If Its Not BLANK, Then They Won't Do It.

@MrBrettClark 5 Comments

"If it's not graded, then they (students) won't do it."

This is something that I heard somebody say the other day and it really just rubbed me the wrong way. It's this idea that we have to use grades as some sort of negotiating tool to force students to complete task in our classrooms. It's cousin to the idea that teachers won't go to PD if we don't pay them. 

I believe that when we say that we have to use things like grades, mandates, authority, or pay in order to get somebody to complete a job, assignment,  or task then we are admitting that what we are asking to be done isn't relevant, engaging, and probably not necessary. At the very least, we are saying that we don't want to take the time to explain why it needs to be done. 

Here is the reality, it's not if it's not graded then they won't do it. Its if it's not relevant, interesting, necessary, fun, their choice, for the greater good, helpful, _______, then they won't do it. Nor should they have to. Come on folks, we are better than this. We don't have to use grades as leverage to force "engagement". 

I left a blank for you. How would you fill in the blank? 

UPDATE: Bill Ferriter wrote a great post about this conversation. You can read it here.  

See original image here
Also - the conversation made me think of this gem from my friend Bill Ferriter

Media preview


  1. There is an awful lot of leeway in the 'for the greater good' part of your fill in the blank. I think that the job of the teacher is to teach kids the things the community has decided they need to learn but the kids don't want to learn. Unfortunately, grades are very often the carrot and stick that makes that possible. Nobody wants to bribe or punish, it just happens to be a very effective way to get some people to do things.

    1. Thanks for the comment William. I agree that we are often tasked to teach things that students don't want to learn and some things we don't even care to teach. I just bristle at the idea that grades have to be attached to it for students to do it. Even when it's things students don't want to learn, there are other ways to motivate beyond grades.

      When I was still in the classroom I taught math remediation. High majority of my students didn't like math and had past failures in math. It wasn't grades that motivated them and it wasn't a love for math that got them to do work. It was intentional focus on areas they identified as area of needs, voice and choice in how they learned and how they were assessed, and the forging of great relationships. In a 9 week class, I would take about 6 summative grades. It wasn't utopia and we always had our moments but we had success.

      Again, I think it was more about the reach of the statement that struck me. The idea that its impossible to get students to do things if it's not graded that I push back at.

    2. Brett, I get grades don't motivate everyone and I do have a philosophical problem with treating kids like animals (reward/punishment systems), but they do work. I would suspect many of the kids you didn't see because their grades were fine didn't love math either.

      I think we are fighting a battle we can't win, because success is all that matters to many in education. That doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to fight it though.

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  3. Brett,
    As a classroom teacher, I feel the only way I can share student strengths / needs with parents is through GRADES. While I strive to expand my students' repertoire of how they can assess their own learning, I find that parents are the most resistant to this change (I am a parent, too, so I can relate to sitting on both sides of the table).

    Changing our cultural focus on grading may well be easier in the next generation, when we encounter parent who grew up in a school climate that offered different options for communicating about student achievement. Until then, perhaps, parent conferences will proceed as they have for so many years.... a brief discussion followed by the only symbol of reference parents relate to (swell dramatic music). Their child's current GRADE.

    Yesterday presented a case-in-point: a student brought a rubric to me that I had asked a parent to sign to ensure the parent reviewed it. The student, handing me the rubric, stated, "My mom just wants you to email her my grade." Funny, I thought. The rubric was the "grade," but that message did not get to that parent. How can we change the culture around grading if it appears this is the only means people understand?