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Ultimately What Matters


In a Lyon’s Letter I wrote last school year called, “Redefining Student Success,” I wrote about grades at length. What I didn’t share was what got me thinking about it.

It was the tweet below that sparked that post and I’m wondering what you think of it.

This tweet makes me think of two questions:

  1. What is the message that Ben Cichy is sharing?

  2. Who is he sharing it with?

The latter question is the easiest to answer because very few children have a Twitter account, right? After all, you have to be thirteen to have an account in the first place (if you’re following the rules). When I ask my twelve-year-old daughter, Lilia, what she thinks about Twitter, her response is, “It’s for old people.” When looking to see who follows Cichy and, therefore, who would see his tweet, I saw that many of his followers were scientists like him. So, I have to guess that he’s not thinking that kids will see his tweet. I think his tweet is for adults. Why adults? I’m guessing because he wants to influence the people who interact with kids (though there may be additional reasons and I’m open to your suggestions).

The first question is just as important…what is the message? He seems to have two messages. The first is that grades in school are not predictive of future outcomes. The second is that even when you’re good at something, you may still struggle. Therefore, behaviors related to the work are what is important. In light of this and what I wrote about in the post, “Redefining Student Success,” and the fact that schooling as we know it has been turned upside down due to COVID, I wonder how we can focus more on the behaviors related to learning and less on grades.

The reality is that grades are distilled representations of very complex and abstract learning on the part of the learner. However, they are also biased based on who is doing the grading and traditionally take into account factors that literally have nothing to do with a student’s knowledge of content. I wrote about grades not equaling learning repeatedly in my book, Engagement is Not a Unicorn (It’s a Narwhal). For example:

"Grades are not learning. 'Unfortunately, grades are generally an account of points earned through various activities that are influenced by artificial deadlines, grade inflation, extra credit, and subjectivity,' wrote Brad Kuntz, the 2011 ASCD Outstanding Young Educator winner. He continues, 'It's time for us to change the student mind-set currently focused on reaching a particular percentage and instead empower them to take charge of their learning and measure their own success.'[i] Think about it. If a student can earn a higher grade by bringing in a box of tissues or turning in an assignment early, what does that show about the learning of the content? (p. 268-269)

Also, out of both tradition and/or perceived additional work on the part of the teacher, we generally do not allow or expect students to redo their work after it has been submitted in order to demonstrate that their learning has improved. The message here is, “Get it right the first time because that’s what counts.” Ironically, we often tell students that we are preparing them for the “real world” (a term I personally loathe). In the real world, however, grades don’t exist and we only succeed through failure because it is failure that leads to learning. From Edison’s infamous dedication to creating the light bulb to the COVID-19 tests, I can think of nothing that would exist without failure. Therefore, if we really want to prepare students for success now and in the future, we would be encouraging them to be resilient not perfect, persevere in adversity rather than be satisfied with their first attempt. Do-overs should not be seen as gifts, they should be seen as expectations.

This reminds me of the book I’m currently listening to, Atomic Habits by James Clear. I’m still not finished with it, but I’ve enjoyed it so much I’ve bought it so I can mark it up and dog-ear the pages. Anyway, at one point in the book Clear writes about a photography professor who began the semester by dividing his class into two groups at random. The first group was told that their final grade would come from their submission of 100 photographs. In this group, 100 photos equaled an A, 90 equaled a B and so forth. They were the “quantity” group. The second group was told that their final grade would come from their submission of one, single photograph and scored on the “excellence of their work” (p. 141). This was the “quality” group. Which group do you think had better photos at the end of the semester? The professor believed it would be the quality group. I did too. After all, I figured, if the quality group had to only produce one excellent photo, they could spend their time really focusing on excellence. I was wrong. In fact, perfection was the enemy of both progress and production. Clear writes:

"...all the best photos were produced by the quantity group. During the semester, these students were busy taking photos, experimenting with composition and lighting, testing out various methods in the darkroom, and learning from their mistakes. In the process of creating hundreds of photos, they honed their skills. Meanwhile, the quality group sat around speculating about perfection. In the end, they had little to show for their efforts other than unverified theories and one mediocre photo." (p. 141-142, emphasis in original)

What’s the lesson here? Getting it wrong leads to getting it right; the path to quality is quantity. Thus, rather than grading the learning process (which can undermine learning), we need to set grades aside to liberate learning behaviors.

Getting back to Ben Cichy’s tweet, I can’t help but think about my own pathway. Unlike Cichy, I didn’t go into a STEM career or go to school for STEM; I went for English and teaching. If I tweeted about reading and writing being hard for everyone this is what I would say…

I routinely failed spelling tests in elementary school and my spelling is still so atrocious that I can’t spell atrocious correctly without spellcheck. Also, even though I could read well as a child, I lost my love of reading in school and didn’t read for pleasure again until in my mid-20s. Today I’ve earned a B.A. in English, a Ed.M. in Reading, written a 277-page dissertation for my Ph.D., and written a book on engagement (#EngagementIsNotaUnicorn).
Reading and writing are hard for everyone. Your interests change over time. Grades ultimately aren’t what matters. Curiosity and persistence matter.

I wonder what you and your students would say if they made their own “tweet” that was inspired by Cichy? If you do tweet him, please be sure to tag me too so I can see what you have to say. I’m going to tweet mine now and tag Cichy.


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P.P.S. By the way, if you haven’t already, you should read literally any and all of the articles in the September 2020 issue of Educational Leadership which is devoted to grading. The whole issue is thought-provoking and well-written and you can access many of them for free here or purchase a copy of the issue for just $10 here (I feel like a salesperson, but really I’m just an evangelist; trust me, it’s worth it).

[i] Kuntz, B. (2012, May). Focus on learning, not grades.,-Not-Grades.aspx

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