Approaches to Designing a Learning (not Grading) Orientation


Think back to when you were in school. Like me, you probably never gave a thought to how homework was actually supporting your own learning. Like me, you simply did it…or didn’t do it. If you were in the latter category, you most likely received poor grades despite your level of content and skills mastery. What if, however, homework was optional; thus, giving you agency over your own learning? At Pinewood, the “homework debate,” speaks to the wider issue of challenging traditional grading practices.

We have used the best minds in educational research to carefully shift the way we think about homework. Our premise is based on the essential difference between formative and summative assessments. Formative assessments, like homework, classwork and quizzes, are assessments for learning. These assignments are designed to challenge students to play with new ideas, take risks and learn from their failures. In contrast, summative assessments, like end-of-unit tests, projects and presentations, are assessments of learning. They demonstrate what students have learned. Once this distinction is made, it’s easy to understand that homework, which is important for the learning process, should be designed to challenge, assigned as a choice and not graded with traditional marks. Rather, our teachers provide rich feedback on each homework assignment and the focus of homework shifts to learning for improvement, not doing it for a grade.

Alfie Kohn, a leading voice for modernizing educational practices, summarizes the research on grading with three points below from The Case Against Grades, Educational Leadership, November 2011. Kohn’s points support our shifting practices at Pinewood, including, but not limited to, our approach to homework.

Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they are learning. A “grading orientation” and a “learning orientation” have been shown to be inversely related. Every study that has investigated the impact on intrinsic motivation of receiving grades (or instructions that emphasize the importance of getting good grades) has found a negative impact.

Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they’re doing will count towards their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks. They’ll choose a shorter book, or a project on a familiar topic, in order to minimize the chance of doing poorly – not because they’re unmotivated but because they are responding to adults who have sent the message that grades matters more than learning.

Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. They may skim books for what they’ll ‘need to know’. They’re less likely to wonder, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”

So, when it comes to the correlation between homework and academic achievement, the key is in the design. At Pinewood, we believe that by placing learning at the center, not grades, students win every time. Indeed, as the late Grant Wiggins wrote, the point of school is not to get good at school. As such, I think we would all agree that the purpose of school is to engage and empower students to be independent, self-directed learners.