The Sorting Hat

The function of a school should play into the manner of feedback provided to students. Grades are shorthand for feedback, but what I think most educators recognize is that grades are more of a communication shorthand between the school and stakeholders like parents or universities. We say grades are a representation of learning, or symbolic of learning achievement, but unless they are differentiated student-by-student, they resemble the Sorting Hat.

In fact, there is great hunger for a Sorting Hat. Doesn’t everyone want to be a Gryffindor, or perhaps, if Type B, a Ravenclaw? We need an accurate sorting tool, and apparently, some people are willing to go 122 questions deep to find the answer.

Conversations about grading today reminded me that if grades are demanded, they should represent individual progress toward personally meaningful and important goals as co-determined between teacher and student, or between teacher-student-family, or between teacher-student-family-community. Grades that follow well-designed rubrics, but that require a fixed mark today miss the point of learning – that it is a journey.

If a student is not mastering content today, it doesn’t mean she won’t tomorrow, or next year. Breaking learning down into manageable chunks is essential and requires expert teaching. Students should ideally be free to explore their interests, but in a negotiated educational community, like public schooling, having fixed marks for successful outcomes is fair.

What is unfair is to decide arbitrarily that today is the day, and your performance today is what will determine your grade label with no recourse for improvement, and that your label will likely correlate to future labels, and that the aggregate of your childhood labels will directly impact your future educational and professional opportunities (class advantage and disadvantage notwithstanding).

Grades suck – this much I have known for some time. Grades are a major warping factor in all facets of school and of learning communities.

If we must have grades, embracing them as signifiers of individual learning rather than as labels to help Princeton discard 9/10 of its applicant pool automatically seems essential. No school has a mission to “Sort the wheat from the chaff, and let the hollow husks of 2.2 GPAs lay rotting in the fields.”

I don’t want to be in the business of judging kids; grades for sorting are just that, even when operated under “best practices”. Grades for individual learning progress opens the door through which to escape the sorting hat.

On Quiet

I just love this piece in today’s Gray Lady. In it, the demands of quiet for thinking are discussed, with some examples – the framers of the US Constitution apparently covered the street in front of Independence Hall with dirt so as not to be disturbed by cart wheels, which differ from this surprise cartwheel.

Noise elicits a physiological response that we cannot control. Noise can be stimulating for an extrovert like me, but is can be an endless jangle to our nerves as well. For focus, nothing beats some quiet. For the past three years, working in a shared office at school, I have been wearing earphones for quiet, which is hilarious and sad. This piece makes it clear that real silence is essential for truly uninterrupted thought.

Additionally, controlling the interruptions of digital technology and all of the noise that surrounds them, real and imagined, is implied and examined in the piece. In our 1 to 1 school, pop-ups and flags are constant interruptions to our students’ concentration, but they will be there for the foreseeable future. I’m glad we now have a silent room in our school for study and work. After a summer of study at Columbia University, I re-experienced silence, and remembered it’s powerful effect on concentration.

Silence. I am a fan.