Historical Thinking Concepts in a Time of COVID-19

As we begin the period of “remote teaching,” because schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my mind has turned to the potential that living in this historical moment has for learning about historical thinking concepts.

More Than a Grain of Salt

39104197480_41390ac2f9_o

Each of us has a particular worldview, a way of looking at the world, a way of deciding whether to believe a message or to reject it or take it with a grain of salt. Of course, to take something with a grain of salt means to regard it with healthy skepticism. That phrase has an interesting origin. It relates to an antidote, described by a Roman philosopher about two thousand years ago, to a type of poison; among the antidote’s ingredients was a single grain of salt. The antidote had other ingredients, too. The lesson to take from this common idiom is that skepticism will protect your worldview from the psychological poisons of indoctrination and propaganda, but, just as the grain of salt was only one ingredient of the antidote, you need more than just skepticism.

Worldviews determine what a society and its members see as truth. Often, worldviews serve the interests of powerful elites. When that class of elites marshals its power in ways that exploit others, those worldviews become weapons of oppression. At times in history, they have obscured our view of what a scientific worldview would say is truth, like when Galileo was branded a heretic for saying that the Earth revolved around the sun, which was a problem for the dominant worldview at that time. Skepticism of these kinds of oppressive and superstitious worldviews is essential, but it doesn’t guide us to create a helpful worldview; although it helps us to see inaccuracies, it doesn’t help us to see the truth.

In addition to skepticism, I propose that one should add some lenses to one’s psychological antidote to indoctrination; by lenses, I mean some ways of viewing messages and ideas that will help determine whether to believe them or reject them. Not only that, but I propose that one should put a particular flavor of skepticism in their antidote, making skepticism itself a lens. The three lenses that I recommend adding to your mental toolbox are coherence, criticality, and connection.

The first lens is coherence. Coherence is an overall sense of agreement and harmony. To cohere is to stick together. When a message is internally coherent, its parts fit with each other, and, when a message is externally coherent, the message itself fits with things you already know and believe. Examples of messages that lack internal coherence are logical fallacies, like an argument that attacks a strawman, or an ad hominem attack. When the message itself isn’t logical, one should reject it outright. External coherence is more challenging. To evaluate an internally coherent message’s external coherence, you need to compare it to something else. This is where your own worldview comes into play.

Your worldview is the collection of things you believe and value. Worldviews are built upon a foundation of deeply-held positions and assumptions about the world, many of which you aren’t even aware of, and others of which you aren’t aware that there are alternatives. Worldviews include ideas about human nature, the best economic system, and where the Earth fits into the structure of the universe. Before you can really start evaluating the external coherence of messages, you need to reflect upon and become conscious of the elements of your own worldview. In the process, you may even have to assess the internal coherence of your own worldview, the messages that you tell yourself about the world. Once you are conscious of your own worldview – and make sure that it has structural integrity – you can evaluate the external coherence of messages and ideas by comparing them to your own worldview.

One caution I would add at this point: try not to allow your worldview to become rigid and brittle. You can use it as a point of comparison to evaluate messages, but you don’t want to let it blind you to the truth of coherent messages that represent the next level of your own worldview. Almost 30 years ago, when I was 20, I was a homophobe. Strangely enough, I was an advocate for social justice and equality in relation to all other issues. I evaluated messages to see if they were racist or promoted oppression of any other kind, and rejected them if they did, but I was homophobic.

At my university, a group called Gays and Lesbians on Campus promoted something called “Blue Jeans Day.” If you supported equal rights for gays and lesbians, you were to wear blue jeans on that day. Back in 1990, everyone on campus wore blue jeans. Everyday. The promotion of this event created quite a stir. I decided that they weren’t going to dictate what I was going to wear (very us vs. them thinking, something I normally rejected, but I was blind to it in this instance), and I was going to wear blue jeans in spite of the event. When I stepped on the bus that day wearing my jeans and felt the stares of everyone else wearing their one pair of khaki pants dragged out from the back of their closet – ironic – my worldview bumped up to the next level, and I became what we now call an ally before I had ever heard that word outside of textbooks about World War Two.

