Number grades are not everything?


The child does not want to be ignored. This is the whole problem of youth. František Miko

Girls and boys in our schools will soon receive their end-of-year report cards. There will be mostly feelings of relief associated with this event - both on the part of the pupils and on the part of the teachers. Learning and effort, exams and papers will all be over in time. Figuratively and literally. But learning itself will continue - children cannot not learn, it is just that what, when and how they give their inquisitive attention will not be within the reach of the teacher's care. Among the plus points of out-of-school learning is the absence of classification symbols. The question of evaluation in school is an old one. And it tends to come back at a time when pupils' results are being summarised and recapitulated by teachers, while they consider what number to use to express their totality on the school certificates.

Grading is such a powerful and ingrained synonym for evaluation that even a cursory critical reflection on its impact can raise suspicions of an attempt to assassinate the stability of the school system - for example, because pupils' learning outcomes, as captured by grades, serve as a code of communication between teachers in the same school and between teachers in several schools at different grade levels. Yet it is clear that evaluation and grading are two distinct activities - while evaluation is a response to the extent and quality of learning, grading is mainly a means of rewarding or punishing pupils for predominantly memory performance. Perhaps the most striking effect of this phenomenon is the year-end race of pupils for a grade number, which is after all somehow supposed to prove that they deserve and are entitled to it. In this sense, the end-of-year report card ceremony is a triumph of extrinsic motivation rather than a relevant response to learning progress; it is more a celebration of the persistence of the struggle for a better symbol of learning than a triumph of objective evaluation of achievement in the development of cognition, thought, and communication. And these are educational goals that Empress Maria Theresa certainly did not have in mind when she reformed system of education and introduced report card grades as an innovation. Prince Potemkin, a contemporary of Maria Theresa, would surely have been delighted to see in what form and in what surroundings his cultural legacy still survives in the 21st century.

Any criticism of grades and grading can look like yet another futile attempt to beat the grading iceberg that lives comfortably beneath the surface of our schools and on the report cards of our students. It regularly surfaces before grading meetings, lest pupils, teachers and parents forget that, while the learning process is important, it is still what is written on the report card that matters most in the end. In the shadow of this iceberg, then, it is easy to lose sight of whether and how the school is helping children to think better, to know better, and to communicate more variously. In doing so, we all know that what matters is what preceded the grades, what learning pathways the pupils have taken, what they have produced on it, how they have thought about the learning problems, how they have dealt with the learning situations that the teachers have prepared for them. If anything is really worth recording and perhaps even celebrating, it is this kind of learning diary, which is created just by pupils working cognitively in school, trying things out, talking about many things in an engaging and interesting way, writing authentically about different topics, asking spontaneous questions, in short, living in school by learning. The content of such a learning diary emerges in every child - from first grade in elementary school to graduation, it will generate dozens of texts, pictures and images, projects, scenarios and skits, and hundreds of immediate opinions and thoughtful attitudes on nuanced topics and issues. Each pupil completes thousands of lessons, at the end of which there is an original material result, a new knowledge product or a unique communication fact. In sum, this learning summary represents an objective, i.e. demonstrable, after many years available and always - not only before the classification board - evaluable result of the pupil's cognitive development and personal progress, whether it is slight and gradual for one pupil or leaps and bounds for another. We use the term learning diary only as an auxiliary term; a more didactically accurate term is learning portfolio, which we have already written about. However, we have not discussed in detail how a portfolio can benefit the key protagonists in education - pupils, parents and teachers.

Pupils make some effort in learning, which (in addition to easily testable memory traces) builds up a range of competencies - initially simple cognitive methods, later more complex thought processes and habits of understanding. This refinement happens naturally; it is essentially a developmental necessity. It is precisely this which makes them the subjects of education, on whom the results of their efforts depend. The fact that the grading of school performance is practically the teacher's responsibility alone undermines the value of the child's participation in his own learning - if he lacks the means by which he too can evaluate (not grade) his own learning, then we really cannot want him to be able to assess his own work adequately, to recognise his own strengths and weaknesses, to humbly accept or appropriately reject the evaluations of others. Grades - whatever they may be - say nothing about how pupils consider their own learning, what their school success looks like and might look like.

