Building an Ethic of Caring in the Classroom: Winners and Losers

My Post (3)

See parts 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Philosophically, I do not care for grades, grading, or the culture both perpetuate. I live in a world where grades exist and grading must be done, so as my own philosophy of teaching has tilted closer and closer to the belief that grades and grading should be eliminated, I have learned to think about how to exist the system and meet the needs of students. Some scholars would be disappointed to see me write this as a researcher (Anderson, 2018), but more on this later.

Why this disdain for grades? The short answer is I don’t want to continue to support a system that inherently means some kids win and some kids lose. The catalyst for my philosophy is rooted in my doctoral studies. As I read more, discussed more, and explored my own beliefs about education, I concluded a few years ago that I no longer believe there is a real purpose for grades, and I personally believe they harm learning.

Today’s post does not really call for eliminating grading, but rather more importantly, I will advise on some practical ways to approach a classroom where grades must exist, but they do not have to define the learning.

If you ever had a spare hour you should watch Alfie Kohn’s argument against competition in education. OR you can go with the more sparse minute contrast he gives here.

“The schools, the classrooms, the cultures that are constantly emphasizing to kids ‘achievement, performance, high standards’ are often environments that aren’t about learning” – Alfie Kohn

Admittedly, Kohn is not talking about the merit of grades directly here, but the implications are clear. The drive for achievement and performance are measured through grades. That measurement means some students will measure up and some, well, won’t. For decades, scholars have questioned the effectiveness of grades motivating students to learn or even questioning if grades effectively demonstrate learning (Areepattamannil & Freeman, 2008; Cureton, 1979; Etsy & Teppo, 1992; Green, Johnson, Kim & Pope, 2007; Kohn 1999, 2011). Interestingly, a recent article by Lorin Anderson (Emeritis at the University of South Carolina) brings much of this up, but she clearly argues that someone such as myself who advocates for the elimination of grades is being naive. Anderson writes,

“Either the [educator] advocates for a particular approach to solving an identified grading problem (typically sans data) or the author demonizes grading, typically ending the piece with a call to eliminate grading all together. Unfortunately, this latter group of authors fail to appreciate the fact that grading, like school calendars and group instruction, is part of the very fabric of formal schooling” (p. 21).

Anderson has a valid point, and her call for more empirical studies conducted on the effects of grading or ways to improve grading systems is necessary. But I respectfully disagree that I am not fully aware of how ingrained grading systems are. This post fits into her critique as I have admittedly not conducted a formal study of my own, but I do know what I have achieved when I do not make grades the focus of the learning in my classroom. Ultimately, you can judge my points below for yourself.

Now, to be clear, I am not anti-competition. There is a place for competition and what it can teach us in our formative years, but I’m no longer convinced that competition needs to be modeled through classroom grading or standardized testing. As a country, the United States of America has struggled with its educational identity and philosophy. This past Monday, for instance, was Constitution Day, and we might note upon reflecting on our constitution that, as a country, the U.S. never stated education is a constitutional right. However, various amendments and supreme court cases (Brown v Board, Plyler v Doe, etc.) have expanded educational protections with a continued emphasis that it is up to a state and local government to provide its citizens with an education. What this has meant in the long run is the reality that in the U.S. we speak a good deal about wanting to educate everyone, but our actions are often counter to that claim. We have good intentions and good will in many cases, but we are also fine with keeping inequitable systems in place. I will not wax on about the privatization of schooling, but I will point out that as the U.S. continues to wrestle with what it means to educate all its citizens, we are perpetuating the reality of some kids get to be winners while others have to be losers.

The winner versus loser paradigm is this—students with the right resources and access get to  “win” academically, while students who lack those resources and access typically end up losing, or more poignantly, those students feel like losers. I do not propose this to be true of all kids everywhere, all the time, but rather than students who “make it out” of bad situations being the outlier, society could do a good deal more to make it the norm. That said, I nor any other educator can control the whims of society, but we do have a powerful space to change lives—our classrooms.