The next lens that I recommend using to view messages is criticality. When I say, “criticality,” I mean a special kind of critical thinking. Not just critical thinking about the logic of a message, since that is captured in the lens of coherence, but criticality rooted in an analysis of power and oppression. Critical theory doesn’t just explain society; it critiques and works to change society. Criticality asks, “who benefits?” When social structures and norms favour one group at the expense of another, critical theory is… well… critical of that. Criticality is rooted in an aspiration towards equality and social justice.

When you apply the lens of criticality to evaluating messages and ideas, an idea can be found wanting if it supports, justifies, or allows for oppression, even if it has sound logic, reasoning, and internal coherence. Throughout history, many oppressions have been justified by perfectly rational and consistent narratives that vindicated the injustices committed, often by well-meaning individuals who, because of their worldviews, didn’t see the harmful nature of their actions.

When our leaders promote economic growth, and the narrative makes it sound like it will benefit all people with jobs and opportunities, we should interrogate this claim: can there possibly be infinite economic growth on a finite planet? We should also scrutinize its implications for a just world. Examining the narrative of economic growth through the lens of criticality exposes the reality that transnational corporations benefit from the current conception of economic growth, while marginalized people in the global South and ecosystems all over the world suffer the consequences.

The final, and perhaps most important, lens is that of connection. Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh calls this connection, “interbeing.” To explain this concept, he tells how there is a cloud in a piece of paper. At first, it seems silly or esoteric, but he explains that the paper came from a tree that couldn’t have grown without water, and it wouldn’t have got that water without rain from a cloud. Then, he explains that the logger who cut the tree down is also in the paper, along with the wheat that was in the bread the logger ate, and so on. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. said that before you leave for work in the morning, you have depended on more than half the world for the food you ate for breakfast, and he described this as the interrelated quality of reality.

To really evaluate whether to believe a message, to reject it, or to change your own way of thinking to allow for the message to fit, or vice versa – looking at the message in a different way in order to make it congruent with your aspirations for the world – it is helpful to take into account the concept of interbeing. Looking for the connections between things and events changes the importance of messages, and has implications for what they really mean. Using the lens of connection as a framework for the lenses of coherence and criticality helps to make sure that the coherence of your worldview accounts for the big picture and helps to keep your sense of social justice expansive and inclusive.

Using each of these lenses clarifies an aspect of truth about messages and ideas. Used in concert, they facilitate understanding that is rational, rooted in social justice, and consistent with the interrelated quality of reality. Take the issue of climate change. Although there are those that claim that climate change has nothing to do with human impacts on the environment, those claims lack coherence. Sometimes, they represent false reasoning and lack internal coherence, but they always lack external coherence, since these claims are contrary to a consensus of 97% of climate scientists that climate change is a result of human activities.

Moreover, the impacts that climate change have and will continue to have on the global South and other marginalized people, make climate change a social justice issue, so the lens of criticality also demands that climate change be acknowledged and addressed, with an eye to minimizing the danger of social and political exploitation expected in the wake of climate change.

The lens of connection reveals how intertwined we are on a warming planet, and how this one issue is interwoven with other issues, ranging from economics to food scarcity to wide-ranging political and military implications. Deciding what messages to believe about climate change demands a truly global perspective, taking into account how dependent we all are on the planet that we live on and each other.

On Valentine’s Day in 1990, interestingly, just a couple of months before Blue Jeans Day at the University of Alberta, at the request of scientist Carl Sagan, the spacecraft Voyager 1 turned its cameras towards Earth and took a photograph from 6 billion kilometres away called “Pale Blue Dot.” The Earth takes up less than a pixel in that picture, and it shows how small it is when compared to the vastness of space. Of this photograph, Carl Sagan said, it “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” To me, that sentiment is an ideal ingredient to add to that grain of salt when deciding what to recognize as truth.

