19 May 2013

Grading Moratorium

I do not assign grades to students. 

If one is serious about students-their learning, their development, their empowerment-then implementing an end to grading is one of the most professional decisions any educator can make. In fact, letting go of grading actually allows me to be a better instructor. Ending the practice of arbitrarily-and yes, all grades are arbitrary at varying levels of abstraction-assigning grades allows me to focus more on individual student learning; working towards their goals, amplifying their strengths, and targeting their areas for improvement. From the standpoint of the students, the abolition of grading allows each student to focus more on their experience of learning in class. This moratorium on grading shifts the conversation amongst students, parents, and faculty from "how can I/my child get an A?" to "to what extent can I/my child learn more?"

The decision to end the apportionment of grades is one of the few unilateral decisions I've ever made in my classes. The rest of the time the students and I, or the students themselves, make choices about what do, how they will be assessed, and the ebb and flow of the course in light of our learning objectives. I've taught university and secondary school courses in politics, history, and geography for the past 9 years. What matters most in the classroom is relationships; period. To revisit Ted Sizer's often-quoted phrase, "I cannot teach a student well, whom I do not know well." Regardless of the lessons, toolkit, curriculum, carrots, and sticks that teachers use, what makes a learning experience beneficial for students and teachers alike is one where there is a positive and mutually-affirming relationship for everyone involved. 

Grades are problematic because they seek to quantify, judge, or rank this vital relationship between students and faculty in some way. I am not against quantification (we use game theory and statistics every day in class), judgement (students are empowered to make their own judgements about the world they observe and participate in), nor ranking (yes, some conflicts are more awful than others, some forms of governments are better than others, etc.) in and of themselves. As a thoughtful social scientist however, I am well aware of the limits of quantification in the study and assessment of individuals and groups. As an academic, I fully embrace the fact that much of our judgements and arguments are based on a variety of evidence, and that there are plenty of situations where more than a single judgement is correct.  It is antithetical to my mission as an educator of young women and men for me to exclusively rank and prioritize student learning and performance in such a way that would constrain a student's future opportunities to learn, progress, and enhance their futures. 

Grades are equally troublesome as they often become a primary extrinsic motivation for students. This is the sophisticated way of saying that earning grades can become the principal reason to go to school. Students in classrooms where student-centered learning is practiced are more likely to select challenging tasks for themselves and had less academic anxiety (Stipek et al. 1995). There is also a a negative correlation between performance an extrinsic rewards (Deci et al. (1999). Students are also less likely to persist in a task once the external reward was removed despite the fact that their level of interest in the subject remained constant (Stipek 1996, Deci et al. 1999). Ryan, Connell, and Plant (1990) contend that learning outcomes of intrinsic motivation are better than those obtained under extrinsic motivation. Of course, Plato may have said it best in The Republic when he wrote, "Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind." Whether you come from the standpoint of academic scholarship or a philosophical position, grades should not be used as either a carrot or stick as an incentive for students to learn.

I've always found that a conversation over grading is a negotiation. As a student, even in graduate school, I negotiated with my professors about my grades. The professors who impacted me the most were those who either took the time to sit, talk, and provide me the opportunities to develop my thinking in a constructive manner or the one professor who told me, "We don't agree theoretically; there's no way you'll get an A in this course." (in fact I didn't, the only non-"A" that I ever received in 7 years of graduate school). Of course, much of our work-in academia, or in the private or public sector-is centered on dialogue, processing information, and negotiation. We liaise with our colleagues about how to identify problems and what the best solutions are. We engage in lively and often contentious debate with stakeholders in all facets of our work. The preponderance of my own work as both an administrator and a member of my school's faculty is that of conversation; with students, parents, and colleagues alike.

Just as every educator I know-from some first-year teachers I work with to my mother who is well into her third decade of teaching-bristles at the idea of having their work "graded"; then why should I continue to inflict this process on my students? Any thoughtful consideration of the contemporary educational profession recognizes the limits of trying to reduce the assessment of classroom teaching to a checklist, a walkthrough, or a single, yearly observation. Why should I seek to replicate this failed system of disjointed assessment in the classes that I facilitate?  If teaching takes place in elaborate community environment, so too does learning; the two cannot be divorced from each other. My experience as an educational administrator-and in a previous vocation, as a division manager-has taught me that no single incident or type of evaluative toolkit can capture all the qualities of a teacher. As a manager, I need to understand the totality of our faculty members; what goes on inside and outside of their classrooms, how they contribute to student learning and the school community in a myriad of approaches. I need to do this so that I can fully invest and foster growth in teachers, out of respect for those with whom I work with day in and day out. It is for these same reasons that I feel strongly that students who take my classes deserve the same respect; a holistic approach to understanding, assessing, and augmenting their learning that is not narrowly limited to an archaic system of percentages and whimsical letter grades.

