Thriving Without Grades

One of the first questions prospective parents new to our progressive education model ask us is why do we not do grades at Parker?

It’s a question we welcome.

Proponents of grades often argue that they are prime motivators for students, that they are reliable measures of knowledge and success, and that they can determine performance in the future. There is a large body of evidence out there that refutes these ideas. Educational psychologists have generations of research that points to the fact that grades often de-motivate students and yet our school systems and many people still rely on the idea of grades as a key motivator for students.

A team of Canadian and Australian researchers combed through 144 studies and found that meeting these three psychological needs are at the core of expanding/creating intrinsic motivation: a sense of competence, belonging, and identity. (Hechinger Reports)

A hallmark of a Parker education is that students have greater autonomy than in a typical classroom. It has always been our view that putting the children at the center of the learning environment promotes their full engagement and passions.

Students have the opportunity to explore their interests and create relevant, hands-on projects in our woodshop.

Our teachers have the expertise to plan curriculum and design learning opportunities that develop the skills our students need. The adults at Parker have a voice in the classroom but they are not the sole voice–our students help to shape their educational journey. A Parker teacher acts as a facilitator of learning.

With greater autonomy, a Parker student has greater responsibility. The children are constantly working to hone their independent thinking and problem-solving skills. Learning how to most effectively and respectfully communicate—both student-to-student and student-to-teacher—is a huge part of each day’s work. And assessing how to set the bar higher for the work they produce is their daily challenge.

At the core of a Parker teacher’s mindset and our community, is that we support our students’ autonomy and we trust in your child’s ability to mull over and handle decisions that directly affect their academic work and social life.

In “traditional” schools, children are taking in the teacher’s ideas and thoughts and are expected to reiterate them. But instead of restating teacher ideas, at Parker we ask our students to construct their own understandings of their studies, make decisions about how to act on their understanding and communicate their ideas to us. Making sense of a concept and finding your own way to work that concept–that’s far more challenging.

Behind this constructivist approach is a belief in the expertise that our students bring to their work at Parker, a belief in their drive to further develop that expertise and their ideas, and that with more personal agency, our students will exhibit the motivation to do their best work.

Every middle schooler had a part in this year’s musical – from set design, costumes, serving as ushers, and acting.

Having an authentic audience for one’s work is a huge motivator and a way for students to feel and exhibit a sense of responsibility for and connection to the work they undertake in school. For instance, student-led conferences put students at the center of a review and reflection of their efforts in processing and completing assignments. This is no easy task.

Our middle school team carefully constructs review instruments for their students. The instruments reflect core expectations in each discipline, which opens up honest and focused dialogues for student-to-teacher, student-to-family, and most important, student-to-self.

One of the things we talk about as educators at Parker is just how hard self-reflection can be for students and adults alike. How does one objectively and truthfully subject their work to an objective review? Isn’t this something that might make a person feel vulnerable? Uncomfortable? Why, yes. But out of that uncertainty comes training to gauge progress and measure oneself against personal and more objective evaluations. These conferences open families and students to transparent conversations about learning goals and growth.

Out of these conferences come students more empowered and conscious of their learning styles and preferences. This process also deepens reflection beyond a moment-in-time assessment. And students are inspired to look at their body of work as a whole–and see the connections across disciplines in both their strengths and areas to focus on. Parker centers our students’ voices and believes in their ability to partner with all of us on their own learning journeys. Feeling responsible for and alive in their learning. Seeing their natural curiosity celebrated. Feeling heard. Taking initiative. Motivated to express their own ideas. And feeling a sense of competence, belonging, and identity.

The hallmark of a Parker education is learning by doing – creating, testing, experimenting, trying, and even failing all are part of the learning process.