Let’s talk grades, young man.

I haven’t seen my nephew since Christmas, so I took him out for some errands this weekend, thereby giving us some needed catch-up time and his parents some needed alone time. For reference, G (as my nephew will be called) is my sister’s only child. He’s 14, and he’s going through the awkward stages of puberty. This means he towers over his mom now, walks with a little uncertainty, and his voice is hovering two octaves below his uncle Ben’s. Where’s the time gone, man?

For a little more about G, he is autistic; he often addresses his elder family members by their first names (his mom is ‘Gina’); he often stammers through his thoughts in a halting, stream-of-conscious way. For example, when asked if he thought homeschooling was a good idea, his response was this:

G: Kinda. I think it is… well, A) they don’t have to be… eh.. and I mean.. eh.. I’m not sure, I guess, I’m going to totally,.. I do… Yeah, I really do not think… eh, I will… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

For this reason, I will simplify the conversation we had for expediency, as I would like to share his thoughts on our education system with you, dear reader. At times he is contradictory. At others, quite pensive. He gives no full answers, but he’s brutally honest in his attempts. I tried to keep my inputs to a minimum, and I prodded mostly to keep him on topic. I have left some tangents along for context and flavor. [some of my inner thoughts are available, too].

Here’s how it went down: Driving down 460, I asked him “How’s school going, G?,” and he promptly dove into a dialog about the current conditions of learning in the school system, beginning with [wait for it] assessments – our current class topic! I realized how interesting this might be for some, so I asked if I could record. He agreed but continued talking before I could fully capture his next sentence. It began along these lines: “Grades are killing learning, Uncle Ben. They should do away with grades and create…”

B: Wait, what? We need to ‘create more _’ what?

G: World preparation centers. We need world preparation centers.

B: What are ‘world preparation centers?’

G: I guess they help students to prepare for the world.

B: And you think there should be more of them?

G: I think they should exist.

B: Okay.

[you heard it here first, folks. make it happen and send the kid some college cash.]

G: One should exist, and we’ll see how that does with students… [long pause] I guess school technically is. I think we are entering a new age – the information age, or something. And, I think technology is helping learning. I mean, there’s online school, and more and more students are being home-schooled… [long pause]

B: And you think that’s a good thing?

G: Kinda. I think it is. Well… [sigh]

B: Take your time.

[See what I did there? G dives into a long discussion of the political climate, a favorite topic of his, and he states our country needs better people in the world.]

B: How do you suspect we get better people?

G: I don’t know. We should educate them better. Yeah, we need to educate them. And we need to stop teaching them stuff they don’t need. And we need to teach them stuff that they do need. People may not like school, so maybe we should have school… be important. We should try to fix school in some ways, I guess. Like, remember when you woke up early to go school?

B: Yeah. [I still get up early to go to school, but that’s beside the point].

G: Well, I hear that some schools in the UK are being asked to shift their school days an hour or two forward.

B: True.

G: Because at different stages of your life you have different sleep cycles. And, like, people around my age generally continue to sleep through the early part of the morning and don’t even start learning until later, like mid-morning.

B: What kinds of things do think students are learning that they don’t need?

G: I don’t know. [long sigh] I guess maybe school has its purpose. Let me ask you this, Ben: Do you think learning about the fact that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell that important?

B: It is if you’re a biologist.

G: Okay.

B: It’s good to know it’s out there.

G: I guess. Maybe we do need… I think…

B: I mean, in truth, I’ve never used it in my life. I do understand it a little bit, but… I’ve never had to use it.

G: I guess some people might have to use it. I guess school does have its purpose.

[We were just starting to make our exit]

G: By the way, I think tests are absolute… ugh! Maybe schools should stop worrying about tests. Because seriously, grades make students feel like they need to worry about grades. And I’m like, students shouldn’t have to worry. Students shouldn’t let grades define them.

B: Where are you learning this stuff?

G: I don’t know. I think I’m trying to do a little research in what people think of school, I guess.

B: Okay.

G: And, I think Ameri…

[FYI: G is not a fan of Trump, much to the happiness of his parents and to the chagrins of (some of) his grandparents. After the venting and much fine toeing of strong language boundaries, he mellowed into more typical teenager subjects of Kid Cudi, the Chili Peppers, Eminem, Facebook and Instagram. We were somewhere near Lowe’s when he picked up the thread again. And once again, I hit record in the middle of the action…]

G: It makes children feel like grades define who they are, even though they don’t. I mean, I know Gina told me to try the best I can, [but] I always dreaded… most kids are worried about, or always say, ‘what’s going to be on the test?

B: That’s true.

G: Eh, it’s just, I think school needs to teach more important things and have less tests. According to Google, tests can help children memorize, but… but I’m not sure if we should necessarily have, … [He loses his thought at the red light. I try to steer back into the lane.]

B: So, with the tests, did you ever feel that you were trying to study for the grades and only for the grades? Or were you actually enjoying what you were trying to learn? I mean…

G: I felt like I was just studying for the grades.

