I Gave Every Single Student an A and Then. . .

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All A's: Brilliant or Insane

I Gave Every Single Student an A and Then. . .

By Phil Hanney

Last Year, I took advice from a Brilliant or Insane blog post and gave every single student in all of my classes an A. It was one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had.

Of course, I talked to my students about it. We had a great conversation about what grades do and what they don’t do. It was interesting, to say the least. There were some students who were completely on board with getting an “A” in a class no matter what. Having been through the school system for so long, some thought that an A means that you have completed all of the assignments in a good way.

I talked to them about teachers who give extra credit for things such as bringing in a candy bar or the teacher’s favorite drink, straightening up a teacher’s desk, donating a can of soup (for a food drive), etc. These may be nice gestures, but in the long run, they only serve to inflate the grade. I didn’t want learning to be a game; I wanted to get rid of grades, so students would actually learn.

Instead of gaming the system for the A, I emphasized that they should be learning lessons, concepts, and the material. I told them that if I said, don’t worry about your grades but then still gave them lower grades in the end, nothing would change, so they would all get A’s.

The more I thought about this only-A’s system, it occurred to me that it is very similar to bonus pay that teachers receive in my district for collaborating with other teachers. In the past we had to evaluate our collaboration team on a 10-point scale on 25 questions. A percentage of the amount we were paid was based on how we scored ourselves on these questions. So, as you would guess, many would score themselves pretty high on most of the questions.

Another percentage of the amount of the bonus is based on an evaluation from our school’s Community Council. There are some collaboration teams that work with other teachers in other schools. Those of us who worked this way would find out which school Community Council would give the highest ratings and go to that school. So, as you can see, we are as bad as our students when it comes to working only for the reward.

I know I have had hundreds of students in the past just go through the motions; they understood the game.
However, last year the district revised how these collaboration bonuses were given. One thing they did was to change the rubric (it would still better if it were based on the single-point rubric). Another thing they did was to indicate to us that we all would be getting the full bonus pay NO MATTER WHAT. If we filled out the rubric honestly, and could prove that we did something with our collaboration time, we would get the full amount.

We were pretty shocked. In fact, I was one of the teachers who kept asking several times and in several different ways to make sure that statement was true. And, in the end, it was true. Everyone who presented our collaboration information to our school’s Community Council received the full amount of bonus pay. In effect, we all got A’s.

So, I applied this bonus model to my classes. I told students that they would get an A in my class, no matter what. “Just learn the material,” I said. I told them that I understood that not everyone would finish everything, and that would be OK. I even told them that if they didn’t complete anything at all in my class, they would still get that A. There were times that I had to revisit the initial conversation to help them remember my motive for giving every single student an A.

As I said, this was one of the most liberating thing I have ever done in my life. It opened up a different perspective on teaching for me.

I teach in a computer lab and have a computer for all students. This helped a lot as everyone had work to do and an interactive tool with which to complete the work. About 95 percent of my time was spent running around and helping students understand the concepts of the assignments and coaching them on how to complete tasks (this was my favorite part of this whole experience).

In a few classes I set students on the task to learn how to program and code (they are two different things). I used code.org and codeavengers.com to help them learn. I required them to complete specific assignments on both sites. I explained to them that I didn’t expect every single one of them to absolutely love programming and coding, but I wanted to give them the opportunity to go through the experience so they could make an educated choice of whether they liked it or not.

Another couple of classes I help students learn computer basics. Before this grand experiment, I used the “sage on the stage” approach to help them learn the material (I talked and hoped they listened, but many didn’t). When I switched to a more student-centered, all-A’s, approach,  I let them go through the material on their own.

In the end, many students learned a lot of information. Of course, there were a few students that didn’t do anything at all. One student who seldom came to class was on the high school wrestling team (I teach at a junior high). He would be gone many class periods for training and for meets. When he did come to class it was sometimes a struggle to have him trying to learn the material. I communicated with his mother several times through email, which is how I learned about his passion for wrestling.

This made me think about how important this whole process was. He was a 9th-grader, and research has shown that if a 9th-grader gets an F on his report card, he’s more likely to drop out before graduation. Under my old system, he would have failed my class, for sure. There probably would have been several sleepless nights on his part and a lot of calls from his mother, asking what he could do to raise his grade. However, with the all-A’s system, none of us had to worry about those things. He did passing work but probably didn’t learn a lot from my class. The big question, though, is: Would he learn any more had he gotten a D? My experience says he would not.

This next year I plan on giving students more project time. What this will involve is having time to work on a project of their choice. The only requirement I will have is to include something from what they are learning. For instance, in my Spanish classes I want them to work on a project that has to do with the Spanish language, culture, or history.

In my computer basics classes I will just ask them to include a spreadsheet, word processing document, and/or a presentation. In my programming class, I will let them work on a programming project of their choice (this could be done in code.org or other sites). The biggest part is that the projects should be something that they want to work on, not something to make me happy.

Daily lessons will be designed to help students learn the basic skills and concepts that they need. If they want to work on their projects in class, they will need to complete these building-block assignments. If they don’t complete all of the assignments, no sweat; they will have the next class time to work on them (there’s no pressure, because they won’t ever worry about the final grade).

I know there will be students who will not complete all of the assignments in my class. This is fine. They will, hopefully, still learn something.

I know I have had hundreds of students in the past just go through the motions; they understood the game. They would complete all of the assignments to receive the A or the B that would appease their parents. I knew they didn’t really care about the class and, in reality, they hadn’t learned anything. I am hoping to change this. Now, getting an A doesn’t have to be a game they play.

Giving all  students A’s did make it so students weren’t so worried about the grade. Most of them came to class and worked the whole time without complaint, and I saw students actually helping each other out to complete the assignments (wow, students becoming teachers).

So, I gave every single student an A, and then something amazing happened. They stopped caring about grades and they started learning.

Phil Hanney is a middle school computer and Spanish teacher and IC3 Authorized Instructor.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series, The uNseries, and other books from some of education's most reputable teachers and leaders. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Connect with @markbarnes19 on Twitter.
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