British Columbia·Point of View

Kids may go to school to learn the ABCs, but we shouldn't be grading them with letters

Letter grades are becoming a thing of the past in B.C. schools, which are looking to evaluate students in a more modern way.

B.C. is moving away from grades, which can be more of a scarlet letter than an accurate mark of intelligence

While achieving high marks can be a great source of pride for many, low grades can be more of a scarlet letter than an accurate mark of intelligence for kids. (weedezign/Shutterstock )

This story is part of Amy Bell's Parental Guidance column, which airs on CBC Radio One's The Early Edition.

School was always a difficult process for me, with lacklustre grades to match. It wasn't until I was an adult that I realized the Ds and Fs of the past didn't define my future. 

However, once my daughter was in school and started pulling in A marks and the occasional B, I was on board with this system. By all measurements she was an educational success and I was somehow responsible for this!

But then cue to her younger brother — in all his creative and unique glory — who was somehow not making the grades. I've seen that he's just as smart, so how can he be cast into a lesser role academically? 

As much as I celebrated my daughter's report cards, I was more than happy to hear that B.C. is phasing out the letter grades and looking to evaluate students on a more individual basis.

'Their brains are different'

But why shift away from a system that's been in place for so long, and one they'll still have to deal with when they get older and are jockeying for university spots?

While achieving high marks can be a great source of pride for many, low grades can be more of a scarlet letter than an accurate mark of intelligence for kids. They enforce negative roles and make children fearful of failure — and high marks can sometimes give children the false illusion that they've mastered a subject and no longer need to challenge themselves.

As well, many letter grades are simply the result of memorization: a mark based on what you remember and not how you use that knowledge. 

Then there's the fact that kids have changed. For better or worse, technology and easily accessible knowledge has changed their brains and the way they process ideas. 

Susan Russell has been an elementary school teacher for more than 20 years and she's also a parent to two teens. In both roles, she knows schools have to adapt to the way kids learn and pay attention to what they are taught.

"Their brains are different [these days], and I think it's technology," claims Russell. "They're changing, so we need to change with them." 

It's not just what you know — but how you use it

I spoke with Vancouver School Board's director of instruction, Richard Zerbe, about the new grading method. It involves far more ongoing dialogue between teachers, students and parents. And there's a bigger emphasis on processing knowledge and applying it to the world.

The focus is shifting from just knowing the content of a subject to competency in it. This means kids can explore subjects at their own pace and question how it applies to their own life, without worrying that incomplete homework or tests will ruin their chance of a success. 

"What we are trying to do is prepare kids with the adaptive skills that can be required regardless of how their world changes," says Zerbe. "That's why we have the emphasis on the competencies." 

Einstein once said: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid."

Kids can feel the same, simply because they haven't been able to recall a fact when tested or they're dealing with developmental challenges. By constantly putting them in educational boxes, we deprive them of finding unique ways to not only gain knowledge, but apply it to the world around them.

We need to encourage children to really think; to question the world around them. Not everyone learns in the same way, and so I give high marks to our educators for realizing that.

About the Author

Amy Bell is a digital contributor to CBC. She can be heard weekdays on The Early Edition as the traffic and weather reporter and parenting columnist.


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