Today’s guest blogger, Rick Posner, was the assistant principal at the Open School in Jefferson County, Colorado, from 1999-2001, where he taught for 30 years. His new book, Lives of Passion, School of Hope: How One Public School Ignites a Lifelong Love of Learning, describes the school, which unlike most others, has no set curriculum or course of study and allows students to set their own goals and be self-directed learners. Posner looks at what happened to Open School alumni and shows how the graduates of this 39-year-old school went on to lead productive, interesting lives. The book is well worth reading; those of us who don’t live in Jefferson County, Colorado, are left to wonder why this type of school doesn’t exist in every community in the country. Be sure to visit Posner’s website.
Free At Last: Living Without Grades
By Rick Posner Ph.D.
Believe it or not, there is a public pre K-12 school in a very conservative school district in Colorado that has thrived without grades or credits for almost 40 years. Yes, it’s true. There are hundreds of alumni from the Jefferson County Open School (a public school that is open to anyone who lives in Colorado’s largest school district) who have become happy, well-rounded, productive adults without one single A, F or 12.5 unit designation on their school records. It may serve as a further surprise to learn that most of them have gone to college and done quite well in conventional, graded systems, and that, more startling, their college completion level is twice that of the national average.
Here’s what they say about the inhibiting aspects of grades and credits:
Grades and credits kill the inherent love and joy of learning that we are born with by making the process of learning competitive and impersonal. With grades there are always winners and losers, and the standards are
really the same for everyone, regardless of individual learning styles or cultural differences.
Grades take everyone off the hook. Students don’t feel responsible for their own learning. They just learn how to “play the grade game”. Teachers do not have to respond to students’ learning in an in-depth, qualitative way, and even parents can end their meaningful inquiries into their children’s progress by simply asking for their report cards and not going any further. No one has any real responsibility.
What do grades say about someone anyway? Is a straight “A” student in Butte, Montana the same as a straight “A” student in Chicago, Illinois? What do we really learn about someone from his report card?
How do you grade the really important things like character development, personal growth and social skills? How can you place a grade on a three-week trip to Mexico where you are teaching English to Mexican teenagers or picking chilies with a Mexican family? How do you grade an internship or a self-directed project?
Here is what they say about the advantages of going grade-free:
You can develop a genuine love of learning by going as deeply as you want to in a subject without fear of disapproval or demerit.
You learn how to evaluate and assess your own work, which is a valuable life skill that you must use when you are working and living in the real world.
You learn to give and receive substantive feedback to and from teachers, peers and community members.
You learn how to demonstrate competencies and solve problems instead of just giving rote responses to single solution tests or assignments.
You learn how to write your own transcripts of all the important things you have learned about yourself in the intellectual, social and personal domains of your life in or outside of school.
You feel like you are part of an authentic community of learners where everyone, including the teachers, is a learner first and foremost, and not a competitor for the highest grade or test score.
You learn how to be intrinsically motivated and self-directed. Without a constant other-directed focus, you are forced to develop your own compass.
You become responsible for your own learning and eventually your own life.
You are free to see the inherent pleasures and meanings in learning and life.
You become a risk- taker, an adventurer and a lifelong learner when you see that learning is personal and relevant.
The alumni of the Open School think that living without grades and credits has been a liberating experience. What do you think? Could you or your children have lived without grades or credits?