What improvements can be made to feedback systems to support that purpose and to ensure equity? As Upper School Science Teacher Michael Chapman looks forward to his role as US Dean of Teaching and Learning, The Vanguard spoke with him about his opinions on grades and his goals for his future position.
What are your goals as US Dean of Teaching and Learning?
This role was created because we want a role that really focuses on pedagogy within our Upper School. We want to think about the ways in which we are doing teaching really well as well as some areas where we as a whole Upper School faculty community can continue to grow and to learn. We’re supposed to be helping prepare students to be lifelong learners, and as educators that goes for us as well; we need to be ready and able and willing to try new practices that really amplify the student experience, and support all faculty in this work, no matter how long they have been in the classroom. I also think that this role gives us further opportunity to look at our curriculums from a critical lens, identify threads and themes, and amplify how students will develop in their skills during their time here in the Upper School.
I also think that part of this role is to help understand from a student perspective: “What’s learning like for you in the classroom?
What has worked really well? What are those moments or those instances of learning that stick with you—that you carry outside
of the classroom to transfer to other realms and other places?” We want to understand what those are, why those are the ones that stuck with students, and how we can ensure that every student, no matter who they are, has a positive learning experience within the classroom space.
What are your opinions on grades?
Within our community, we have a number of different ideas of the purpose of grading. Grades for some can be seen as a communicative tool to let families and—honestly and unfortunately—colleges know where students stand. For others, grades are meant to convey to students where their strengths are and where they want to continue to improve in order to reach a target or to reach a level of mastery and understanding of particular content and skills.
Since grades have been around for the longest of times without really changing that much, there’s a wide variety of grading practices here. I would love for us to align around what the purpose of grading is and then explore some of these other ways in which we can ensure that we’re able to give students the feedback they really need to grow and to visualize the particular skills that they want to continue to grow or excel in. I’m not sure that a particular letter grade can always do that.
I know there’s a tension between grading practices and expectations from students and from families, and I know grades are so tied to the college process that it can be really challenging for grades to be effective at giving students feedback. I would love to continue to question the practices that we have and to talk with faculty and students to see what really is that purpose of grading within the school. Are there ways in which we can do it better with regards to our school’s mission and commitments? Are there ways that we can reduce bias in our grading? Is there a way that we can make sure grading is more equitable?
Within our school, grades, for better or for worse, are our gatekeeper. They’re gatekeeper to what we see as more challenging coursework. They are our perceived gateway to entry into particular institutions of higher education. Unfortunately, a number of students use grades as a measure of self-worth, and I wonder if that is healthy for everyone involved. I wonder how that contributes to what is perceived as a really hyper-competitive environment that exists in pockets within our school.
What do you want to keep the same with the teaching and grading systems, and what do you want to change?
I don’t know if I can say if I have something to change or something to keep until we’ve really had a chance to look at some of the evidence and data and to hear some more anecdotes and stories of our students. I think we first need that common foundation of the purpose of grading. I would welcome the opportunity to work with the faculty to establish that because once you have a foundation, that’s the benchmark with which you can look at all of these different practices. Before we can identify practices that we want to make sure we change or practices that we want to keep, we need to do that first deep dive into the why.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I know grading and assessing can be a really touchy topic for a lot of people, students and faculty alike, and so I encourage us all to lean into the conversation—to lean into those areas of discomfort where we have to think about why we do what we do and really look at our assumptions with open eyes. We owe it to ourselves, the growing educational community, to continue to evolve, continue to think, continue to question and assess the different practices that we have. I would encourage people to have those conversations, to ask good questions of each other. We can unite together around this common purpose of grading, and we can ensure that the practices that we use for feedback are the most positive and provide the best learning experience for our students and faculty alike.