So today, in the now, what might be done? Grades and grading (and standardized testing) are not going anywhere for the foreseeable future, but that does not mean a classroom teacher cannot circumvent some of the potential negative effects grading has on learning. Here are a few pragmatic approaches to encourage students focusing on learning rather than just simply achieving:

1. The Portfolio

Porfolios provide students an opportunity to see their learning develop over time and a real chance to reflect on that learning. While the work reflected in the portfolio will likely need to be graded on some traditional scale, the creation of the portfolio resets the focus on what is learned and not what is simply achieved. This might be most successful when a class is set up with the portfolio in mind from day one with students investing in its creation from the start, whether physical or digital. I contend this can be done in any classroom in any subject area. With regular reflection of the work being done, students get a real opportunity to see their own growth. This can be especially true for a writing-centric classroom. Importantly, this gives students a chance to all be winners. Every student can grow and reflect, even if those areas and rate of growth are different.

2. The Notebook

This is really another version of the portfolio. What I contest is different is that a notebook does not have to be graded at all, or rarely graded numerically. Notebook work is perfect for workshopping ideas, writing strategies, drawing, sketching, think alouds, and sharing with both small and bigger audiences. Just like a portfolio, the notebook can be started on day one and built upon daily with opportunities to reflect and again an opportunity for students to see growth. Same concept applies as before—all students can be winners here. When a teacher creates a caring classroom, the notebook work can become intrinsic where the grading becomes secondary or may not be necessary at all.

3. The Discussion Circle

This is the trickiest of the three suggestions because it takes the longest to develop and it is typically a big paradigm shift for student and teacher alike. Like many English teachers, I reserved discussion for big events surrounding a novel study or Socratic seminar. The results were mixed. I struggled with the best way to grade the discussions, and I felt lousy every time I “had” to give a student a zero for not participating. Then one year, I made discussion nearly a daily occurance in my classroom where discussion over an article, poem, novel, project etc. took place regularly in order to normalize discussion and, honestly, to make my classroom more student-centered. I chose not to grade these discussions. Ever. The struggle was real. Students were hesitant and reluctant at first, and I certainly had at least one student tell me flatly that he wouldn’t participate, especially if it did not affect his grade. I nearly gave up. What helped, though, was taking the time to make sure as often as I could, that what was to be discussed was of interest to most students as well as creating protocols for purposeful discussion. One of my favorite resources for this was Stephen Brookfield’s book Teaching for Critical Thinking. In time, discussion became natural to most students and it was just part of what we did. Some discussions were short, some were long, but they regular and that was the difference. While this approach does not have the same benefits of reflecting on learning as easily, it does provide a chance for all students to be winners. This is particularly true with taking a grade out of the equation. We discussed in class nearly daily to learn, not to merely achieve.

The above suggestions are merely that—suggestions. While I hope any educator reading this post will certainly see the potential advantages of using one of the approaches to change the paradigm of achievement in their classroom. The suggestions do not change impending standardized tests or fix all grading ailments, but it puts a bit more control back in the hands of a teacher and has the potential to enrich the learning experience.


Anderson, L. W. (2018). A critique of grading: Policies, practices, and technical matters. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 26(49).

Areepattamannil, S., & Freeman, J. G. (2008). Academic achievement, academic self-concept, and academic motivation of immigrant adolescents in the greater Toronto area secondary schools. Journal of Advanced Academics, 19(4), 700-743.

Cureton, L. W. (1971). The history of grading practices. NCME Measurement in Education, 2(4), 1-9.

Esty, W. W., & Teppo, A. R. (1992). Grade assignment based on progressive improvement. The Mathematics Teacher, 85, 616-618.

Green, S. K., Johnson, R. L., Kim, D.-H., & Pope, N. S. (2007). Ethics in classroom assessment practices: Issues and attitudes. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, 999-1234.

Kohn, A. (1999). From degrading to de-grading. High School Magazine, 6(5), 38-43.

Kohn, A. (2011). The case against grades. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 28-33.

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