By Faustine Goldberg-Sigal

The first time they asked, I just eluded it “Of course not! Come on, let’s get to work!” I didn’t pay too much attention to it – nor to the disappointed “oh…” that followed. And then, when I started hearing systematically after each instruction this ubiquitous “Ms., do we get a grade on this?”I started to worry and to measure how deeply the obsession of grades is rooted for French students. De facto, grading in the broad sense accounts for 20% of the workload of a French teacher (Braxmeyer et al., 2005).

Grading can enable to situate and quantify a student’s learning, to communicate this information to them, their parents, their other teachers, etc. But in many cases, grading can also enable a hierarchy between pupils, if not to sanction a noisy group. Depending on the cases, the pedagogical impact will of course vary: from encouraging progress to stimulating anxiety, perseverance or discouragement, collaboration or rivalry, etc. 

In schools, the master of evaluations remains grade, often numbered in France – sometimes in a velvet glove (using a letter, a smiley, a color, etc. instead of a number). A grade might appear as objective and arithmetic. It’s this information that the teacher communicates to their student – and often, it’s this information that the parents ask about around the dinner table. It’s clearer, simpler and clearer than asking what the assignment was about, what questions the child explored, what they had doubts about and what they’re proud of having come up with. The grade hence shields, more than it magnifies, the work. For instance, did you ever have a teacher who wrote their grade at the end of your work rather than the beginning? How did you respond? Was it for you an unexpected opportunity to read their comments and suggestions first – or did you run immediately to the end of the paper to know your grade? Or do you remember a teacher who graded you not in red, but rather in green or black? Were you appeased? Or on the contrary frustrated? (An adult with a recent past of straight-A’s told me recently “A 100% written in green is not worth anything” ). Already in those very light twists on the grading ritual, one can guess its sacredness.

Among criticism that can be made to grades, without any particular order:

  • Their prioritize result on process. For instance, a child that went from 60 to 80% has progressed more (and perhaps worked more and better) that a child that received two 90% in a row. The grade will erase that nuance. 
  • A grade is unidimensional and gives little room to integrate differences in personality and learning abilities of each student. 
  • Grades encourage comparing, if not competing – and very often, cheating. The challenge is not to learn and understand but to hide from the teacher. For the teacher, the challenge becomes to identify and sanction. Content disappears from the pedagogical relationship.
  • Grades generate stress and tension among the different members of the learning community (students, parents, teachers). 
  • Grades depend on the teacher at least as much as the child: the quality of their cheating, their relationship to the child, etc. 

Most of all, in my experience, the biggest damage of the grade is to extract curiosity out of the child. I gave my first classroom lessons in September 2016. I was teaching parashat hashavuah, i.e. the weekly portion of the Torah, trying to blend biblical text-study in chavruta setting (i.e. pair study), classic commentary and contemporary perspectives. My goal was to encourage the students to own the text and its challenges. Each week, I did my best to give the biblical text an echo that could resonate with young Parisian adolescents, going through newspapers, movie releases, famous historical speeches, etc. Soon enough, I realized that all of this couldn’t compete for students with a grade. For those middle-school pupils, an idea was worthy not if it spoke to them, if it was innovative, surprising, enlightening – but if it was “on the test”. Likewise, for them, an effort was legitimate if it was graded – i.e. if an external factor, in this case the teacher or their program, considered it worthy of their interest. 

In Jewish education, and specifically in this teaching, I saw an additional inadequacy in grades. Indeed, my general goal, beyond the cognitive aspect (engaging in biblical text-study, differentiating biblical text and commentary, mastering chronology of commentators, etc.) was that children would feel that the text was relevant to their life and that they were legitimate to confront it. How do you grade such a goal? And to be fully honest, I’d rather inflate the cognitive measures in order to reach my affective goals. If a child asked great questions, came up with creative textual interpretations, even if he forgot which country Sforno came from – my priority was to encourage his engagement with text. 

I strove to give my students assignments of creation, more than restitution. For instance, during winter break, inspired by Janusz Korczak’s suggestion to have students create a school newspaper, I had asked them to put in perspective something that happened in the world during the past civil year and a Jewish text we had studied through the production of a journalistic work (newspaper article, TV report, podcast, etc.). I told them upfront that I’d look at their effort to make the text their own, to produce something creative, to ask good questions, etc. The children handed in works of incredible quality, intellectually, creatively and humanly. They commented the sexism towards Serena Williams through the lens of the relationship between Adam and Eve, the creation of a refugee shelter in the posh West-side of Paris through “Remember you were a stranger in Egypt”, etc. I took some time to read and evaluate their work because I wanted to do justice to the efforts they made. For them, I had precipitated them in the no man’s land of “When will you hand us our grades?”, and, even more frightening “Will I get a good grade?”. Helped by summer readings of Celine Alvarez, a French Montessor preschool educator and thinker, I returned the question: “It looks like you spent a lot of time on this work, did you enjoy it?”, “Are you happy with the final product?”, “Had you ever done something like this before?”, “Would you want to do something similar again?”  

When I finally handed in the grades, I made sure they came after an extensive, precise and always encouraging comment. Yes – I had given in to grades. It felt difficult, within one sub-subject, taught one hour a week, to radically shift a systemic perspective. I have as little grades as possible, on creative more than summative works, but I chose to respond to this demand from students and parents. What’s more, I wanted the efforts the students made in my class to be seen and celebrated. Given how the school functions, i.e. teachers meet to write and discuss grades every quarter, my notes were my access to this conversation. When you can’t abolish grading in a school, or for its Jewish studies, maybe we can ask ourselves how to limit it or maximize its pedagogical relevance. 

I tried, during that year, to supplement to my students’ microscope a telescope so they would see the outcome of their efforts beyond a good great, in them becoming autonomous Jews and citizens. Studying French naturalization questions through Ruth’s “your people will be my people and your God will be my God” gives an A+… and mostly a Jewish perspective on the society we belong to, a modern perspective on an antique text, etc. Indeed, in my opinion, what’s at stake in great Jewish education is to nourish an intrinsic curiosity, together with an autonomous access, toward a personal and positive relationship with texts and traditions. To achieve this, grades are not a relevant goal, and maybe not even a relevant means.

 

Written and translated from French by Faustine Goldberg-Sigal