Education is a complex social experience. Understanding the process by which individuals and groups learn must be understood from a elaborate ontological standpoint; art and science alike. Any attempt to use a singular set of methodologies to appreciate, analyze, and synthesize an individual's learning experience leads to unreliable (or worse, detrimental) information about the student herself. Consequently, it is my responsibility as an educator to simultaneously understand student learning from an individual perspective and in a broader social context, all while providing personalized guidance to the learner towards promoting meaningful learning through authentic assessment. Properly understood, the designation of an "88%" or a "B+" seems wholly inadequate and inappropriate when faced with the reality of teaching and learning.

However, since grades are still a part of my school's practices and are key to a student's future opportunities for university admission, I have not eliminated grades entirely from the classes that I facilitate. On the contrary, I have asked my students to be primarily responsible for deciding what their letter grade will be in our course.  Individuals are motivated by their sense of autonomy, their mastery of a subject or problem, and their sense of purpose (Pink 2009). Similarly, Ariely contends that an individual's motivation is the sum of payment + meaning + creation + challenge + ownership + pride + identity (TED 2013). Grades, particularly those derived from quantitative measures and schemes, tend to diminish student motivation and achievement (Kohn 2011) and are antithetical to proficiency based assessment (Kunz 2011). Practically speaking, orienting student outcomes to learning, as opposed to grades, provides a meaningful learning experience for student, class, and instructor alike (Bower 2011; Barnes 2013). Thus, students have the agency to and are accountable for choosing and justifying their grade each term in our class.

But let's move beyond theory and argument and consider some evidence. I regularly survey my students on their perceptions of the narrative feedback they receive along the lines suggested by Quinton and Smallbone (2010). Students consistently report that our approach in class allows them to explore, create, take risks, and develop synthetic understanding of complex phenomena in ways that they would otherwise be prevented from doing if their were grades attached to their work. In addition, students describe the ways in which our focus on learning without grades enhances their intrinsic motivation to learn, which then in turn leads to more developed and sophisticated learning outcomes.

The reflections, arguments, and documentation I post here to this blog substantiate how students demonstrate their understanding in our class. Throughout each year, students read hundreds of pages of text from primary and secondary sources, including policy and academic journals. Students watch and analyze days of documentary footage and expert analysis. They research complex topics and phenomena, participate in diplomatic and crisis games and simulations nearly every week. They write analytical summaries of the literature they encounter; develop, research, and communicate their own research through papers and presentations; and reflect thoughtfully on their experience through regular debriefings, surveys, and conversations with me. None of this is conjecture-this is actual work done by students at a variety of academic levels throughout the school year. Throughout our time together, the students and I are keenly aware of their own intellectual strengths, as well as areas in which they should improve. The students' and my own mission, each and every day, is to hone and amplify their understanding of world politics; elegantly planned, executed, and refined without the distraction of grades. I have no qualms whatsoever with a student determining what grade goes into the grade book at the end of term; it is her or his learning that is my paramount concern. 

I am under no illusions; the elimination of grades in one's class is not an easy shift to implement. There is not one singular way to construct a learning environment without grades; each of which is fraught with as many challenges as their are opportunities. However, for the punk rock/hardcore kid in me, this decision to give respite to grades in the classes I facilitate has been a thoroughly liberating experience. Most importantly, my decision to emancipate students from grading allows our class to be entirely focused on the students and their learning process; this is what the experience should be.  Please feel free to contact me if you'd like to further the conversation, either via email on Twitter




Barnes, M. (2013). Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centered classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Bower, J. (2011, May 11). My degrading philosophy: Q&A. For the Love of Learning. Retrieved from
Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125(6), 627–668.
Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3). Retrieved from
Kuntz, B. (2011). Focus on learning, not grades. Education Update, 54(5). Retrieved from,-Not-Grades.aspx
Quinton, S., & Smallbone, T. (2010). Feeding forward: Using feedback to promote student reflection and learning - a teaching model. Innovations in Education and Teaching International47(1), 125-135
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Ryan, R. M., Connell, J. P., & Plant, R. W. (1990). Emotions in nondirected text learning. Learning and Individual Differences, 2(1), 1–17. 
Sizer, T. (2000). Opening remarks. Speech presented at Fall Forum, 2000 in Rhode Island, Providence. Retrieved from
Stipek, D., Feiler, R., Daniels, D., & Milburn, S. (1995). Effects of different instructional approaches on young children’s achievement and motivation. Child Development, 66(1), 209–223. 
Stipek, D. J. (1996). Motivation and instruction. In D. C. Berliner & R. C. Calfee (Eds.), 
Handbook of educational psychology (pp. 85–113). New York: Macmillan.
TED (Director). (2013, April). Dan Ariely: What makes us feel good about our work?[Video]. Retrieved from