More Than a Grain of Salt (on YouTube)

The Importance of Studying History

Why do we study history? It all has to do with causation. The present day is the way it is because of the way that the past unfolded. Essentially, history caused the present. You might say that it’s too late to do anything about it, so why should we care about it. The thing is that the present day for us is the history of tomorrow. We are living in the future’s history. That’s not just a riddle to reflect on, either. It means that we are causing the future. Since history caused our present day, our present day will cause the future. The actions that we take today, and the decisions that we make today will have consequences and ramifications for the world of tomorrow, the world that future generations will inherit from us. To best understand how our decisions and actions might impact the future, we need to study history to see how past decisions, actions, events, and reactions to those events played out. To be cliché, we need to learn the lessons of the past, because we hold the future in our hands.

When learning about history, there are several concepts that are helpful to consider. Historical significance, continuity and change, cause and consequence, historical perspectives, the ethical dimension of history, and primary source evidence. Each of these concepts gives us an angle from which we can view historical events. When we put ourselves in the shoes of future historians, they also give us some perspective about current events that will one day become history.

Historical significance is about deciding which parts of history are the ones that we should remember and focus on. What events in the past had the greatest impact on the largest number of people over a long period of time? Sometimes, events are obviously historically significant, like the Confederation of Canada in 1867. Other times even seemingly insignificant events or stories from the past can be significant when they shed light on trends, patterns, and ways of life that are part of the fabric of history. Examples could include the story of one Aboriginal student who attended a Residential School, since it sheds light on a part of Canada’s history that had deep and far-reaching effects that remain important decades after the last residential school closed.

The concept of continuity and change reflects the ongoing, sometimes slow and subtle and sometimes rapid and obvious, changes that take place in society. Being able to compare and contrast the past and the present and different times in the past allow us to see how history unfolds and connects the past with today. It also allows us to begin to predict how the present might relate with the future. An example of continuity and change is how we rely on telecommunications today just as we did decades ago, but the current ubiquity of cellular phones and electronic devices has changed the way that we use and rely on phones when contrasted to how phones were used in the 1970’s.

Cause and consequence allows us to look for and identify the ways that history impacts the present. Events, attitudes, decisions, and actions in history have led to the ways that things are today, the ideas that we have and often take for granted, and the relationships between groups of people in our society and around the world.

Considering historical perspectives allows us to see how values, decisions, and actions taken by people in the past were part of a context that may have differed profoundly from the way our society and ways of thinking are today.

The ethical dimensions of history involve examining events that took place in the past with a view to identifying right and wrong, both in relation to historical actors but more importantly, in relation to us in the present day. Do things that happened in the past give rise to a duty or obligation of people today to take action or address the wrongs of the past? Canada’s 2008 apology to the survivors of residential schools is an example of addressing the ethical dimensions of history.

The concept of primary source evidence is about looking for evidence to support our learning about and analysis of the past. Instead of just believing what people say about the past, this concept embodies the intention to question how we know things about the past and to critically evaluate sources of information about history.

In the summer of 2017, Canadians will be celebrating the 150th birthday of our country. There are a great many things to celebrate about Canada. However, when one takes an honest and careful look at Canada’s history, there are a great many things that are problematic about the last 150 years: the legacy of residential schools, the Komagata Maru, the outlawing of the potlatch, voting laws that didn’t allow many people to vote because of their ancestry or gender, and many other examples.

When we allow ourselves to look at the past honestly, using the historical thinking concepts to help us analyze the past, it allows us to use history as a springboard to work towards something greater. Carol Dweck talks about having a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is the belief that a person’s intelligence and ability is static and constant; a person is either good at something, or they aren’t. On the other hand, a growth mindset is the belief that everyone is capable of improving or growing their intelligence and abilities. Dweck talks about the power of saying, “Not yet.” I can’t do that now, but I will work on developing my abilities, and I will be able to do it in the future. Can we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday with an attitude of “not yet”? We’re not yet as good as we can be, but there are great things to build on, and we can work together at getting better.

Using the historical thinking concepts allows us to learn about history with a growth mindset. We can apply our analysis of the process of how history has resulted in the present to taking action today to make the future better. We can apply an understanding of continuity and change and cause and consequence to examine the ethical dimensions of the present day from the perspective of a future historian, and we can critically examine the evidence available to us to make sure that our decisions are sound. By doing this, we can address the significant issues facing us as a nation and the world as a whole in ways that will improve the world and make the future bright for everyone. Instead of glossing over the past 150 years, by taking an honest and careful look at the beginning of Canada’s journey, we can make sure that Canada’s next 150 years are truly worth celebrating.

