Four Reason Why I Don’t Like Letter Grades

Ellie stormed into my office, fuming.

“How is it possible?” she asked, “How is it possible that Brian got an A?”

Ellie and Brian were students in my second La Ceiba class that I ever taught.

While Ellie’s work was meticulous and on time, Brian’s work was haphazard and late. So, in a traditional class, Ellie would have been justified in her frustrations.

However, La Ceiba was not a traditional class, far from it.

And Brian was not your everyday wide-eyed undergraduate student. He was a two-tours-in-Iraq Army veteran who prioritized learning over letter grades. Upon meeting him for the first time in my Comparative Economics course, he shook my hand and said, “I’ll show up. I’ll participate. But I’m here for a gentleman’s C.”

True to his word, he showed up, made insightful contributions to class discussions, turned in most (if not all) of his work late, and got a C. I loved his irreverence. When inviting students to join La Ceiba, I welcomed him without hesitation.

As expected, Brian’s performance in La Ceiba over the semester was subpar. However, in Honduras, he thrived. He seamlessly moved from one project team to another whenever there was an opportunity to help. He was an island of calm whose steadiness and unflappable focus were a source of stability for those around him. Indeed, the best part of working with Brian was that I never needed to check in on him. I knew I could trust him to get any job done.

As a teacher leading a group of young people abroad, this was invaluable. Moreover, every night, without my request, he led a gathering of his classmates to set out the next day’s objectives, work out logistics, and make a “materials needed” list. He also co-led late-night discussions into the why and how of what we were doing in Honduras.

For all those reasons (and more), Brian earned an A in La Ceiba. As did Ellie.

Ellie was awesome (and still is). But at the time, she was still under the sway of the traditional classroom’s overly narrow understanding of student performance.

Ellie and Brian’s experience in La Ceiba informs the first of four reasons why I am not a fan of the puppet master sitting at the heart of the traditional classroom. I mean the practice of doling out letter grades.

1. Letter grades undermine classroom cohesion

As a vestige of the traditional classroom, letter grades narrowed Ellie’s understanding of performance to taking tests, writing papers, presenting, showing up on time, and participating.

These traditional dimensions of student performance are valuable. We did all these things in La Ceiba, minus the tests, and we needed students who excelled at these things—students like Ellie.

However, we also needed students who excelled at leading others while immersed in a chaotic outside-the-classroom context, thinking creatively during a crisis, and leading consciousness-raising conversations—students like Brian.

Ellie and other high-achieving students in the traditional classroom setting were accustomed to outshining their peers like Brian and receiving higher letter grades for their efforts. To attract these students, I needed to show them how non-traditional contributions like Brian’s were just as valuable.

Meanwhile, students like Brian were used to receiving lower grades than students like Ellie, effectively conveying that they were not “good enough” by traditional education standards. To attract students like Brian, I had to demonstrate that La Ceiba valued unconventional strengths, especially outside-of-the-classroom strengths, and abilities beyond submitting a progress report on time.

Until I expanded everyone’s understanding of performance to include classroom achievements and outside-the-classroom contributions, letter grades threatened to undermine our tribal cohesion.

The other three reasons why I don’t like letter grades can be found in my upcoming book, “Rewild School.”

It arrives on May 1.

However, you don’t have to wait – start reading now by downloading Three Free Chapters.

Thanks for reading! – shawn


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