It Just Takes One Lunatic… What Does a Gradeless Classroom Look Like?
The word lunatic comes from the Latin luna (moon) describing a belief that changes in the moon could induce intermittent insanity. Isn’t that the truth. How many times have you heard a teacher roll out the old “must be a full moon” quote to describe the unscheduled chaos descending upon a classroom or schoolyard?
I have been fortunate enough to spend two days recently learning alongside some other l̶u̶n̶a̶t̶i̶c̶ dedicated teachers giving up their hard earned holidays to explore how their practice measures up against the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) professional standards. Late on day two, our gradeless classroom came up and the facilitator, Belinda, asked me to describe how our classroom worked.
As usual, I stumbled through a brief explanation about feedback focus, PBL, reflective learning and, as usual, I failed to succinctly articulate the benefits and challenges of committing to growth over grades.
I really enjoyed learning about the Highly Accomplished Teacher (HAT) and Lead Teacher (LT) program. Unlike many PD sessions, not once did I have cause to look at my watch or reach for the Twitter feed on my phone to pass the agonising seconds until I could escape the mind-numbing boredom and appropriately re-caffeinate myself (*the coffee was pretty good on Melbourne Street though - 5 stars). So when I stopped to reflect on why I enjoyed the learning so much, I had an epiphany.
Belinda asked what a gradeless classroom looks like. Well, it looks exactly like hers.
Belinda met us at the door and welcomed everyone in. Music was playing in the background and the room was well organised with the resources we would need for our investigations. The AITSL standards were the framework of learning that we were all working with, but there was no one size fits all approach to the learning. She allowed us all to experience the learning from our perspective, context, and stage of our own teaching journey. We were free to do an activity if we could see value in it. There were no high stakes tests along the way to ensure we had actually learned. Belinda moved us around out of our seats at times, but not in a typical *groan* icebreaker way, she tricked us. We shared about ourselves and school context under the guise of Belinda getting feedback for her benefit. Well played, Belinda!
The seating was flexible, we were allowed to use the room as we felt best suited us. We collaborated, but once comfortable with those at our table, we were encouraged to move on to form new relationships with educators at different tables. Our focus the entire time was to learn how to use the professional standards to build a portfolio of evidence that best displays our learning and mastery of our craft. No grades to be seen. Plenty of learning, self-assessment, peer-assessment, reflection and growth.
I appreciated being able to apply the learning to my context and have some control over how I interacted with the content. Presenters from a range of circumstances presented their own journeys, which helped make the learning authentic and meaningful. We were also given the opportunity to converse with the presenter of our choice, not just be lectured by them. Belinda shared portfolios of previously accredited teachers but took time to value mistakes and errors in many, not just focus on the perfect, shiny examples.
So it seems Belinda is already highly skilled in running a gradeless classroom. In fact, she may well be better at it than me! We finished the training with a video from a few years ago.
I definitely relate to the dancing guy. Much of the time I feel like the lone gradeless lunatic dancing on the hill looking for a friend to share the experience with. I have built a great digital PLN to share the journey with, but haven’t yet found that first follower here that can help me begin this movement locally. I have written plenty about the benefits of this approach for learners, but it also comes with significant benefits for teachers.
In past years I have been so burnt out by the end of term that there was no conceivable way that I was giving up my R&R time for two days of training. The gradeless approach is no cure-all that solves every problem in a classroom, far from it. But what it does do is shift the problems away from learning dependency, compliance, and external motivations towards building decision-making skills, self-management, and developing intrinsic motivation.
There is no question that I ended this term absolutely spent. But because most of our planning, inquiry, assessing and reflecting had been done collaboratively with students during school time, I’ve been freed up to read, reflect, blog, have professional discussions, communicate with parents, exercise, and actually take some time for me and my beautiful little family. I’m a happier, healthier, more connected and better informed teacher that 12 months ago, which flows into my classroom and benefits students.
So this training didn’t feel like work. It felt like growing. Isn’t that what learning should feel like?