Describing Levels of Performance to Encourage Learning and Growth

One of my biggest concerns about letter grades is the sorting and ranking aspect of assigning letter grades. By assigning letter grades to students, we create groups of students (groups which clearly have a hierarchy):

  • ‘Straight A’ students,
  • ‘A’ students,
  • ‘B’ students,
  • ‘Average’ students,
  • ‘Low’ students,
  • ‘Struggling’ students,
  • etc.

Carol S. Dweck teaches about “growth mindset” as a way of understanding one’s intelligence and abilities as changeable, malleable, and capable of development. The opposite of growth mindset is a fixed mindset, where one sees one’s intelligence and abilities as static and a fixed characteristic. The problem with a fixed mindset is that people who have a fixed mindset don’t see themselves as capable of growth, even when they see themselves as intelligent. This leads to an aversion to risk-taking and a fear of failure, which in turn leads to avoidance of rich learning opportunities. On the other hand, people with a growth mindset see themselves as capable of development, so they seek out ways to cultivate that development: challenge (even when it results in failure, since failure leads to learning), constructive criticism, observing and celebrating the success of others, and opportunities to expend effort, as opposed to activities that they find easy to do.

644a24_b860294e2dcb488385908bb95d8f2234_srz_p_788_575_75_22_0-50_1-20_0-00_jpg_srz

In today’s educational landscape, many teachers consciously and purposefully teach students about the importance of growth and development, emphasizing the “learning journey.” However, in my view, assigning letter grades contributes to fixed mindset thinking, even when the practice of assigning letter grades is accompanied by some growth mindset language. Letter grades, by their reductionistic nature, lead to identification. Students may identify themselves as only a “C+ student,” or parents and teachers might identify a student as an “A student.” Either way, this is potentially damaging. The “C+” student might not see the point of putting in extra effort to improve performance, and the “A student” might not want to take a risk if it might mean not being seen as an “A student,” always expert and overachieving.

“Assessment for learning” describes assessment, or feedback given to a student, that is for the purpose of helping (and perhaps even designed to help) the student to see what he or she can do to improve his or her knowledge, skills, and abilities in a certain area. Applying growth mindset thinking to assessment for learning, it becomes even more clear that this kind of feedback (even when it is the student assessing him or herself) should always be provisional; assessment for learning is a temporary, stop-gap, description of where one is now, which is only important, because it allows one to get their bearings and set a course to get to the next stage, stop, or level of performance. It is helpful for teachers to see assessments in this way, too; they are our way of helping students identify where they are, not to judge, rank, and sort them, but to point them in the direction of growth and development.

The tension between this intention (to assess in order to promote and facilitate growth and learning) and the system of letter grades is always present in our educational system. Cameron and Gregory propose crafting a “learning map” for each subject, that describes different levels of performance for each of what I am calling “key learnings” (that they call “big ideas”). The idea is to give students the ability to navigate their own learning journey and to give teachers the ability to give some directions to students along the way.

Plot+a+course+2

Here is what my (draft, provisional) learning map for Social Studies looks like:

 

Here is what my (draft, provisional) learning map for English looks like:

Here is what my (draft, provisional) learning map for Core French looks like:

Here is what my (draft, provisional) learning map for Career Education (and the health aspects of Physical and Health Education) looks like:

Identifying and Articulating Key Learnings for Students

In Caren Cameron and Kathleen Gregory’s book, Rethinking Letter Grades: A Five-Step Approach for Aligning Letter Grades to Learning Standards, the first of the five steps is to identify what they call “big ideas” for each subject. Since the newly-redesigned British Columbia curriculum, in addition to core competencies, curricular competencies, and content expectations, has “big ideas” for each subject, I have decided to call these foundational descriptions of student learning “key learnings.” What Cameron and Gregory call big ideas and I am calling key learnings are not topics, skills, or activities but umbrella concepts or categories into which skills, knowledge, and competencies related to a discipline or subject can be categorized.

