A Year Without Grades
My children completed their first year in an Irish primary school. Woohoo! Next year it is on to 2nd and 5th grade. How did that happen so fast? Time is flying, people. Just flying by.
When we moved to Ireland almost a year ago, my kids had been attending a terrific public school in the southern United States. Suffice it to say, this year has been a big adjustment for all of us – especially them.
Side note: My kids are not in the Irish public school system. They attend a private primary school. I detailed those reasons here. If you’re an expat moving to Ireland, it’s worth the read.
My kids were SO DISAPPOINTED when they learned their Irish school did not issue report cards. WHAT?!?! That’s right. No report cards.
You see, up until now, we had been rewarding them for earning “good” report cards.
It was a fantastic motivational tool, but I’ve been wondering lately if we were really rewarding the right thing?
It seems, in some instances, doing well in school is less about intelligence and more about being able to work well within a particular school environment.
Theoretically, a good report card should mean the student has mastered the subject. As a person who has crammed for a test and then promptly forgot everything as soon as the test was over, I know that’s not necessarily the case.
So what’s it like for your kids to NOT receive grades for an entire year?
Speaking ONLY from our experience at the primary school level, I’ve found the difference between receiving grades and not receiving grades is subtle, but profound.
I liken it to the difference between eating your dessert and really savoring every single bite of your dessert. In both instances you get to eat dessert and the same calories are applied, but the person who takes the time to savor each morsel gets so much more out of the experience.
LEARNING WITH ALL THE SENSES
At my children’s school, a big part of their day was spent learning through hands-on methods. For instance, math is regularly done with blocks, beads and other manipulatives.
Kids are encouraged to get up and move around. In my son’s class, they can even take off their shoes when indoors. If you’ve ever met my son, you’ll know how huge this was for him! It also explains some of the missing socks.
Instruction is done in small groups or one-on-one.
Curriculum is integrated in a project-based learning format. For instance it could look like this:
Read about a scientist and a particular experiment.
Look on the globe to see where he/she lived.
Use math to figure out how to recreate the experiment.
Document the results in writing and include colorful drawings and graphics.
Clean up your station. Put away materials neatly for the next group to use.
Give an oral report to the class on your findings.
SUCCESS IS REDEFINED
In a ‘no report card’ environment, success is measured differently.
A report card does not define you as a student. Instead, mastering a new skill or subject over time does.
My daughter brought home a math workbook every school night this year. Her calculations were done in a sum book (see below). Looking through the sum book, I could see where the teacher checked her homework every day (this one was corrected on May 24).
If needed, part of her homework included making corrections. Learning where you went wrong and how to fix it is key in actually mastering the concept. As adults, we all know this.
In my experience with various U.S. public schools, I haven’t seen (maybe it’s done, just not at home where I’ve encountered it), much emphasis being placed on going back and doing corrections. What I have seen happen is a “here’s the next worksheet, try again” scenario. By the way, I mean this in no way as a slight to teachers. They are amazing people working in very challenging situations with rules they rarely control. I have the utmost respect for them.
Also, I’ve noticed my daughter’s math workbook, in particular, keeps coming back to certain topics. Last year, in the United States, she spent time learning fractions and then it was done. The fraction unit was complete, the class moved on and she still was not solid in her understanding of fractions. This was after doing extra work at home and reaching out to the teacher. And she’s a bright kid! This year, we’ve done fractions multiple times. One night I remember saying, “didn’t you already do this?” I was having a strong case of deja vu! As I flipped back through the book, I saw that yes, indeed, she had done fractions 15 pages prior.
Have you heard the phrases “use it or lose it” or “summer slide?” Well, that happens if you don’t practice a certain skill. For my daughter, this technique of periodically coming back to a topic, whether it is math or english, has been so helpful. I can tell when she’s really “gotten” a concept because she doesn’t ask for help with her homework, it takes her less time to finish, she can help someone else and/or she doesn’t have corrections to do.
Success is also redefined in ways that don’t relate to academics. In our case, the intangibles in a child’s development were given a chance to shine. There’s no place on a report card to grade a child who becomes more responsible or who develops confidence (other than a teacher’s note/remark), but those are key life skills they need to develop to become well-balanced individuals.
This year, I often asked my daughter’s teacher how she was doing in math or science, but it was the teacher who often sought me out to say how excited she was to see my daughter blossoming with confidence and creativity.
DON’T QUIT, HAVE GRIT
When my child’s teacher was pointing out personal growth or life skill developments, it wasn’t that the academics were of less importance – quite the contrary. It’s just that the teacher knew from decades of experience that given enough time and hard work each child was going to master the curriculum. Furthermore, they have confidence that child is going to move on and do well in a rigorous secondary school environment where there are grades!
I did well in school, not because I was the smartest – far from it. I did well in school because I worked hard for it. I had to study. A lot. In short, I was motivated.
