Put Away the Red Pen

I remember grading my students’ essays and making comments, asking questions, probing for more and then assigning the grade. I spent an inordinate amount of time as an English teacher providing feedback and grading essays. Then, I would hand them back, my students looked at the grade, very few paid any attention to the comments I made and moved on.  

It was painful.

What I had done was the equivalent of an autopsy.  The final product had already been completed and I hadn’t built in the time or the expectation to go back to revise or make it better.  I had invested a lot of time and energy giving feedback, and writing really thoughtful comments, at the most ineffective time in the learning process- after it was over.

What shifted my thinking about this is an analogy from Jan Chappuis, formative assessment expert and author, who compared grading in the classroom to getting kids to clean up their bedrooms, both arduous tasks. Imagine you ask your child to clean their room, and they don’t. You ask again and they put in a minimal effort to throw some clothes under the bed or in the closet (or maybe this is just my kids). Imagine at the end of the week you have guests coming over and the room is still not cleaned so you go in and pick up all the clothes and clean the room the way it was supposed to be done and tell your children, this is what I expect of you next time. Another approach is just close the door. In the end, your children’s half-hearted attempts are reinforced and they learn that you will do the work for them or just move on when they don’t “get it” or do what they were supposed to do.

Jan likened this approach to getting a paper returned that looks like it has been massacred by the red pen where a teacher “grades” an assignment by making all the necessary revisions for the students.  This approach teaches learners to wait the teacher out and they will make all the corrections for them. If you require students to re-submit the corrections they can just copy the corrections you made with minimal thinking or effort or they just get a bad grade and move on, like closing the bedroom door. Either way, there is a lot of effort made by the teacher and minimal effort and/ or growth experienced by the learner.

Instead of the teachers or the evaluators doing all the work, changing how and when we give feedback in school can have a huge impact on learning and growth when we create the systems where learners can take ownership of the process rather than just being recipients of a grade.

Create Structures for Ongoing Critique and Revision

I don’t care how old you are or how successful you are, getting negative feedback, a poor performance review or a page full of edits doesn’t feel good. But just because it is hard doesn’t mean we should avoid critique because it’s valuable to the learning process.

I often see extremes where the grade is the focus and in the name of rigor, students worked is marked up, seemingly without regard for the individual, and high expectations are upheld. On the other side, we conflate a positive culture with making everyone feel good and avoid addressing areas of growth or challenges because we don’t want people to feel bad. It’s both possible, and necessary, to value individuals and their efforts, while also addressing skills and behaviors that need improvement. If you often celebrate success and reflect on growth, it is easier to address challenges in the spirit of improvement when people make mistakes or haven’t quite achieved the level of proficiency that is desired. This is also way more effective if you have regular opportunities and structures for feedback to address challenges and it is clear that it is an opportunity to learn, rather than simply giving a final grade for evaluation.

One of my favorite examples of this is the video clip, Austin’s Butterfly, where Ron Berger details the journey of the project with elementary school students to highlight the impact of critique and revision.  I love this video because it shows how all learners can move from an initial draft to a higher quality product with guidance and support but also that even our youngest learners are capable of providing such support to one another. Austin, a first-grade student, was creating a scientific drawing of a butterfly for a notecard that was being sold to raise funds for a butterfly habitat. Over the course of six different drafts, Austin dramatically improved his drawing and accuracy based on the actual picture of the butterfly with kind, specific, and helpful feedback to improve. This video is powerful and, as the Models of Excellence website states, “The progress of the drawing from a primitive first draft to an impressive final draft is a powerful message for educators: we often settle for low-quality work because we underestimate the capacity of students to create great work. With time, clarity, critique and support, students are capable of much more than we imagine.” When we raise our expectations and create the conditions where learners feel valued, supported, and expected to achieve, they will often go above and beyond.

Honor the Learning Process

Even as I got better at giving feedback throughout the learning process, I have always struggled with grading.  It doesn’t make me feel good to simplify the hard work of learners to a grade or a number or a quadrant on a rubric. No matter how aligned you think you are to the standards or whatever your target, grading is subjective. I want learners to produce their best but reducing hard work, growth, struggle, questions, mistakes, revisions, or minimal effort on an assignment to a grade or a number will never accurately communicate what the learner knows and the next steps. Yet, I have to give a grade and the second I do, I know that it becomes the focus rather than the learning.  As an educator, I am always searching for the learning and the growth to matter, not the grade.  

As a teacher, I blocked off class time at the end of each quarter to reflect on the goals my students and I had set at the beginning of the quarter. Students documented evidence of their work that they were proud of and each student would do a 3-2-Q Reflection: three success or things they were proud of, two areas that they wanted to improve, and a question that they had for further inquiry or growth. By having students reflect on their growth, they led the process and took ownership of their learning and efforts to improve.

Much like grades and student evaluations, teacher evaluation and accountability systems can often feel like they are done to teachers rather than in service of growth and can be frustrating. To create more transparency in our learning, instead of following the traditional evaluation protocol, I used this same self-assessment process with my team at the University of San Diego. The best part was that individuals shared their strengths, opportunities for growth, and a question to guide their next steps. This reflection informed performance evaluations and ensured that the team had ownership in the process and collected their own evidence of growth and goals, rather than having all the feedback coming from the top down.

Making the learning process public and openly sharing reflections is a great way to highlight progress and move forward to the next level individually and collectively. We still completed the obligatory paperwork for the evaluations, but the feedback and assessment were more authentic and we felt a sense of shared ownership in the process that made it a powerful learning experience, not just a task.

Put Away the Red Pen

How do you find and celebrate the positive for students? Are people recognized for the talents and gifts they have? It’s important to shine the spotlight on others, to notice efforts and acknowledge success, and target specific areas for growth. When learners experience success and are noticed for it, they are more willing and confident to persevere through the challenges.  Similarly, when improvement happens gradually over time (as most does), it’s sometimes hard to see the growth. Being intentional about reflecting on growth and sharing both successes and lessons learned can build confidence and ownership. Much attention has been paid to Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset.  Her research has helped us see that the brain is like a muscle and can grow with effort rather than seeing people as being naturally smart or lacking control over their own abilities, which is also referred to as a fixed mindset. To maximize learning opportunities, it is important that there is not only room for mistakes but that we put away the red pen and create more opportunities to reflect, revise, and improve.

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3 Replies to “Put Away the Red Pen”

  1. I’m with you, Katie! I am curating resources for teachers so they can give feedback only – and not grades. tinyurl.com/FeedbackBinder I’ll add this post there some place, too. Thank you for sharing! I’m in my second full year of not giving grades (until students and I meet at the end of the term to discuss the evidence), and students revise a TON!

    1. Awesome, Joy! Thanks for curating and sharing these resources.

  2. Thank you for writing this!
    Motivating us teachers to keep doing our work well because it can really be very fruitful.
    And encouraging use to keep improving on our professional practice!

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