For me, this process involved looking at the aspects of each subject area’s new “curriculum” (i.e., the “big ideas” and “learning standards,” the latter of which consists of both “curricular competencies,” and “content”), while also keeping in mind aspects of the core competencies that provide a basis for all subject areas (i.e., communication, thinking, and personal and social competency). I created a stream-of-thought, brainstormed list of key words (the words that seemed pivotal to me) as a reviewed each subject’s curriculum for the Grade 6 level, and then I articulated three to four broad “learnings” for each subject that reflected my goals as a teacher and the government-approved curriculum at the same time.

Here is what I came up with:

English Language Arts (Grade 6)

Students

1) build progressively deeper understanding of meaning communicated by others by carefully using appropriate strategies when reading, viewing, and listening to the messages of others;

2) express ideas and learning in clear and effective ways, for different purposes and audiences, using text, images, and spoken word, as well as various media and communication technology;

3) identify and strengthen existing and make new connections to and between oneself, texts, the world, identity, culture, and others in one’s community and around the world; and

4) extend and deepen their thinking by questioning, summarizing, describing, speculating, opening their minds to diverse perspectives, analyzing and evaluating ideas, explaining and articulating their own thinking, synthesizing diverse ideas, and solving problems.

Social Studies (Grade 6)

Students

1) build progressively more practical (i.e., usable for application, analysis, evaluation, & creation) understanding of global systems and relationships (of government, geography, economics, conflict, cooperation, and media);

2) use historical thinking concepts (significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, perspectives, and ethical judgment) to think about the past with a view to understanding how the present can affect the future (i.e., to develop fluency with what Pike and Selby call the “temporal dimension” of global education; e.g., possible futures, probable futures, & preferable futures); and

3) develop the ability to inquire into, investigate, and communicate about global and historical issues and to plan and take action consistent with their aspirations as engaged global citizens.

Career Education & the Health Aspects* of Physical and Health Education (Grade 6)

Students

1) Develop their ability to identify and develop skills, strengths, and abilities in purposeful ways that allow them to set meaningful goals and take action to meet those goals;

2) Reflect on their relationships and work to positively influence their communities (family, peers, and larger community) and to purposefully respond to the influences their community has on them (e.g., accept and show appreciation for support in meeting goals & avoid or stand up to stereotyping, discrimination, and bullying).

3) Build an inventory of strategies for building and maintaining physical and mental well-being and effective and respectful interactions and collaborations with others and in the community.

*Since the 1) Career Education & 2) Physical and Health Education curricula (which were both released late last school year) represent a reorganization of what used to be 1) Health and Career Education (which I was responsible for last year) & 2) Physical Education (which I was not responsible for last year) curricula, for the next year, I will be responsible for teaching Career Education and aspects of Physical and Health Education until we decide how to reorganize teaching responsibilities to reflect the redesigned curriculum.

Core French (Grade 6)

Students

1) Develop their ability to orally communicate (listen and speak) meaningfully about simple ideas and information using spoken French.

2) Build an awareness of Francophone communities and connect Francophone culture to French language.

3) Begin to read French text and use writing to express ideas in French.

Connecting Assessment to Learning

In memory of Joe Bower

The most important things that children learn in school are not easily measured. The most meaningful things in life may, in fact, be immeasurable. The good news, however, is that the most important and meaningful things that we want children to learn and do in school can always be observed and described. This is precisely why it is so important to remember that the root word for assessment is assidere which literally means ‘to sit beside.’ Assessment is not a spreadsheet — it’s a conversation.

– Joe Bower

Teaching and learning are all about relationship. Teachers relate to students; students relate to teachers. Learners (both teachers and students) relate to subjects and learning activities. Students have a relationship with their own inner landscapes. We all relate to the world, and, if education is doing its job, it informs and transforms our relationship to the world as our learning and understanding grow.

