Thursday, September 19, 2013

Fair(er) grading

In August 2013 I was given the opportunity to do workshops at the annual OUP teacher training course and conference here in Budapest. As always, we had some of the most enthusiastic and motivated teachers who were willing to give up their free time, while still on holiday they chose "to come and learn", as a lot of them said.

One of the sessions I did was called "Fair grading", although I do believe there is no such thing, but it's high time we start considering what we can do in the current situation as educators to make grading fairer. 

I started off by saying that OUP had just received a letter from the Ministry of Education asking us to grade all teachers on accredited in-service teacher training courses from 1 to 5 (1= Fail, 2=Satisfactory, 3=Good, 4=Very good, 5= Excellent), as this is going to be part of their newly introduced professional development model called "Életpálya modell". From then on, actually from 1st of September 2013, teachers will have to be given grades which then will be used by the Ministry of Education to decide whether they are eligible to go on the next pay-scale or not. As we were not give any criteria as to how we should give grades to teachers I raised this question to the teachers present at the course, about 100 teachers in total in the YL groups I had. In the same way, as part of this new professional development model - "Életpálya modell" - teachers will have to pass certain exams every 6-7 years, the criteria of which no one knows yet. And so, I thought it would be best for us to work out together a fair grading system until we receive further information on this from officials. 

As you can imagine the first reaction was shock. A room packed with white-faces looking totally blank in front of them for a long moment of silence. After a few seconds they started looking at each other and the mood from shock went onto despair, outrage and then words started to come out slowly but, oh my, they were filled with such tension, so much energy put into them that we could have heated the whole huge conference building with it for a whole day in the coldest winter-day.
Then I told them that I would very much welcome their thoughts on how I should grade them, on what basis, as
  1. I don't know their personal motivation to do this particular teacher training course
  2. I don't know how much knowledge each of them had prior to this course on each of the topics we are going to present, so I will not be aware of their personal progress either
  3. I don't know what the best method would be to measure their performance
  4. I am not aware of their personal abilities and capacities as to how well they can acquire and learn certain subjects and topics
Then teachers started to have heated discussions in mini-circles, some of them shouting out: 

"This is not fair! We came here to learn new ideas and hear new thoughts so that we can do our jobs better. We came to learn, not to be tested!" 

"It makes me wonder about any sort of teacher training courses. I'm not sure I would want to go anymore."

Then somebody said, "We should write a test at the end of the course and all of us should get a 5!" 

Of course, my question was: "How would that be fair, do you think? How can you tell whether you have all learned the material of the course equally well?" "Well, because we all came here to learn, and we all do the best we can. Even if some of us just come to get the 30 points for the course, it is their personal choice and responsibility if they do not make the best of what they get here." - replied another participant.

The majority of the comments were still on the line of  "This is not fair, they cannot do this to us!" to which at one point there was a teacher in almost every group saying that: "Look, there's nothing we can do. Let's just do what we were required to do, write the test and get a grade. There's no point in discussing it. It's not going to take us anywhere."

Another person stood up and said: "Look, we are all responsible people here. Why don't we all give ourselves a grade at the end of the course. We are the ones who know best how much we have learned, how engaged we were during the course, how much energy we put into all of this. So let's give ourselves the grade we think it's fair at the end." "What grade are you, then?", I asked. The teachers all started to think and stayed silent. Then I asked them to put up their hands if they thought they were a "3". Some did, to which I then turned to them and said: "Can you please tell me, why you are a 3 and not a 5?" "How is your 3 the same as the other person's 3?" Nobody could answer.

As all these ideas were shouted out in shock and despair of trying to come up with something sensible, I started to write their comments on the board:
Not fair!
Not motivating!
All get top mark!
Test - nothing we can do!
Self-assessment!

When I finished writing their thoughts I turned around and said: "Welcome to the 'Fair Grading' session! And thank you very much for summarising how children feel when they are being graded." By this stage some of the teachers were on the verge of tears. 

So dear teachers, if this is how you, the best and most motivated teachers in Hungary feel about being graded, what is that you could do to help children come to school to learn, not to be tested, as you said?

I did then give teachers a practical model which I called "Grading for Learning" they could follow with slight adaptations for each age-group: primary, upper-primary and secondary education. I described an overgeneralised version of it about three years ago. I am aware that it is far from being ideal, but in the current state-sector education system this is the best I could think of and has always worked.

There were a lot of teachers coming up to me saying that they liked this model very much, some of them said they would adapt it slightly but definitely do it consistently to see the result for themselves. I wish you best of luck with it hoping that you will not forget how you felt in the first fifteen minutes of this session!

Any feedback on how it went, if you tried it out would be most welcome. Even in the form of a guest-post on this blog.

p.s. One of the teachers, the name of whom I will not say, said at the end of the session: "You know, Erika, my husband works at the Ministry of Education, and based on what he says about the new laws coming out now, what you said about us being graded is very much believable. Unfortunately." She seemed to be the saddest person in the room.

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