17 May 2013

Using simulations to understand global politics: The Democratic Republic of Congo

This past Tuesday, our IB Global Politics (GLOPO) class completed the final, major simulation in our study of Peace and Conflict. This simulation was by far our most complex of the year; a multi-party, various-actor, day-long negotiation covering four broad topics centered on ending violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Students worked in either pairs or as solitary representatives of the DRC, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, South Africa, United States, Belgium, UN (MONUSCO), the African Union, Congo Liberation Movement (MLC), and Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD). The basic framework for the simulation was published by the  Public International Law and Policy Group based in Washington D.C. As outlined in their planning document, the students had nearly complete control over the agenda, rules, events, and other dynamics of the simulation.


One of the features of this simulation is that there are no rules, save for the timetable for negotiations. Students were implicitly tasked with defining the parameters of their negotiations. This absence of specific rule sets initially led to near-bedlam in the opening plenary session. As the students enthusiastically represented their country, group, or organization's interests, they found themselves operating in a context where none of them could successfully articulate their points or reach consensus with potential allies. As an instructor, it was wonderful to sit back and watch students wrestle with predicaments of their own making. More importantly, it was inspiring to see the delegates learn from their failures and construct rules for dialoge and relations amongst all of the parties so that more substantive negotiations could occur.


This simulation was an opportunity for students to apply two broad areas of academic literature that they've encountered in this unit. As I've previously written, the GLOPO students have read a good deal on the causes, practices, effects, and solutions to ethnic civil wars. In addition, students took the opportunity to read both primary and secondary resources on the DRC; specifically Gambino (2008) from the Council on Foreign Relations. The fact that students came prepared to the simulation with binders full of UN documents, maps, source material, and then referenced these in their speeches, negotiations, and written resolutions is a testament to how students see the value of problem- and simulation-based learning. I would also argue that this is a preferred pedagogical approach to that of lecture- and worksheet-based learning that is still found in far too many classrooms today. 


Another important facet of the simulation was the way in which students came to appreciate concepts of power and sovereignty, along with the more obvious concepts of peace, conflict, and conflict resolution. As each/pair of students represented a different variety of global actor-states, IOs, non-state actors-their challenge was to at once understand how much influence they had based on their power (hard, soft) capabilities, as well as their individual abilities to set the agenda, negotiate, and to otherwise pursue their chosen interests. For example, students representing the African Union quickly made the correct recognition that their ability to influence the process towards peace negotiations was limited by nearly every party in the negotiation. Consequently, they chose to look to MONUSCO and South Africa's leadership as a way to orient their negotiations. In contrast, student representing non-state actors such as the MLC and RCD found that they could ignore or even challenge seemingly-more powerful governments and IOs because of their perceived power and influence on the ground in the provinces of North and South Kivu. In moments that would make the late E.H. Carr, George Kennan, Hans Morgenthau, Hedley Bull, and (recently) Kenneth Waltz smile from the great beyond, the power disparities and dynamics that the students had to deal with made negotiations particularly poignant as they came to understand that their ideas alone did not always lead to the achievement of their desired outcome.


As an instructor, my favorite part of an simulation is debriefing. After the intensity of discussion, debate, and tribulations of a game or simulation, debriefing offers students the opportunity to reflect and speak about their experiences while it is fresh in their minds. In this circumstance, the students offered an arrangement of ideas to prompts relating to their goals, how other players participated in the process, and even to the nature of the outcomes themselves. This variety was contingent on factors such as their own knowledge of world politics and the position they held during the simulation; and yet each student's rejoinder was sufficiently supported by their experiences. For those of us in the International Baccalaureate world, this "TOK moment" was just another reminder of how knowledge is contextualized, particularly when studying complex phenomena. 

Finally, it certainly goes without saying that no grades were ever a part of this endeavor. Students received feedback throughout the research and planning process; although at this point in the year, it's more a matter of getting out of the way of students so that they can succeed. I also provided feedback during the simulation (minimal) and the debriefing (more substantive). Again, my task as the instructor is to coach and to support students in the learning process   Obviously, constructing a ROLE requires building trust and rapport with students, along with the relevant and challenging resources, scenarios, and other environmental factors that make for a dynamic and meaningful class experience. That said, this is another example of what Dan Ariely sees as the formula for motivation and meaningful work; payment + meaning + creation + challenge + ownership + pride + identity. Providing students with the opportunity to embrace all of these rewards is what made this simulation so successful; I couldn't be more proud of our work.  

