Public Schools

Posted on June 7, 2012


This weekend my friends, who had attended public school with me growing up, asked me if I would feel comfortable sending my daughter to the same schools that we attended (it’s a very good public school system in Concord, MA).

I had to say no. I wouldn’t be comfortable sending her to the same schools.

I think that opinion would change, though, if public schools eliminated grades and homework.

I think we use grades and homework in education as a means of forcing compliance. Learning is fun. We should be spending our time figuring out how to engage students with learning in ways that are enjoyable and challenging. We should be figuring out how to create learning environments that students want to engage with, not forcing students to engage with material in a way that requires all manner of extrinsic motivators just to get them to do it.

I started on this journey to explore education once I realized that I enjoyed learning outside of school much more than I had ever enjoyed learning inside of school. As I started to explore some alternative schools I discovered environments such as Sudbury Valley and Summerhill where students had complete autonomy (they could do what ever they wanted) and environments where the autonomy was still there, but the environment was more controlled, like Montessori.

In all of these environments it was clear that students were engaging with learning despite the absence of grades, testing, homework, requirements, etc. More importantly they had the opportunity to do deep dives in to the learning, moving at their own pace, taking breaks when necessary, etc. Such environments were far more reflective of my learning experiences outside of school.

Personally I think education is a public good. It needs to be integrated with the community, support the community, and be supported by the community. If the public schools would remove grades and requirements and focus more attention on making learning as accessible and engaging as possible rather than relying on carrots and sticks to keep students in line that would go a long way toward making me feel more comfortable putting my daughter in public schools.

I want to work with schools to figure out ways to ensure quality without relying on testing, to create environments that students want to engage with to the point where you can remove all of the grades and requirements and students will still engage with the material. I know it’s not easy, but I really think this is the directions education needs to take. We need to create environments that students want to interact with otherwise it’s too likely that they will start to associate the process of learning with the stress, lack of autonomy, and sense of failure that so often accompanies testing and grading.

We need to stop thinking about education as a filtering system and start thinking about it as a means of maximizing the potential of all students. Although the desire to receive a good grade is a motivating factor, receiving a low grade too often simply discourages students from trying. It’s a declaration that they are bad at a particular subject, not a challenge to improve.

You could argue that learning from failure is important and we need to teach students to bounce back from a bad grade, but failure happens naturally. We don’t need to impose it on students, and we need to create environments where the teachers are encouraging the students to persist, not where teachers are the ones creating the sense of failure.

If you still think that schools would never work without grading I encourage you to check out For The Love Of Learning, a blog by Joe Bower, a teacher with 10 years of experience who promotes doing away with grades.