Power of grades



In Finland’s system of  basic education and high school grading is in general carried out numerically from 4 (disqualified) to 10 (excellent). Although most elementary schools give grading as verbal evaluation until certain age. Still, most students start receiving numerical grades latest from the end of elementary school around the age of 12 onwards. Vocational schools give grades from 1 (worst) to 3 (excellent) and universities apply grading from 1 (worst) to 5 (excellent).

Grades hold great power on the students, even as far as in terms of identity building. Actually in Finland there’s a gender-specific concept of ‘ten girl‘ (kympin tyttö) suggesting females are better students as well as the highest grade 10 is an ideal norm everyone should pursue. Grades are therefore a means to categorize students to ‘bad’ and ‘good’ ones. Consequently, some students start pursuing after the highest grades with mixed motives. That begs the question have grades become an end itself and has actual learning become secondary?

Another dilemma with the paradigm of grading systems lies with their motivational aspect. They’re constructed upon the idea of external motivation since grading is enforced through curriculum, which students usually have minimal impact on. My ongoing concern with the current grading system is due to students not caring for school not aiming for better grades either. Are there ways of motivating students more evenly?

Perhaps there is. Lately I have been reading a book about ipsative assesment (Latin: ipse, “of the self”) by Gwyneth Hughes Ipsative Assessment – Motivation through Marking Progress. It’s an inclusive and individual assesment method originating on internal motivation, in which students set the evaluation criteria themselves. That can be a learning goal, numerical grade or whatever one prefers. Also one’s performance isn’t compared to others – only on their own (setting it apart from the basic self-evaluation). I’m not proposing the current grading system to be scrapped per se, but instead complementing it with advanced and individual grading mechanisms. Sure, implementing them takes time and effort from the teacher/educational staff, yet may yield in better learning results.

Additionally, one could wonder perhaps the root cause isn’t grades itself but the way they are applied by teachers. Ideal scenario is that teachers review students’ performance through tests, essays, portfolios and so forth. And based on those curriculum-set criteria they evaluate each student individually. Problems arise however when:

1) Students don’t know exactly how they are evaluated
e.g. how a grade is formed and how to improve it?
2) Teachers assign grades arbitrarily
e.g. is there a pedagogical reason for a student to gain a higher grade? Is someone favoured?

To conclude, there’s much work to be done in creating truly transparent and motivating evaluation mechanisms 😉

How to handle smart devices in the classroom?


Perhaps we’ve all been there. Getting swept into the world of internet and its infinite-appearing sources of information and media for countless hours – while the rest of the world awaits. Due to their ease of use, availability and cost-effectiveness smart devices are these days de facto method when connecting to multitude of sources and people.
But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, as is evident by an article e.g. from The Sydney Morning Herald titled ”‘Schools need to react quickly’: Education expert urges smartphone ban“.
Let’s inspect the smart device phenomen more in depth.

For some students smartphones and tablets offer a way to shield oneself from the noise of the classroom. One may even escape reality. Additionally, listening concentration music while carrying out an assignment appears common. Some just play games during a lesson for the fun of it. There are certainly times when teaching can’t compete for the interest of a student.
Others search information with a smartphone when their laptop’s/tablet’s (or vice versa) battery has run down, but even then one has to question the ergonomics of a 5″-6″ screen compared to a device with double or triple the screen real estate.

In my experience teachers are divided into two camps on how to deal with the matter. On one hand there are those who ban mobile devices for the duration of the class. They have for instance trays in which everyone can put their mobile device. I’d say these teachers are in the minority.
On the other hand there are those who simply accept the existence of smart devices as part of the students’ everyday life. In this case, they’re the majority. Both camps might however utilize the devices in teaching if there’s an academic reason for it.

Furthermore, it’s difficult to ban smart devices altogether. At least it depends on the school. There are always teachers who somehow would slip from the agreed policy. Especially in Finland where teacher’s liberty is in particularly high esteem (pedagogical freedom). Also a lot of time and effort is consumed when trying to prohibit the use of smart devices.
Is it all in vain?

Smartphones etc. do offer ways to improve learning. It’s just that sometimes we don’t even fully understand how to utilize them more effectively. Case in point a company called PhoneLabs (see the short video) and their take on learning physics. Even though it’s not only about showing an application, it’s also equally important to teach how to use it (following the lines of Vygotski’s famous and often quoted ‘zone of approximal development‘).

If teachers only approve smart devices, without any indication of trying to utilize them in learning, their potential is wasted and in the process their causes for distractions maximised.

In the end these questions reflect the changes in our society. Today’s parents might be avid gamers, hyperactive social media users and keen music fans – and it all centralizes around a smartphone. Kids copy the aforementioned behaviour concept (transfer effect) and eventually display it in schools as well. It’s our job to seek a balance of smart device usage, be it in school or anywhere.