B: Okay.

G: Yeah. I guess it just felt like I had to learn it. I’m glad my mother was like, ‘Just try your best.’ I’m glad my mom didn’t get absolutely furious with me when I got a bad test score.

B: When did you get a bad test score?

G: I think I’ve gotten a couple bad ones throughout my school years.

B: Okay. [long pause]

B: So how do you learn? What’s the best way that you learn? What are you finding that’s most effective for you?

G: Um… I … I honestly don’t know. I guess when I was in home-school… Gina is really passionate about me learning. And, I kinda feel like I should be learning?

B: Okay, but do you want to?

G: Eh, no. I’m not really into that, but I’m like, ‘okay, I’ll look up this, and I’ll look up that.’ Some of the stuff that Gina wanted me look up was actually useful. However, some of it wasn’t… Gina says she’s not a good teacher… and I understand that [she’s] probably not a good teacher… but I really do think she could teach me a few life lessons. Actually, she does, and when she does teach me life lessons… I think she does a good job of that… I gue… yeah… [the struggle is real with this kid!]. I don’t know.…

[extra long pause]

All rivers must run their course. Our conversation was coming to an end. He later told me that his friends and his aides, the persons who guided him through the public school system, were the best resources he had for the enjoyment of learning. A quick note: after failing an SOL in 2017, G was required to spend his summer in school – no time for free play. His anxiety shot through the roof, and he could no longer focus without heavy medication and therapy. My sister applied for the Homebound program and pulled him out of public school. He has been in the program ever since and done well. He’s dropped most of his medications and doesn’t have to see his therapist so often. He is involved with his life and wants to make changes for the better. I’m so proud!

But, this also comes at the expense of not learning with his peers. This coming fall, he plans to attend an “alternative” school system, which shows promise to his interests, his well-being, and his abilities. It is my understanding they promote an emergent adaptive learning system, and I hope they are responsive to my nephew’s inquisitive mind. Anything has to be better than the traditional prescription. I look forward to his next report.

B: Thanks, G. We’ll catch up later.

G: Bye, Uncle Ben.

16 thoughts on “Let’s talk grades, young man.

  1. Ben, thank you for transcribing this conversation with your nephew! One of my cousins has ASD, and I have worked for the Virginia Tech Autism Clinic in the past, and the thing about the children and adults that I have worked with that always amazes me is that they have a keen idea that what is “normal” may not be so important. There’s so much that we do in school and life that “normal” people stress is necessary and important to do and learn, but it’s simply not the case. Too often we think we need to help people with different abilities, but I think we should also let their insights help us.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your conversation with your nephew. It really provides a different perspective on the way we are approaching schooling and assessment. I’m happy to hear that he is doing much better now that he’s homeschooled. I’m curious to learn more about the “alternative” schooling system.

    I think schools should focus more on developing relationships with people, “real life” skills, and being a better person. I agree that some of the subjects that are taught can be useless to some but they are still important to learn about, in your nephew’s case, science. Perhaps these courses need to be restructured in a way to teach the importance of science to society while also teaching students the necessary people skills and morals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely an interesting thought. And I agree: how can we create the content in a way that gives impact and meaning, even if it’s not in a subject they’d normally prefer. Thanks for the comment!

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  3. I think this provides a really useful alternative viewpoint on grading and the impact it has on students. However, part of the discussion seems to highlight the failings of the education system in general rather than necessarily being against assessment. Sure, knowing that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell isn’t particularly useful to people who don’t become biologists, but those classes also serve to show students paths they can take if they are interested in them. Additionally, the fact that school is often not preparing students “for the real world” doesn’t have an inherent critique on assessment, it just means its testing students on skills/facts/etc that aren’t relevant to the everyday of people’s live once they leave school. We can envision a situation in which “World Preparation Centers” also have tests, they just test the ability to balance a checkbook, or cook, or design a website (things my high school was fortunate enough to provide when I was going through it.)

    This isn’t to say I support testing though, its clear that the focused on “standardized tests” really don’t help anyone, divert resources and attention from actually engaging material and overall disconnect students from learning. I think being repeatedly tested over and over again that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell is unbelievably unhelpful, but somehow this method has been tied to school evaluation (itself a test of a school’s ability to achieve state mandated goals.).

    Ultimately, we might want to look at alternative forms of assessment for schools in general, and more specifically to test/assess students knowledge in a way that actually helps them learn material and doesn’t make them feel like they just need to get by. There was one professional development seminar I attended a few years ago where the speaker relayed to the class that in her class, students had to take and complete a “pre-test” before they could ever actually take the final “test” of the unit or week. At first I thought this was strange, but the more I think about it the more it fits with an iterative and potentially innovative form of student assessment. Yes, its still a test, but it tells a teacher or professor exactly where a student is, and indicates how the instructor can help the student before a final assessment is made. It allows for conferencing or a fine-tuning of teaching approaches to make sure no individual student is being missed. Perhaps there is still a discussion to be had on whether we should grade at all, but I think such a system could alleviate some of the concern about students worth/grades discussed above.

