Also feel free to imagine that students have to find something else to care about than the bureaucracy of hurdles and credentials that "education" has become. Alfie Kohn writes in this article about rubrics that
[R]esearch shows three reliable effects when students are graded: They tend to think less deeply, avoid taking risks, and lose interest in the learning itself. The ultimate goal of authentic assessment must be the elimination of grades.In know it sounds crazy, but bear with me for a moment, because it's already being done successfully. As I've noted before, WGU uses assessments instead of grades, but that's not what I mean. No, I'm talking about sports. In intercollegiate sports, student-athletes create a performance history that takes different forms, depending on the sport. These records, videos, and other evidence show the results of performance. Something as artificial as a grade is unnecessary. But this is a very different model from what happens in the classroom. In business, a company is ultimately judged by its bottom line, not by its bond rating. The value of stock shares is not based on ratings by stock-pickers but by on the number on the ticker. In other words, actual performance is more valuable than someone's opinion about it.
What would performance look like for academics? I borrowed the idea the other day that understanding process is more important than looking at outcomes. It's a different, perhaps radical, departure from the way we think about classroom education.
At present, we give assignments, evaluate them according to some scale, and assign a grade. Then that's the end of it for most assignments. We accumulate those in some way and crank out an average to go on the grade sheet. These document outcomes: our assessment of work done. What would it look like to document process instead?
Before mulling that over, let's follow the rabbit further down the hole. If students didn't have grades to worry about, what would they do? It seems obvious that the diploma is just a "big grade" that they get at the end, so we have to get rid of that too. Does the NBA go looking for a "certificate of participation" by the NCAA or university when recruiting a college graduate? Somehow I doubt it.
So no grades, no diplomas, no degree programs, no graduates. The only thing left is direct evidence of participation and performance. This is a frightening thing from the perspective of a university administrator; half the bureaucracy just went out the window. What's left?
Building a culture of accomplishment would take time and restructuring. Instead of absolute ratings in the form of grades, we'd have student portfolios from the past that showcase what is possible with work and wit: not just finished products but also the process of creating them. I gave an example the other day of what this might look like. I assume that performance evidence would be housed in public portfolios that live in the cloud. These portfolios would have to look different from the ones we have now.
The sole purpose of coursework would be to be to lead students to demonstrate performance. Without grades or credentials to be a proxy between the student and potential employers (for example), only actual evidence of having accomplished something is under consideration. In this utopia, rather than students trying to find last minute extra credit to bump their grade up, they'd be demanding opportunities to show off accomplishment. Imagine that.
On the other hand, there are problems with this idea too. What's to prevent someone from padding their portfolio with stuff they didn't really do? Or simply buying a complete portfolio from a third world "portfolio farm"? The problem, represented schematically, is
Actual -> Representation -> ObserverIf there's any room to pretty up a representation, then the observer can be fooled. It's impossible for a NCAA basketball player to fake performance because it's on TV and in official records. So maybe the bureaucratic role of the university is simply to certify that, yes, this student really did this work, and provide context for it. In this way, the university would build up a corpus of official student accomplishment that it can show off. Of course, that only brings other trouble. Now it's the institutions themselves who want their product to look good, and could tilt the scales in any number of ways. Still, this may be the best compromise.
Then there's the problem of evaluation. Diplomas and GPAs are easy to assess; portfolios are a big mess from a prospective employer's viewpoint. But there's always the possibility that third-party industrial psychology types could provide search services that would ultimately be much more useful than relying on credentials and grades.
If all this talk of change makes you grumpy, you can always go in the other direction. Here's some advice on how to make grading even more bureaucratic.