I saw my kids, for the first time, motivated by something other than a reward from a good report card. Do you know how huge that is? There was no reward. There was no prize at the finish line (especially one mom had facilitated). There really wasn’t a finish line, per se.
Somehow, in this school environment, they found motivation from within. Perhaps it was always there, but in this environment their focus (and mine!) was taken off of the end goal and refocused on the everyday experience of learning and loving to learn.
When my 6-year-old’s homework was to write 3 sentences and instead he writes an entire page just because he wants to – that is motivation that is coming from somewhere inside of him. Because believe me, mommy was tired and ready for homework to be over that day!
They were working hard because they chose to do it. Because it was the right thing to do. Not because I made or motivated them. Not because a teacher was marking down a grade and tabulating a report card score.
My daughter had A LOT of homework this year. A LOT. She has no sense of urgency when it comes to these tasks, but I have to give her credit for not giving up. For not complaining about the work. For sticking with it and asking questions until it all made sense. Her grit got her though.
I don’t want to give the mistaken impression that this was an idyllic, perfect experience. Of course it wasn’t. This is real life with real kids and a mom who is still figuring it all out. There were nights when they were tired, I was tired, when homework seemed like a drag. There were days when they were not at their best when I dropped them off for school. (I’m so sorry about that!) I know there were times when they acted “a little cheeky” to use my son’s new-found phrase. (I’m so, SO sorry about that too!)
My son also will tell you he “doesn’t like school” because he thinks the alternative is staying home with mom and playing Minecraft all day. Dream on, kid! He happily skips into school each day and comes out with a smile on his face, so I think he’s doing just fine.
So where does that leave us? Well, I’m taking this experience in. I’m letting it reshape my view of education at the elementary school level. I’m also letting it reshape my view on parenting as it relates to this topic. It’s another piece to the puzzle and we’ll see how it goes next year.
Do I think kids should never be graded or assessed? No, of course not. I understand why they are and see the benefit in it at certain times. At the primary school level I think report cards are less about the students, however, and more about making sure the system is accountable. And I get why the system needs to be accountable.
Finding the right words to describe a very complex experience is tricky and I’ve struggled with writing this post. I hope I have in no way implied that our public school experience in the U.S. has been bad. Quite the contrary. I also haven’t had to walk a mile in the shoes of a parent whose child has special needs. Or in the shoes of a parent whose child has attended a failing school. Our experience is ours alone.
Most of all, I’m thankful. I’m thankful for teachers who devote their lives to educating the next generation. I’m thankful for teachers who continue teaching despite low pay, long hours, demanding parents, mountains of paperwork, bumbling bureaucracies, and so on. Those things can be found everywhere, unfortunately.
I’m thankful for the educators and researchers who are out there in countries around the world trying to make the system better. I’m thankful for parents who donate their time, for businesses that donate resources, for those governments that properly fund schools. I’m thankful for communities that recognize the value of an education. I’m thankful for my kids and their willingness to dive into these new situations and make the most of it. As is the case with so many things, what we put into it is what we get out of it.
I’m also thankful that I did not say out loud, “but how will I know if they learned anything if I don’t get a report card?” You know I thought it at least once.
Turns out, I didn’t need a report to see the fruits of their learning. In this case, I’m happy to be wrong! Here’s to next year!
P.S. Here’s a bit of contextual information that influences my viewpoint because I know that simply not giving grades doesn’t magically change the education experience. Also, I’m not an educator. I’m simply a mom trying to make the best decisions for my kids’ education.
1. My kids attend a private school. Report cards ARE given in Irish public schools.
2. My kids are in mixed-age classrooms. (6-9 year olds and 9-12 year olds). A mixed-age environment seems to more easily facilitate children being able to work ahead in the curriculum, which my kids did do this year.
3. The student-teacher ratio is approximately 10:1.
4. The school is able to accommodate students with autism, dyslexia, ADHD, English as a second language, etc. Kids with special needs are NOT separated from the rest of the class.
5. My kids do not have special learning needs.
6. I had heard that European schools are much more advanced and/or challenging than U.S. schools, so I was worried about my kids being behind in terms of math, in particular. That proved to not be the case. Both of the kids were either on par or slightly above average in reading and math. I attribute that, in large part, to the excellent teachers we had while in Oregon and Georgia.
7. My kids DO take the standardized tests required of all Irish students. They also get the occasional spelling or math quiz.
8. Teachers have flexibility in how much time is spent on any given topic and how they teach that topic.
9. This type of school environment is something we would definitely be priced out of in the United States, so I am relishing it while we are here.
Thanks for reading. Here are some other posts you might enjoy.
Moving to Ireland: Primary School 101
Books My Kids Are Reading: Part 6
Quick Tip: Teaching Kids to Type
Paper Mache Tips for School Projects
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