because it aligns with everything I know about human motivation, creativity, autonomy, and mentorship.  I really believe that grading in this class would have killed passion and brave new ideas in favor of checking the boxes that get an A.  This plan is the best thing I know how to do right now, and as a one-quarter pilot, I have a long-term out if the concept is truly flawed.  I'm excited, optimistic, and above-all, terrified.


  1. Hi Andy, I really like this concept for grading something like your grand design challenge and also for our PBL class. I think I might use this in our pandemic project right now even though we have already started. I am interested in how you think it is going now that you are in the project and almost half way through the year.

    1. I think it is a combination of what I see and what I am not seeing that convinces me to keep doing this. My engaged students just come in each day and just do things -- they find the problem that is most critical and pour time into getting it knocked out together. I only need to step in for general direction and some technical advice. I also don't see students stopping at a "94%" because they reached the goal, or complaining about what rubric items mean or should be worth, or complaining that other people's projects are harder or easier or more interesting. For my students who struggle to stay engaged, I don't think a grade would make a difference. Having taught Statistics (a traditionally graded course) with similarly open-ended approaches at various times in the past, I have evidence that grades don't change behaviors that much in open-ended classrooms. If a student is not plugged in and excited, I need to tap into that individual's passions and career interest and add enough structure for them to get productively moving somewhere. Once I help a student engage, whether they have a conditional grade or not doesn't seem to affect behavior. If I can't seem to reach a student, my role is to have the tough conversation to ask them to leave at the end of the quarter and not finish out the year with us, potentially dropping sooner if they refuse to participate at all.

      So, given the high upside of the approach, the minimal behavioral changes for struggling students, and way it lets me spend minimal time looking backwards (grading) and most of my time planning and directly supporting students, I would be surprised if I changed this year.