Meaningful Assessment in a ROLE classroom

I introduced the following survey to the IB Global Politics students this morning. With two weeks left in the term, and with the students working on their IB Internal Assessments, I wanted a way for students to authentically document and reflect upon their work this term. The most significant facet of this survey-one that I've offered in some form or another for the last several years-is that the students have the responsibility of determining their grade for the term. Students are tasked with accounting for and reflecting upon their approach to their learning; readings, research, application, communication, performance, and more. As always, my primary mission is to provide students with a challenging intellectual environment where I can offer personalized feedback on their learning. What is not a part of my mission is to arbitrarily assign grades to a student's work. This survey allows each student and I to frame a conversation about their grade in our course, something that we'll do in the final week of the year.

06 May 2013

Diplomacy, STEM, and the need to teach future diplomats.

The U.S.'s Anemic Civilian Outreach Abroad - David Rohde - The Atlantic

One of the dominant themes of our IB Global Politics course is that diplomacy and politics is not an easy enterprise. We play games and simulations in order to replicate the complexity of world politics. This is not done simply to facilitate learning in our classroom-which of course this does. We play games to highlight the obstacles, struggles, and often-muted successes that are part and parcel of contemporary geopolitical affairs. In addition, the research, problem-solving, and negotiation skills that are learned and honed in these games and simulations don't always translate into success, victories, or As (there are, of course, not really any "grades" in our class). The value of this sort of education is in the experiential realm. Preparing future leaders is not only about providing them with facts, figures, and methods for understanding. Preparing future practitioners of world politics means allowing them to engage, make mistakes, and to learn from scenarios that will inform their decisions in an unforeseen crisis, negotiation  or relationship at some future time to come. This is why decades-old programs like Model United Nations and newer projects like ICONS and Statecraft are so important-they help to provide our future diplomatic corps with the experience and tools to be successful in an ever-changing global landscape.

Successful arms control, peace, and trade negotiations are the result of tireless and sustained efforts on the part of dedicated professionals. Unfortunately, as Rohde contends above, we may be falling short in this endeavor. This is not to disparage any of our current professionals, some of whom are former teachers, classmates, and students of mine. Rather, Rohde reminds us that diplomacy is at once difficult and a vital endeavor; far tougher and arguably as important that isolated time in a laboratory. We need more innovative approaches to diplomacy, as well as incentives and pathways for more capable students to become professionals in the diplomatic class.

As Jordan Weissmann recently documented in The Atlantic, the United States may actually have an oversupply of graduates and workers in STEM programs. Rather than contributing to a future educational and economic bubble of STEM students who end up working out of field (a joke about English majors and baristas comes to mind), shouldn't we consider the ways in which we are training and expanding opportunities for future diplomats, foreign service officers, negotiators, policy and country experts, research and intelligence, analysts, and the host of other global professionals who work to promote and secure our country's interests? As Rohde's article reminds us; the world is always changing, but the U.S. approach to diplomacy is not. Perhaps we should be more thoughtful about supporting our current approach to statecraft as well as the ways in which we build our future diplomatic corps.

01 May 2013

Simulation: Rushing River Cleanup

The Rushing River Cleanup simulation is a thee-party, single-issue negotiation over the cost of complying with government regulations. We ran this simulation in one 90-minute period, with only about 60 minutes for the actual simulation. After dividing the class into three groups by "Acme's," "Borland's." and "Chemco's" groups had time to prepare their negotiation strategis, tactics and talking points before embarking in negotiations. While the distribution of the fictional government resources is explicated in the game itself, the challenge for students lies in negotiating how to divide the expected payoff, given their company's contribution to the project and water output that must be sanitized by the project. There were plenty of opportunities to test out some of our PD strategies (Nice, Retaliatory, Forgiving) during the negotiations as there could only be one outcome/distribution of funds, and that teams can choose to either cooperate with two other parties or to defect against one and cooperate with the other. Given that agreements between two parties had a finite time limit, this also meant that teams had to make decisions in a more stressful environment than they normally would have had to work with. We also used two debriefing exercises for the simulation. The in class debrief was quite contentious as one team was still smarting from having lost a deal right at the deadline and then a set of survey questions to which students replied to via Google Docs. Both were insightful as students had the opportunity to reflect on how their strategies and tactics worked out in the simulation.