That’s why it’s crucial to understand assessment as a relationship (to take Joe Bower’s etymological lesson to heart and see assessing as sitting beside). In my view, assessment will powerfully serve students and teachers when it cultivates in both relationships between people (e.g., students and teachers) and between people and learning (e.g., students developing the capacity to reflect upon and positively develop both their learning journeys and metacognition – their ability to think about their own thinking).

This is consistent with the aspirations of critical pedagogy, too. As I mentioned in my last post, Paulo Freire proposed, as an antidote to the hierarchical quality of the banking concept of education, that students and teachers engage in dialogue about problems posed between them (in a space that Martin Buber would call “the sphere of ‘between'” – a description of the locus of relationship between people respectfully encountering each other). To address the vertical power dynamic inherent in assessment and evaluation (the teacher’s judgment and evaluation stands above the student, and the state-sanctioned curriculum and standards stand above the teacher), the act of assessing – of cultivating relationships between students and their learning and between teachers and students – can be viewed as a problem to pose between the teacher and her students. When assessment is viewed as a subject to study and learn about – a topic about which understanding can be cultivated – instead of an action to be performed on students by teachers for review by parents, it takes on a different quality.

I propose that assessment of a student’s progress towards learning outcomes, goals, and standards be posed as a problem, not to be lectured about by the teacher (which is what the imposition of marks and grades is a form of) but to explored, examined, and re-presented by the teacher and student together. When this happens,

grading as a means for the teacher to better serve her students becomes irrelevant. For, by simply interacting with the child, serving as a resource for him and a midwife to his knowledge production, the teacher serves her student in the best ways possible.

– Morrison, K. (2003). What else besides grading? Looking for alternatives in all the right places. Paths of Learning, 16, 26-33.

010416-Joe-Bower-final-tweetJoeBowerAssessment

Rethinking Letter Grades: Charting a Course

Last year, I was part of a book club at my school, and we read a book called Rethinking Letter Grades: A Five-Step Approach for Aligning Letter Grades to Learning Standards, by Caren Cameron and Kathleen Gregory. It describes a way of thinking about and doing (transforming?) assessment, evaluation, and planning to make assessing student progress more consistent with the goals of teaching and learning, and perhaps more meaningful and helpful to the teaching and learning process. To be honest, I approached the whole exercise with a bit of a rebellious streak. I come from the Alfie Kohn school of thought on letter grades: they’re bad news (even when they’re straight A’s).

To me (and, based on some of the things that Cameron and Gregory say in their book, perhaps even to them), changing the way we arrive at and communicate about letter grades is only a step in the right direction. Letter grades are not very helpful to students or parents in terms of setting the stage for continued learning and growth as a human being; not are they particularly informative in terms of understanding what kind of learning the student has achieved up to this point, where they are at presently, or what they are able to do. I won’t spend much time explaining how they aren’t really (helpfully) motivating or how they reflect a sorting-and-ranking mindset, since writers like Kohn and Joe Bower have already done an admirable job of that. I won’t even get into the pain in the neck for teachers that letter grades represent (ask any teacher you know whether they like grading student work and calculating letter grades) or how pointless that effort often seems. To me, the main problems are these: letter grades are reductionistic, and letter grades are imposed on students.

Letter Grades: The Ultimate in Reductionism

reductionisim: a procedure or theory that reduces complex data and phenomena to simple terms.

Ask any teacher if there is a more complex phenomenon than a student. Ask anyone if there is a more simple term than a letter grade. Each student brings to school an exceedingly complex social, biological, psychological, cultural, and neurological background that impacts both their learning and their ability to demonstrate their learning, and that background is always changing and developing. That learning and the ability to demonstrate it can manifest in different ways depending on whom the student sits next to, what a student on the other side of the classroom is doing, what happened at lunch the day before, the relationship with the teacher, the student’s interest in the subject matter, and any number of other factors. On top of that, each subject represents a wide range of content, topics, skills, and competencies. In British Columbia, giving letter grades to students in subjects requires one to simplify the knowledge, understanding, and ability in relation to an entire discipline of learning at a certain time of a complex human being into either A, B, C+, C, C-, or I/F.

