Motivating Students to Learn not Earn- my Ed Talk

On February 4, 2016 I was among 5100 educators at the Vancouver Convention Center,  celebrating 50 year anniversary of the Federation of Independent Schools. That day, I was privileged to present an Ed Talk (an 8 minute variation of a TED talk) to over 1500 people.   For more information, visit the website.

The talk was an opportunity for me to share the good work that has been going on at St. Francis of Assisi Elementary School in East Vancouver.  In my fourth year as principal, I continue to be awed and inspired by the dedicated teachers, supportive parents, and incredible students.

Here is our journey over the last couple of years as we moved to go gradeless in our school.

You may also view a recording of my Ed Talk here (intro begins at 2:30).

I feel so blessed to be a principal in a Catholic School and as part of FISA.  We educate “the whole child:” spiritually, physically, and academically.

However, to many, it appears that our academic success is what truly sets us apart.


With very few exceptions, independent schools dominate the top rankings here in BC.  We can be very proud of the academic excellence in our schools. In fact, this often helps in our marketing strategies. St. Francis of Assisi School is no exception to using this information to market our school (see below).


But at what cost?

The high expectations we have for our students academically, the pressures that come from their parents and often that they put on themselves, have consequences.

Do any of your students experience anxiety to earn high marks? Have you ever caught a student cheating on a test or copying homework?

Why should we look to remove letter grades? Why should we “De-Grade” Elementary school?


Because currently our students are more focused on marks than the learning process.

Because our high achievers, who demonstrate anxiety over marks, are so afraid of failure that they’re unwilling to take risks.

Because our struggling students, and this is where my heart breaks, our struggling students feel they have no hope. They have been identified as not smart, they are unmotivated, frustrated, and disengaged,

We need to shift the focus to learning – not earning.


Informed and inspired by Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, Daniel Pink’s Drive, Rick Wormeli, and so many others, I began to question the use of letter grades.

What structures could we change at the school to improve the educational experience and love of learning for all students?

As a staff we started a book club with Dweck’s Mindset and started having lunch time conversations. Which led to conversations regarding our formative assessment practices and grading policies.

Did our grading practices and assessment policies focus on student growth or raise student anxiety?


How could we design a learning environment that fosters, what Dweck calls, a “growth mindset”? where students are encouraged to take risks in their learning, to challenge themselves, persevere during struggles, and not be afraid of making mistakes?

We knew something had to change, but we needed help!


We looked to the experts.   We brought in Tom Schimmer for a couple of after school discussions. Tom graciously took “the hot seat” where teachers shared their concerns about student motivation.  He shared practical assessment strategies, including emphasis being placed on the most recent evidence of learning. He challenged us to ask why we would include practice work and mistakes into a grade when a child is still learning. No averaging! No points off for late work!

Getting rid of grades in the formative process is crucial- kids don’t need grades and scores to learn- they need descriptive feedback and opportunities to revise and improve their learning.

We also brought in Jill Kitching, a dedicated and courageous teacher from Holy Cross Regional in Surrey who has gone gradeless in her Grade 8 Math class.

Jill shared her “Show What you Know” (rather than calling it a test) which gets students actively involved in assessment.  Here is an example of how we have used it as a grade 4 student’s self assessment.


First the student would write a typical math test. The teacher would mark it with check marks, circle incorrect answers, and add written feedback- NO SCORE. The student would get this sheet of paper to look at his/her test and determine the type of errors made. Then they would rate their skill level in each skill or learning outcome that was being assessed. The language we use at this level is “not yet”, “getting started”, “got it”, and “Wow!” Other teachers may use levels of proficiency such as beginning, developing, proficient, and advanced.

This is followed up by a conference with the teacher. The teacher empowers students to identify their strengths and areas of improvement. And, most importantly, provides opportunities for them to correct their work and show their learning in the areas they were not yet proficient. Again, taking the emphasis away from earning (grades) and focusing on learning (student growth).


Then at the beginning of last year we jumped! Not only were we removing letter grades from the formative process, as a pilot, we removed letter grades from our Grade 4-6 report cards. We consulted our parents, and asked for their feedback throughout the process.

Teachers were seeing the positive impact on students.  Assessment was more personalized and focused on improvement, and students weren’t worried about a score. Feedback was honest and helpful. It was changing the relationship we were having with our students to support them to be successful.


However, going gradeless was not without struggles and obstacles.

-It was a change in mindset for our parents, who depended on letter grades for a quick and easy interpretation of how their child was doing.

-It was a struggle for our high achieving students, who wanted the “A” as validation for all of their work.

-We also had to consider how this would impact the school’s achievement awards and honour roll at the end of the year?


Now in our second year, with continued emphasis on descriptive feedback and professional development (almost 50% of our teachers attended a course at St. Mark’s College called Assessment and Reporting, such validation that we were on the right track!). Now, aligning with the redesigned BC curriculum, we are focusing on growth related to the Core Competencies.

In fact, our Student Led Conferences included portfolios related to Thinking, Communicating, and Personal and Cultural Identity. Students created “I can statements” and their portfolios included evidence to support. Again, empowering the students to be proud of their accomplishments.

Parents noticed how articulate their children were regarding their learning. When showing their work, they were able to share what they did well and what they could have done to improve.


De-grading means that effective formative assessment needs to focus on growth rather than grades. Kids don’t need grades and scores to learn. They need descriptive feedback and opportunities to revise and improve their learning.

Students are no longer asking, “what did I get?” or “will this be on the test?” Instead they more confident about their strengths and are working collaboratively to develop strategies for improvement.


Whether or not you are de-grading your school, is not what is important. What is truly important is that every student knows that we care about them and that we are there to support them to become more successful and confident learners. This is what education is for!

Have courage….

How will you change the conversation from earning to learning with your students and parents?

Thank you for reading.  Please share your comments.



Recommended reading:

For the Love of Learning – a blog by Joe Bower

Grading from the Inside Out – by Tom Schimmer

Embedded Formative Assessment – by Dylan Wiliam

From Degrading to De-Grading – by Alfie Kohn

Twitter hashtags:  #sblchat, #colchat, #ttog