In addition to preserving the outcomes of past learning situations, the portfolio should provide a space for pupils to plan for their future learning; the portfolio should encourage children to formulate, and not be afraid to formulate, answers to the questions of their educational future: what do I want to know? What else would I like to learn? What did I find interesting at school that I would like to know more about? How will I do that? Who do I want to talk to about that? Without answers to questions like these, we do not allow pupils to think about their learning in a more focused way, we do not give them a chance to influence it, we effectively ignore their claim to plan cognitive activities in school. How, then, can the parents of these children take seriously the social consensus on the need to prepare pupils for life in the 21st century if we at school are not even interested in what they would like to learn tomorrow and what they would like to improve on next school year? A portfolio, then, should not only be a diary, but also a learning plan; it should be a record of past learning and a subjective plan for future learning.

What was in the school? There is perhaps no more typical question a parent asks when they meet their school-age child after work. The typical answer of children is also well known. It's not unusual for parents to be satisfied with that answer-no answer, either, because they're exhausted by the job and maybe even a little glad that there was nothing at school, so it's actually okay. After all, if there was something, it would surely be a problem, which they usually already know about because the EduPage app - often in the form of a number grade - has reported it to them. It's just that not everything in which pupils are cognitively engaged is immediately graded. Let's face it, a grade in EduPage is satisfyingly quick information-not-information, because it captures nothing essential of the learning process - neither the texts produced, nor the learning problems solved, nor does it provide insight into mastered learning situations, nor exceptional creative initiatives. And it certainly does not capture how the child perceives his or her own learning. The grade only informs the parent of a partial teacher's judgement in the form of a classification number. This is one of the reasons why parents - often under the influence of natural feelings - succumb to the illusion of their offspring's level of cognition and thinking, as they lack access to the real results of their child's development. This is perhaps one of the reasons why parents often succumb to the urge to insist on better grades, much less on the child's learning itself. The portfolio should therefore be seen as an educational tool that extends and refines a parent's view of how their child is learning and how the school is helping them to do so. There is no doubt that better informing parents about their child's learning progress through a well-prepared portfolio will help them to get to know their own child better and increase their interest in their child's performance at school. It is to be expected that the systematic incorporation of portfolios into Slovak education can quickly and effectively strengthen not only children's relationship with their own learning, but also parents' relationship with their schools, so that they can consider the importance of teachers' work on the basis of real results.

It is reasonable to expect that many outstanding teachers will - thanks in part to their pupils' portfolios - be more likely to experience professional success from their own work than the frustration of an undignified social status. Indeed, their efforts often remain invisible, hidden in the shadow of parents' overriding concern for grades. Certainly, bouquets handed in before the last bell of the school year will not bring a teacher's work into the social limelight. Not even if the children feel and express that the teacher is wonderful and perfect. With a portfolio, all education protagonists will be able to know and see concretely what is the human and professional value of caring people who, in cabinets, classrooms and their own homes, think about and prepare students for learning. Understandably, we build relationships with people, despite many technological innovations, primarily through conversation; since Socrates, it has been the most basic and communicatively effective means of learning (if Socrates had a portfolio, perhaps the phrase "I know that I know nothing" would not have gone down in history, but "I know what I know and what I want to know"). A portfolio is an innovation, but one that does not allow us to forget what the pupils have created with their teachers, the effort they have made alongside them and the results of their learning together - this is the real content of the relationship pupils with their teachers, what they can truly appreciate them for, what they deserve a bouquet and a thank you for - not only at the end of the school year and only after they have received their report card with their grades.

Yes, number grades really aren't everything. If anything will really matter to a person in the 21st century, it will be his or her education. We have known this for a long time. It may just be that it will be everything. We should therefore allow pupils to have the experience of learning, to be allowed to retain and to be reminded of it, so that they can experience the joy of the real results of their growth and progress in the long term. In this way, we could show them the importance of education through their own efforts and the fact that these efforts sooner or later lead to success. We owe it to them - both as adults and as a society that wants, should and can prepare them for the future.

Karel Dvořák PhD. – DaCoSiDe expert tasked with the creation of A2/B1-level methodological guidelines and certification tools


MIKO, František. Poznámky. Nitra : Univerzita Konštantína Filozofa v Nitre 2008

DE JAEGHER, Darina – ĎURIŠ, Boris – GREGOROVÁ, Ivana – KOVAĽOVÁ, Jana – KRATOCHVÍL, Viliam – MNÍCHOVÁ, Jana. Moje portfólio FinQ – úroveň A1 až B2. Bratislava : Eduawen Europe 2021