What are We Talking About?

“…grades are a problem. On the most general level, they’re an explicit acknowledgment that what you’re doing is insufficiently interesting or rewarding for you to do it on your own.” Derrick Jensen

Early in my career, the recurring dream that would wake me at night had me standing in front of a class of students who were completely oblivious to me and what I was trying to do. Classroom management. Likewise with the pre-service teachers I have worked with over the years – most of their questions are aimed at managing behaviors. We were worried about the wrong things. Grades and grading burn most of my professional oxygen – still, even as my career enters its fourth decade.

Perhaps an ostensibly non-academic example might make visible the issue. Sometimes, changing the angle of vision allows for new insight or connection.

Below is the first fly pattern I ever attempted. For this post it will serve as a lesson’s learning intention: Following the pattern and instructions, the learner will be able to create a Woolly Worm fly.

Woolly Worm
Hook: #12-2, 2XL
Thread: Black
Tail: Red wool yarn. Marabou for a woolly bugger
Hackle: Grizzly, palmered
Body: Medium black chenille

Here is some work produced as a result of the lesson:

Wooly Woras

These four flies make fine standard anchors. Scoring from left to right:
Letter Grade: D, C, B, A
If you prefer numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4
Standards: Does not meet, Approaching, Meets, Exceeds.

Now, imagine a swarm of flies tied up by a class. It would be fairly easy to sort and score them. Grade them. If the purpose of grading is to communicate, I wonder what, exactly, these grades communicate. If the purpose of grades is motivation, imagine tying up that first fly: D. How, I wonder, is that motivating?

Let’s complicate the debate. What if each of the flies pictured above was tied by the same tier? What grade do we give this learner? Fairly standard practice is to average scores, C. What does that C communicate? What sort of motivation to improve, grow, learn does a C in this case nurture? The tier clearly produces a fly exceeding standards.

Another complication. What if I told you that I could easily, easily, catch a fish with the lowest quality fly, the D, does not meet standard? Even better, if I give you the A fly, the best one, to fish with, and I fish with the D, unless you are an avid angler, I will, without question, out fish you with the D. And even if you are an avid angler, I will still give you a run.

This last complication speaks to the trouble of grading against some arbitrary, clinical standard devoid of context. Quoted in the new anthology Ungraded edited by Susan Blum, Peter Elbow writes, “The reliability in holistic scoring is not a measure of how texts [flies] are valued by real readers in natural settings…but only of how they are valued in artificial settings with imposed agreements.” I have written in an earlier post about the problematic real world/school world dichotomy.

The reason we keep having the same discussions about grades – norming sessions, revising assessments, analyzing data – with no significant change in results is that we never talk about instruction. We pretend context is irrelevant. We see the classroom as clinical, sterile (dead) and not of the real world.

I am far more interested in how these flies came to be, and why these flies came to be.

For my fifth birthday, my mom gave me a Milwaukee Brewers batting helmet, baseball, and a bat. I was disappointed, and at five showed that disappointment, I am embarrassed to say. I carried on so much that my mom had to tell me about the gift my dad had for me. I feigned surprise as I pulled wrapping paper off the Zebco spin-casting rod and reel, and a blue plastic tackle box. The joy, the sense of self, was genuine.

Dad gave me this gift in Grandpa’s front yard on the banks of Lake Koshganong. With help, I strung the rod and tied on a small red and white Daredevil spoon. I stood at the end of Grandpa’s pier and heaved the lure toward the center of the lake. Winding in the third cast, I felt a wiggle worm up the line, through the rod, and into my soul. A small white bass bounced on wet planks as Grandpa walked up. He slapped me on the back and said, “We’ll eat him for breakfast!”

While this story flirts with melodrama, I tell it to point to a profound connection between identity and learning. Regardless of the grade I earn on my wooly worm, I am going to tie and tie – going to start creating my own patterns to meet needs I discover exploring trout water.

What if we take a broader view of learning intentions and grades? I can envision two pedagogical moves that might allow for more personal connection to learning than we’ve been able to achieve with grades and grading. Student inquiry, and Transdisciplinarity – bringing many disciplines to bear on a given question or problem.

If the standard (pretty low bar) is “tie a wooly worm,” what if, in addition to the pattern and tying instructions, learners read and discussed all the Nick Adams stories or the writing of Gordon MacQuarie. What if learners wrote their own stories?

Any expert tyer will tell you that a key variable in a given fly’s success is proportion. Getting wing height and tail length right, setting the wing or thorax the right distance from the eye determines whether or not a fish will eat it. What if students designed flies of various proportions and tested them?

What if learners explored their watersheds, their rivers? What if they tested water quality? What if they gathered and documented insect life, learned the various stages of insect life and compared those to fly patterns?

What if students prepared a menu of locally accessible food – including fish. What if they researched how that food came to be: where was it grown, how, by whom? How did it get to stores, to tables?

What if students explored answers to their own questions and presented their answers? With such a curriculum, how many more opportunities are there for learners of diverse backgrounds, interests, and curiosities to connect personally to the learning?

What if we spent more time talking about instruction and less time talking about assessment?