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Grades: A Hurdle Worth Knocking Over in Physical Education

By Neil Morgan Griffiths
Grades: A Hurdle Worth Knocking Over in Physical Education

Over the past twenty-eight years in international teaching I have lost count of the times I’ve been drawn into a discussion concerning the impact of grades on learning. I’m not sure what amazes me more, the relentless conviction demonstrated by educators in their desire to still use grades or the abject failure of educators, demonstrated through their inability to stop using them? It could be argued that articles such as Alfie Kohn’s, “The Case Against Grades” (2011), presented such irrefutable and common sense perspectives that ultimately change had to come. But the reality is that we are still waiting. Through physical education we probably find one of our greatest opportunities to embrace such a paradigm shift. Historically speaking, physical education (PE) has long been troubled by under-funding, poorly trained teachers, and visionless objectives, which in turn often led to a deserved lack of status. Some evidence indicates that it has since battled its way up the ladder to an equal footing in the world of education. For example, PE now finds itself subject to the same rigor as all other subjects in the IB’s Middle Years Program. However, there is perhaps a flip side to this newly elevated status. Rather than focus on the joys of learning through moving, there is a perceived necessity to produce documented evidence of learning, thus resulting in ill-conceived homework tasks or laborious written assessments. It’s as if physical education is not capable of being deemed worthy in its own right. Though it matters little the manner in which various curriculum and governing bodies choose to define, label, burden, justify, or categorize physical education, remaining at its heart is its true purpose: to teach a set of life skills with no other parallel, perhaps the most important ones to which our students will ever be exposed. Herein lies our problem: physical education is different. It stands arguably above all else in school in terms of its importance. Hence, we should treat it differently while we still can, specifically, before it burns itself out and implodes. Why do we feel so compelled to take what should be for all students simply the most relevant, rewarding, and enjoyable learning experience in any given school day, and burden it so? It may well be the case that some physical education teachers feel that full student engagement is unobtainable in the absence of grades, but that does not make it an acceptable defense. Nor is it one that reflects positively on our profession. In fact, the only evidence to indicate we have been successful in teaching this vital set of life skills is when students are able to engage in them without someone telling them that their grades will suffer if they do not. Hence it should stand that true advocacy is unobtainable in the presence of grades. Instead of heightening its status, the reality is that grades and grading systems have done nothing but de-value physical education, to an extent in excess of that caused in any other subject area. When any given student finally leaves school, they are faced with a choice to either fully embrace the habits of life fostered while in school or not. If those habits were fuelled by the student’s perception of the extrinsic motivational factor of grades, or by the teacher’s dependency on the use of grades as the weapon of choice in enforcing conformity or engagement within the physical education class, then both the teacher and student have already failed dismally and perhaps irreparably. Habits of life come through purpose, enjoyment, and choice. Physical education classes typified by activities firmly rooted in enjoyment, where grades are never mentioned or asked about, and where students learn through doing, are ones that inspire life-long habits. This does not mean that students shouldn’t have access to excellently planned, delivered, and developmentally appropriate activities, or precluded from receiving frequent formative feedback that may or may not be based on a set of vertically aligned standards. But it does mean that there is absolutely no worth in our attempts to manipulate that feedback into a quantifiable judgment. Thoughtfully written narratives that involve student input and perspectives are the only exit ticket of any real substance in physical education. Physical literacy is of great value, but writing a symbol on a piece of paper to indicate whether physical literacy has been achieved is misguided. Perhaps the only true test of this is when the student graduates and either clears or falls at their first hurdle. Reference: Kohn, A. (2011). The Case Against Grades. Educational Leadership, November Edition.

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01/15/2018 - Leslie
Enjoyed the article Neil----spot on. I worked at a school with no grades---for all subjects. It was heaven. Teachers, parents and students could focus on learning and development instead of labeling, leveling and ranking.



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