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    1. G mentioned that grades shouldn’t define students, and in this regard, I think he’s talking about A’s, B’s, C’s, etc… which I also don’t find extremely helpful. It doesn’t guarantee I understand the material; it shows more likely that I studied for the test.

      Think about this GEDI class: How many grades have we received? None. Our understanding of the material is being assessed through these blogs, comments, and our interactions during class. We don’t even have to agree with the content, and in fact, can freely give opposing statements about it – it still shows we’re looking at the material in a thoughtful and possibly more meaningful way. Through these blogs and comments, we are actually providing the feedback normally associated with grading. In a sense, you are peer-reviewing by evaluating me with your comments, which is providing feedback to me. Your comments are also providing feedback to the instructors about our understanding of the material, again, regardless of agreement or disagreement. We’re all “grading” each other, but in a completely organic way.

      The more I think about it, the more I’m sensing this class is doing its best to practice what it preaches. Make sense? It’s allowing freedom to learn without being restrictive or flippant. It’s requiring us to network and be mindful of our posts/responses. And even in thinking about it in this way, I’m totally okay with that. I’ll still give conflicting statements if I don’t completely agree with the material. (and if you’re reading this, oh professor, I may not always agree 100%, but I like this viewpoint).

      Lastly, I should have mentioned to G that even though I’ve never used mitochondria in my working life, I still find it very interesting. I’m not a biologist or geneticist, but those topics are absolutely fascinating given the right context. I mean, I don’t just listen to design podcasts or only read design journals. This is a crazy cool world!

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  4. Hey Ben, thanks for sharing this conversation with your nephew. Reading your post and Shannon’s (https://blogs.lt.vt.edu/skinzie/2019/02/17/life-without-grades/), it seems that home schooling can be effective because of no pressure of grades but again as you said, learning with peers is an effective experience in its own way. I am really glad to know that “alternate” schools exist and would like to learn more about it once your nephew starts going there.

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  5. Thanks Adbhut! I’ll be reading up on Shannon’s shortly. I have some qualms with home schooling, but I’ll save the rants for another day. In basic, I know some people who have done very well with it, and I know others whose parents never allowed them to keep an open mind. I’m also excited for this alternate, as it’s showing promise within my sister’s community for those student who have been in the system for a while. We’ll see!

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  6. Hey Ben! Thanks for this beautiful post, thoroughly enjoyed reading it and the comments that followed. Among the many important topics that you guys discussed, I would like to comment one specific point I picked up from your conversation with G. His mother’s passion about him learning encouraged him to look up stuff. I believe this is very important in the teaching and learning process. If we are passionate about some topic, that is contagious and instills interest in others who are listening to you. You are right, this world is full of fascinating stuff. Not everything is useful to everyone, but most things taught in school, if taught in more interesting ways, are very relevant to us.

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  7. My nephew’s well-being is my sister’s obsession, sometimes to his annoyance – he is a young teenager, after all!! It’s so wonderful to have people that are encouraging in the most wonderful ways. Thank you for the comment!!

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  8. Ben, I have a special needs son. My wife and I battled the school district for many years concerning what his needs are. As I watch the small microcosm that is just our small school, I have realized that many parents do not know the system that involves Individual Education Plans (IEPs). The school district is setup to keep people out instead of in those programs. I do not know what Gina did to engage the school about services that the school can provide for your nephew. I would strongly suggest your sister to explore what is needed for your nephew. This article was recently shared with me that might help: https://mommyevolution.com/look-like-special-needs/?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork

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    1. They worked with the school system and were able to have lots of speech & occupational therapies (which he still attends) and aides he loved (which he still is in contact with). The students that he went to class with all took great care of him. There just came a point when he realized he was different than the other students and he spiraled. Once his grades dropped, he really spiraled. The summer school was the straw, and would not go to school without a meltdown. It wasn’t an easy decision for my sister. I’m glad to see G more excited about going back. I’ve passed the info on to my sister. Thanks, John.

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  9. Hi Ben. Thanks to you and G for the great conversation. I know several adults and children with ASD who are so thoughtful, very much like your nephew. It’s almost as if they are more like “old souls” and wise in ways that most of us aren’t. G sounded like that in your conversation. If Gina and G have never hear of Temple Grandin – they should check her out; successful and inspiring ASD leader.
    https://www.templegrandin.com/

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    1. G drops the best bombs. When we first got the diagnosis we read and watched lots of Temple. Reading her books really helped us have a better understanding of ASD and prepared us for greater patience. “The Reason I Jump” is another good one we read, especially as the voice comes from a non-verbal teenager with severe ASD. All of these great examples are constant reminders that I don’t have the only perspective in the room. Thanks, Robin
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Reason_I_Jump

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