This means that a student who may excel at comprehending what she reads (perhaps exceeding expectations for a child her age in this area, warranting an ‘A’ standard of learning in relation to that skill), but only satisfactorily communicates her ability to understand literature in writing (warranting a ‘C’ standard of learning in that area). This constellation of skills alone represents a C+ or B overall, even though neither of those letter grades actually represent any specific abilities or learning that the student has accomplished. Add in complexities like shyness, leading to the student’s discomfort with expressing herself orally in front of classmates, or an artistic streak that enhances the clarity of what she does manage to write, a tendency to lose focus in the afternoon or to be overly tired in the morning (leading her incapable of producing her best work at either of those times). This milieu can be complicated even further when the student develops or improves in one or more areas over time, performs inconsistently depending on level of interest in an assignment, or, something that goes against all the popular progressive theories about how letter grades should be assigned, appears to show decreasing competency in a particular area for whatever – often unknown and unknowable – reason (and this happens more often than any teacher would like to see, especially as students fatigue over the course of a demanding school year).

Making this even more difficult for the teacher is the fact that each student enrolled in each of his or her courses needs to be assigned a letter grade, and the letter grades have various and diverse implications for each student (some parents might reward certain letter grades, while others might punish in relation to other letter grades, and students themselves may infer things about themselves from letter grades). On top of all this, teachers themselves cannot come to consensus about what letter grades actually mean. Does an ‘A’ mean “exceeding expectations,” “advanced performance,” “proficient,” “between 86-100%” (and how difficult is it to achieve that percentage?), or “complete?” Do these things mean the same thing? Does an ‘B’ with one teacher mean the same thing as an ‘B’ from another teacher? Does a ‘C+’ for one student mean the same thing as a ‘C+’ for another student (even if it’s from the same teacher)?

While some reflexively think that letter grades get to the heart of the matter and clarify how a student is progressing, I think it is clear that they do the exact opposite.

The Power of Letter Grades

In critical pedagogy, educational approaches that have power-based (top-down), ideological, and indoctrinating tendencies are scrutinized and critiqued, with a view to developing approaches that allow students to build their own understanding of the world and what they learn about it. Paulo Freire criticized what he called the “banking concept of education,” where students are seen as empty vessels to be filled with information deposited by the teacher. In contrast to this, Freire proposed a thoroughly democratic, horizontal approach to teaching and learning that is characterized by dialogue between teacher-students and student-teachers (neither student nor teacher is placed in an elevated position) about problems posed for the community of learners to explore together. In progressive approaches to education that resonate with critical pedagogy, the teacher’s role is not to transmit an unconditional and rigid set of knowledge, understanding, and skills; rather, the teacher’s role is to thoughtfully and responsibly plan activities and projects designed to give students a chance to encounter the ideas, topics, and chances to utilize and develop the skills of a discipline or subject area, with a view to the students making their own meaning of these encounters with the subject matter, the teacher, their peers, and their own limitations (and to develop their own competencies as a result of these encounters). This approach seems to be reflected (on the surface) by current discourse in British Columbia education (e.g., the idea of “personalized learning” which – excuse my cynicism – is part of the branding of the redesigned B.C. curriculum).

In the current practice of assigning letter grades, grades are imposed on students in a way that represents Freire’s banking concept of education. There is an ideological quality to assigning letter grades that cuts to the very core of students’ identities (think of comments like, “she’s an average student” or, “he’s on the honour roll”). Even when teachers use self-assessment practices with students, there is an element of indoctrination to the process, since, even if students develop criteria for evaluation themselves (which isn’t a necessary aspect of self-assessment), they do so with the government-approved curriculum, widely-held expectations, or official (or at least conventional) learning standards in mind. Assessment and evaluation, in our current educational system, comes from outside of the student and is imposed on him or her as an official judgment about what kind of learner, student, and person he or she is.

Mapping a Practical Course

I’m an idealist, but I’m also committed to praxis. To me, praxis is putting my ideas into practical action. With these ideas in mind, and fully recognizing that I am employed in a system where I am required to assign letter grades to each of my students, whether I can craft a cogent and scholarly argument against doing so or not, I intend to plan the upcoming school year by following (probably more loosely than the authors may like) Cameron and Gregory’s five-step process.